We happen to live in rather turbulent times. The world order, based on the Charter of the UN and international law, is collapsing before our eyes. The problem is not only that the freedom space in authoritarian countries has narrowed to the size of a prison cell. The problem is that even in developed democracies, forces calling into question the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are gaining weight.
There are reasons for this. The coming generations replaced those ones that survived the Second World War. They have inherited democracy from their parents. They began to take rights and freedoms for granted. They have become consumers of values. They perceive freedom as choosing between cheeses in the supermarket. Therefore, they are ready to exchange freedom for economic benefits, promises of security or personal comfort.
That is why so many people, even in developed democracies, do not realise the significance of freedom of the press. Thus, they are increasingly consuming the information surrogate in social networks and messengers.
Yet, the truth is that freedom is very fragile. Human rights are not attained once and forever. We make our own choices every day.
Before flying to Brussels, I had a meeting with a friend I had not seen since the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine. I told her that I would speak at this prize ceremony. Then she told me this story.
On the first day of the full-scale Russian invasion, my friend happened to stay far from her home. Together with others, she hid in a bomb shelter, where the TV was working, and they watched broadcasts from Kyiv oblast. The journalist was reporting live the consequences of the Russian’s first attacks – destroyed residential buildings, burned civilian cars, frightened people. Eventually, she finished her report by saying that she thanked everyone who then was listening and watching them, and they, journalists, would narrate and show the happenings until the last moment, as long as it was physically possible for them.
My friend was crying when telling me this. That day she also did not know if she would survive. The only connection between her, her loved ones and the whole country was this journalist who was just doing her job honestly. Suddenly, this work acquired a significant meaning even for those people who had never reflected on it before.
I have heard the same stories from people who were in the Ukrainian territories occupied by the Russian army. The Russians were convincing everyone that Kyiv had already been captured, but people were secretly listening to the radio waves to find out the truth. I have heard the same stories from people who survived the Russian captivity. Prisoners who had access to the mobile internet transmitted news from freedom. People were crying when telling these stories just like my friend was. Because they have learned the price of freedom of speech from their own experience.
I am here simply to say thank you, journalists. Because I do not have the right words to explain the importance of the work you honestly do
I am a human rights lawyer, and I have been applying the law to protect people and human dignity for many years. However, the world did not began to extensively help Ukraine when the Russians started to kill and rape civilians in Bucha, but when journalistic materials about these crimes were published in different languages.
This is not the war between two states – Russia and Ukraine. This is the war between two systems – authoritarianism and democracy. Russia is attempting to convince the whole world that democracy and human rights are fake values. Because during the war they cannot protect anyone. Russia claims that the truth does not exist, and that there are only artificial strategic narratives promoted by the fighting parties.
I am here simply to say thank you, journalists. Because I do not have the right words to explain the importance of the work you honestly do. In Ukraine, in Iran, in Belgium, in Palestine, in Sudan, in Kenya.
I am here to say that, despite everything, this is a life-affirming story, because these are dramatic times that give hope. When freedom is denied, it starts to powerfully break out. Even when you cannot rely on the law, and the international peace and security system does not work, you can always rely on people. People who uphold the values of freedom of speech and honestly do their work.
We are accustomed to thinking through the lens of states and international organisations, however, ordinary people have much more impact than they can even imagine. Owing to such people is a chance for us. Yes, the future is vague and not guaranteed. Nevertheless, it is such a privilege to have a chance to fight for the future you wish for yourself and your own children.
This text is the transcription of the speech Oleksandra Matviichuk gave at the Reporters Without Borders 2023 press freedom awards ceremony, held in Brussels on 28 November 2023.
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