VUB and ULB honour persecuted Chinese and Belarusian female journalists

Difference Day: Women in the media still often the victims of a wide range of online violence*

Tuesday, May 4, 2021 — Every year on World Press Freedom Day, VUB and ULB organise Difference Day. This year it was a two-day digital event on Sunday, 2 May and Monday, 3 May with the theme “Women Breaking the News’. The two sister universities have awarded an honorary doctorate to Belarusian investigative journalist and dissident Svetlana Aleksandrovna Alexievich, and an Honorary Title for Freedom of Expression to jailed Chinese journalist Zhang Zhan, who covered the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

*presentation of research by Unesco is attached

The International Center for Journalists and Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) surveyed women journalists worldwide. The results showed that a large proportion of them are subject to a wide range of online violence on a daily basis, including threats of sexual assault and physical violence, foul language, intimidating private messages, threats to damage their professional or personal reputation, digital security attacks, misrepresentation through manipulated images, and financial threats. Threats are also increasingly networked and associated with orchestrated attacks fuelled by disinformation tactics aimed at silencing journalists.

In addition, women are still far less likely than men to be featured in the media. Women are the subject of a story in only a quarter of television, radio and print news. In a 2015 report, women made up only 19% of experts featured in news stories and 37% of reporters covering stories worldwide. Progress has been made in recent years, but according to a global study, if we continue at the current pace it will take another 75 years to achieve gender equality in the media.

Honorary doctorate Svetlana Aleksandrovna Alexievich

Svetlana Aleksandrovna Alexievich is a Belarusian investigative journalist, historian and writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. By awarding her an honorary doctorate, VUB and ULB wish to pay tribute to an author who thinks for herself, speaks freely and acts freely. She is an author who also gives a voice to those whose voices are not often heard. In her search for truth, she does not hesitate, at great risk to her own life, to go in search of the inconvenient facts and events that are deleted from the official record.

Alexievich’s oeuvre can be read as a contemporary oral historiography of the Soviet Union and its successor states. Because her work punctures myths and illusions and is not guided by the official version of the facts, she has often come under fire from the authorities, both in the time of the Soviet Union, when she lost her job as a journalist, and afterwards as a writer in Belarus, where her work could not be published. This forced her to leave her country in 2000 and spend a long time in Paris and Berlin. In 2011 she chose to return to Belarus and became one of the faces of the country’s democratic opposition.

In August 2020, she intervened in the protests against the elections manipulated by the incumbent President Lukashenko. On a free radio station, she exhorted the president to resign: “Leave before it is too late, before you plunge people into a terrible abyss, the abyss of civil war. Nobody wants to see blood. You only want power. And it is your hunger for power that requires bloodshed.’ Alexievich took a leading role in the Coordination Council, which united the opposition to Lukashenko.

In September 2020, all the members of the council were arrested, expelled from the country or seemed to have disappeared without a trace after being kidnapped. Only Alexievich was still at liberty, presumably because the regime did not dare arrest her because of her international prestige. Nevertheless, she was the victim of threats, as a result of which Western diplomats offered to “guard? her to ensure her safety. Though she initially planned to stay in Belarus at all costs, she defected to Germany in September 2020, albeit with the intention of returning as soon as possible.

Honorary Title for Freedom of Expression for Zhang Zhan

Zhang Zhan is a Chinese citizen journalist and former lawyer who was tortured by the Chinese secret police and sentenced to four years in prison. This happened in a hasty trial in which no independent observers were allowed to be present. She was convicted of “provoking arguments and trouble? for her reporting on the Chinese government’s poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. She was the first to cover the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and the first citizen journalist to be convicted for reporting on the pandemic in China. At least 47 other journalists are currently being held in China for their coverage of the coronavirus.

She travelled to Wuhan during the first few months after the coronavirus outbreak to report and collect testimonies about the situation. These were then disseminated on social media such as WeChat, Twitter and YouTube. In addition, Zhang Zhan reported on the jailing of independent journalists and the harassment of the families of corona victims.

In May 2020, she was arrested and imprisoned on charges of “seeking to quarrel and causing trouble’. In December, she was sentenced to four years in prison. She lives in deplorable conditions with her ankles bound, and her hands were cuffed for three months. She went on hunger strike but was force-fed.

During the coronavirus outbreak, independent journalists were the first and only source of uncensored information about the virus in China. These journalists are under constant pressure from the Chinese authorities and are often arrested. Their arrest shows that China does not respect the freedom of the press, which is guaranteed by Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution of 1982.

Citizenship Award

The 16th Citizenship Award of the P&V Foundation is awarded on Difference Day to journalist and director Waad Al-Kateab. In her documentary For Sama, she shows the audience the dilemma of leaving your country at war to live and give yourself and your family a better future.

World Press Freedom Day

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly declared 3 May World Press Freedom Day to raise awareness of the importance of press freedom and to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.