Winning column emphasises the importance of press freedom in the Corona era

Lieve Smeets (22), a Maastricht University student, is the winner of the Vrijheidscolleges’ and Roosevelt Foundation’s column competition. Her column was selected from among 115 entries. The assignment was to write a column about one of the Four Freedoms of President D. Franklin Roosevelt. Smeets will receive 200 euros in price money and will have her column published on the online media of the Vrijheidscolleges and Roosevelt Foundation. Many university and high school students wrote about the corona crisis in their columns and about what it has meant for their sense of personal freedom.

Lieve Smeets was informed of her achievement during a Skype meeting with Esther Lubberding, director of the Vrijheidscolleges, and Han Polman, chairman of the Roosevelt Foundation and King’s Commissioner in Zeeland. The jury was very impressed by the quality of the 115 entries. It chose the column of Lieve Smeets because it managed to connect the current situation in the Netherlands to what is happening in other countries around the world. In its report, the jury writes: “Lieve writes in an attractive way. Her column is accessible and stays sharp throughout. The way she manages to connect the corona crisis to Freedom of Speech (and specifically press freedoms in the Netherlands and Russia) is very impressive. It makes you think differently about the broad press freedoms we enjoy in the Netherlands.” Many columns make reference to the corona crisis. Smeets does this by noting its potential effects on Freedom of Speech; “It is especially in times like this that we must be able to count on critical journalists presenting us with the truth. We learn to think for ourselves and take into account multiple perspectives.” Her column can be read at www.vrijheidscolleges.nl and www.fourfreedoms.nl

Sandy Hook school shooting

An honourable mention is reserved for the column of Natalia Nikitchyuk (21) from Connecticut (US), who is a student at the University College Roosevelt (UCR) in Middelburg. She wrote a column about the school shooting she experienced at her elementary school when she was thirteen years old. She was enrolled at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown (US), where on the 14th of December 2012, a twenty year old man fatally shot 26 people, including twenty children. On this, the jury says: “We are impressed with how Natalia has shown the courage to write such a personal column. When you experience a mass shooting, it marks you for life. It is very brave of her to stand up against gun violence. It is both powerful and moving to read such a personal story about this.”

The jury consisted of author and columnist for the Parool Natascha van Weezel, board member of the Roosevelt Foundation Ton Brandenbarg and board member of the Vrijheidscolleges Gerda Bosdriesz, who also works for the ProDemos Academy. The assignment given to university and high school students was to pick one of the Four Freedoms and to write a column on it. The Four Freedoms were introduced by the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. “The columns these students wrote show the way they look at freedom. The 75 year anniversary of our liberation and the  emergence of the coronavirus confront us with just how valuable that freedom really is,” according to Natascha van Weezel.

Winning column of Lieve Smeets - “Your freedom of the press or your life”

It’s seven in the evening and the TV is on. Our prime minister is preparing for a new press conference about the coronavirus. We are going to be told where our country has to go from here. We’re grumbling. A metre and a half is a lot, we reckon. We haven’t been able to say hello to family members face to face for weeks. We want to go out, on holiday (preferably to Ibiza or Hawaii) and we want above all to forget that there’s a pandemic going on. I grumble too, about it being the same every day and about wanting to go back to my old life.

After Mark Rutte has said his piece, there’s time for questions. Journalists from various news broadcasters provide commentary, some more critical than others. Questions are asked about Dutch policy. Not everyone is equally enthusiastic about it but every question is answered, no matter how much dissatisfaction it may be concealing. Many of the questions reflect the unease, uncertainty and unhappiness that also dominate the public mood. Although I don’t go along with every point of view that is expressed in the questions, I do reflect on the fact that the journalists are free to make their critical remarks. It’s allowed. We have freedom of the press. We value our freedom of expression highly, yet sometimes seem to forget that in these troubled times.

I think back to a recent report about a Russian investigative journalist called Elena Milashina. After she had expressed critical opinions of the Russian state and the way it was handling the coronavirus, her life was threatened. Her article had to be deleted. Milashina had already been attacked on various occasions in the past and placed in danger. She is currently continuing the work of another murdered Russian journalist. Despite all the threats, the incessant fear and the State’s dissatisfaction, Milashina is continuing to fight for freedom of the press in Russia. It’s something that I believe too many people take for granted in the Netherlands.

Freedom of expression covers a lot more than people think at first. It is often used as a trump card to justify racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory statements. However, it is a freedom that is also crucially important for policy and for research. Particularly in times like these, we have to be able to count on journalists who can present us with the truth, critically. We learn how to think for ourselves and to come at things from different angles. People are not robots. You don’t have to unthinkingly accept the predigested opinions of your neighbour, teacher or TV. People aren’t just machines for replicating ideas. Thanks to these freedoms, they are capable of thinking for themselves and forming their own opinions. And sharing them, in the Netherlands at any rate.

It’s quarter to eight and the last journalist has had their turn. He won’t lie awake tonight wondering about the statements he made when the minister took questions. It’s very different for Milashina.
The TV is turned off.

Column of Natalia Nikitchyuk

Freedom from Fear is something I didn’t appreciate until it was gone.
That’s the nature of security. The privilege is ingrained into you. It is like the blood in your veins, vital but barely thought about.
For many people raised in our society, extreme fear is experienced only indirectly. You taste it while watching horror films or tragic documentaries. You see it on the news. You can try on others’ shoes, but you can’t actually put yourself there.
This is progress. This is what the Four Freedoms initiative, led by the Roosevelts, has worked to achieve for nearly 80 years. However, we haven’t completed this mission. Now more than ever, this freedom is essential.
When I was barely thirteen years old, there was a mass shooting at the elementary school in my American hometown. Twenty six children and educators were torn away from us. Their stories and faces still haunt me. These were my neighbors and my former teachers. My precious childhood memories from those school halls were blood-stained; my childhood itself was shattered.
Normal life becomes a fantasy after experiencing such devastation at a young age. From that point onwards, my life has mainly been focused on picking up the pieces. I spent years too paranoid to go to the movies due to the violent content and the echoes of the Aurora cinema shooting. I endured grocery trips with panic attacks because I mistook someone dropping a can as a gunshot. I devoted countless class periods mapping out the best response if a shooter would burst through the door.
If I hadn’t moved to the Netherlands, far from my gun-violence-ridden country, I believe I would still hold on to these patterns. Fear had become normal for me until I realized that it was not a normal way to live.
Liberation from fear is part of why I am grateful to live in the Netherlands.
This freedom is the reason why I stand up against gun violence. It is why I advocate so strongly for those who suffer, no matter the context.
I have slowly regained a sense of security in the seven years since the shooting. But I am one of the lucky ones. As time goes by and issues like gun violence, war, and sickness proliferate the world, Freedom from Fear is increasingly critical, yet increasingly rare.
In an ideal world, we will arrive at the point of privilege where security can be taken for granted, and we will rely on the Four Freedoms initiative to remind us to be grateful. For now, we will continue our fight for a better tomorrow.

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