SOMA - Photo:Tímea Ruzsbaczky/RNE
BER at SOMA Tímea Ruzsbaczky/RNE

Soma-prize 2018

Remarks by HE Mr. Olav Berstad, Ambassador of Norway at the award ceremony of "Transparency – SOMA Prize 2018" on 11 January 2019

Executive Director, Mr. Martin, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for the invitation to the Transparency-SOMA award ceremony. Norway is a proud partner and supporter of Transparency International, both globally, elsewhere in Europe and in Hungary. You sometimes present embarrassing facts also about Norway, put focus on issues, but this is generally understood as a big assistance in making us even cleaner, more transparent, fair and efficient in the utilisation of public funds and in other government operations. Corruption is a crime, it distorts the society, undermines trust and hinders development.

In this context, media and active citizenship, and competent and uncorrupt prosecution and courts play an important role. My impression is that most cases around the world of high level corruption or abuse of power have started with investigative journalism, or somebody putting a question to somebody in a media setting.

Investigative journalism is perhaps a high risk, high reward activity. May be it is the top or jewel of all journalism. We all know about the Watergate investigation by Washington Post and its journalists which entered history not only as “golden standard” in its field, I suppose, but also as an example of the potential political effect of investigative journalism, especially in societies with functioning institutions.

Investigative journalism also carries great responsibility. The effects on individual persons can be disastrous. In many cases this may be justified and even applauded. But what if the investigation goes astray, both in terms of treatment of sources, use of technical means, surveillance of target individuals etc., but also with regard to the results, if they are exaggerated or simply wrong?

We had a case almost 20 years ago in Norway where a well respected politician, a former minister, actually committed suicide in front of the pressure against him from a “wolfpack” of the combined Norwegian press. The case was serious enough (a matter of unreported income from political consultancy in his quarantain period), but in the aftermath issues were raised with and within the press of whether the “witch-hunt” had gone too far.

The Ethical Code of Practice for the Norwegian Press as adopted and amended on several occasions by the Press Association has been an important instrument in this regard, first time formulated in 1936.

Investigative journalism can negatively affect or infringe on individual privacy rights and also on national security. I will not elaborate. In general, though, investigative journalism is more of a necessity and benefit to a society, than the opposite. Investigative journalism has an excellent track record of revealing malpractice, abuse of power, collusion, violation of and departure from acceptable behaviour by influential individuals, companies, etc.

Another famous case in Norway, going back to 1977, involved free travel on SAS, also for private purposes, by members of the government. The state was at the time a large co-owner of the airline. Clearly, this was an unacceptable use of position, even if it was not per se illegal. The practice was changed, of course. A quite fresh case concerns the parliament’s coverage of travel expenses for their members, even for perhaps dubious, short meetings in the districts in combination with private vacation, for instance. The practice is perhaps not illegal in itself, but a clarification of the rules is needed. These cases would not have rolled forward without competent investigative journalists and journalism.

I will not talk specifically about the #me too campaign which in some cases may have gone astray in many countries, ostracizing persons on the basis of unsubstatiated claims or rumors carried by the press and social media. But the effects of such disclosure in many societies are clear to see.

Unfortunately, independent reporting and especially investigative journalism carry risks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent organisation in New York, 53 journalists were killed in 2018 worldwide, including one in Slovakia as we know. Attack on journalists is completely unacceptable and we condemn acts of violence, but also all other acts to limit the possibility to freely work as a journalist, publish and disseminate news, analyses and opinion.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Besides our Norwegian embassy logo, there is also the EEA/Norway grants logo on the invitation and programme for this event. However, this does not mean that the grants are now operational in Hungary. We have still not reached an agreement with the Hungarian government. The funding is part of a communications budget for the grants, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassy which I represent. Talking about the EEA (European Economic Area): the EEA agreement went into force 25 years ago, on 1 January 1994. There is definitely cause for celebration. And Hungary, through the membership in the EU, “joined the EEA” in 2004.

Finally:  We will later congratulate this year’s winner or winners of the Soma award. But whoever that is, and for which piece of reporting, our sponsorship does not imply any particular endorsement on our part. We endorse investigative reporting in general, we support investigative journalism and its role in revealing truth and combatting false news and disinformation. We endorse the activities of Transparencey International in general and your reporting and analyses which we find both necessary and credible!

Thank you and I wish you success with the event tonight and in the future!