‘We must fund journalism’: Day one at the EFC Conference, ‘Liberté’ Plenary


Amy McGoldrick


Axelle Davezac, executive director at Fondation de France, gathered hundreds of EFC delegates together for the first plenary of the 2019 Conference & AGA. ‘What a time to celebrate,’ Davezac began, informing the audience that this year represents not only the 30th anniversary of the European Foundation Centre, but also 50 years of Fondation de France. Developments have most certainly occurred in this sector since the EFC’s auspicious start in 1989, and yet signs of fragility are abound.

Speaking on Notre Dame, Davezac recalled that the ‘first night, the French were all together. Within 24 hours, strong negative reactions came in against the ‘mega gifts’’… togetherness and harmony are short-lived in Paris.’

The urgency and swelling of mass systemic problems and negative societal breakdowns can be looked at by foundations, whose most precious and necessary value is their ability to think and act in the long-term.

Ahead of the ‘Liberté’ panel, president and founder of the European Music Centre, Jorge Chaminé, came on stage to introduce three very striking variations of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. ‘Music is the link to values we must reinstall in societies again,’ claimed Chaminé. The first version was played by Yaman Suheum, a Damascan political refugee, playing alone on the qanun. The second, a classical rendition by Trio Chausson (on piano, violin and cello), and the last by Quatour Tzigane, self-described gypsy musicians to whom, Chaminé announced to the audience, ‘classical music owes a lot’.

Laurence de Nervaux at Fondation de France moderated the panel on the topic of Liberté. With her was Bassma Kodmani, co-founder and executive director at Arab Reform Initiative; Ivan Krastev, chairman for the Centre for Liberal Strategies; and ‘Plantu’, cartoonist and president for Cartooning for Peace.

‘Freedom is not an easy lover,’ announced de Nervaux. ‘Elusive, demanding and sometimes jealous.’ As love stories go – ‘this one has its ups and downs.’ Thirty years has also passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the times since, it’s important to try and make a collective attempt to assess the situation. What is the situation of freedom in Europe today? What is the progress we have made? What are the challenges? 

Are we moving forwards? Or moving backwards?

Plantu spoke of the challenges that journalism faces in France, most particularly in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015. Plantu, de Nervaux mentions, is the one person who came to this conference with a bodyguard, and who cannot go anywhere without one.

If someone is trying to constrain or oppress you, then it means someone matters – that you are politically relevant.

‘My liberty is to present my ideas in cartoons, and speak to the future of Europe,’ said Plantu. He says that his freedom is not for granted, but he takes it anyway. That it is ‘important to continue the battle for the dignity of migrants.’

Much of Plantu’s work at Cartooning for Peace takes place in schools, where he is passionate about reaching out to children and promoting France’s values of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, as well as in learning the contentious history of Europe’s wars and battles. ‘If you can’t understand the history, then you can’t understand Europe today.’

‘Shrinking space’ is an oft-used term, but still represents very real restrictions in freedoms (including foreign funding and the aversion to risk), as well as more broadly on the freedoms of Europeans.

Krastev spoke powerfully about the work the space can do: ‘If someone is trying to constrain or oppress you, then it means someone matters – that you are politically relevant. If you’re irrelevant, no one’s pressing you on anything.’

However, Krastev points out the whilst liberal donors’ well-known pattern of cooperating internationally remains, this is now also for the first time true of right-wing donors. This is a phenomenon yet to be countered.

De Nervaux later mentioned Rob Reich, recently interviewed by Alliance magazine, and how the absolute freedom of philanthropic actors should rightly be questioned. How do foundations address this?

Krastev also spoke of a recent study, where ‘67% of Europeans now believe that life was better ‘before’.’ This was even true of those respondents in their twenties and thirties. ‘What has changed,’ Krastev explains, ‘is that nowadays, rather than fearing the past, societies fear the future.’ A point in time such as 1989, after the Wall fell, was a hopeful year. ‘The best years are the ones in which you have the most hope.’

Kodmani spoke of those from the south and the Middle East who have moved to Europe, whether forced out by insecurity, conflict or crisis in their region, or driven by a sense of hope. ‘Hopes so high they were unrealistic,’ said Kodamni. Here she echoed Krastev, explaining that it’s important for migrants and refugees to feel that there is hope, that they feel they are providing a future for their children.

With a narrative polluted by ‘chauvinistic, nationalistic, extreme right-wing discourse’, the issue of freedom comes out of connecting values, says Kodmani. ‘Values’ can of course be relative, but the negative discourse we read and hear often fuels a perception of the impossibility of integration.

All three panellists agreed that funding journalism or funding debate are vital in the fight against negative discourse and the plague of fake news. Journalism, narratives and ideas must also be created locally – Krastev made the important point that too often “we try to find a European answer to some very local problems… the dark side of internationalising the answers.”

Nothing you learn at a plenary is going to help you.

Studies show, claims Krastev, that never before has there been such high confidence in the EU – and yet all EU member states, with the exception of Spain, also believes that it could dissolve within twenty years. People can hold contradictory ideas. Krastev asks that we be much more contextual, rather than looking for ‘common advice’.

Lasting points iterated that it’s not all about transparency of budgets, but transparency of aims. Freedom comes with rights and responsibilities.

Kodamni wants new stories and a media discourse “infused with some basic facts”. She asks if we can convey the message “to an ageing Europe that a younger generation moving across will help pay their pensions”? Kodmani argues that the public discourse has to have these messages in the mainstream media. “We must challenge the people who are lying about what the future of Europe is”.

Amy McGoldrick is the Marketing & Advertising Officer at Alliance magazine

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