Thank you for being with us tonight. I am very happy to continue the tradition of hosting the European Union's reception in honour of the press – this year for the first time in the new EU residence in Beirut.
But for many of you, it is not the first time we meet– our exchanges have been fruitful ever since my arrival. And they have always been lively, engaging and even challenging. And this is exactly what we need in 2017: A dynamic and professional press, who together with a vibrant civil society can both challenge decision-makers but also report professionally and get the facts right in a world of disinformation.
Because I think we all agree that the challenges ahead of us are huge: Not only here in Lebanon and the region, where the Syrian crisis has had enormous consequences, but also in Europe, where we are facing immense tasks in the New Year.
And while you may argue that we do not always agree one hundred percent on the answers to those challenges, there is one crucial point on which we all agree in Europe: That is that our States and our societies are strong only when democracy is strong, when the space for participation and debate is free and open.
And this is why free, diverse and independent media are essential in any society to facilitate the free flow of information and ideas, and ensure transparency and accountability, without which an informed, active and engaged citizenry is impossible.
Unfortunately, the conditions for free and transparent news sharing have not been good in the past year. I just mentioned the problem of disinformation and fake news in particular on the internet – something that we all came to experience in 2016. But also, media freedom has undergone a serious decline in several parts of the world, including this region.
In Lebanon, the conditions for the press are not easy either as we have seen in the past few months where well established media laid off staff. I understand that His Excellency the Minister of Information is working on a package to try to help out in this situation while still upholding the natural competitiveness of the market.
But overall, and seen in a regional perspective, Lebanon has managed to remain a freer space for the press than most other countries in this region. In a sense, you can say that – although there are challenges - Lebanon can be seen as an oasis for freedom of expression and freedom of the press in the Middle East. We hope that this will continue to be the case and that it may even be possible to strengthen the freedom of the press further with the coming reforms of the media code.
The European Union has a special focus on media and press freedom here in Lebanon and we have been funding various national and regional programmes and projects to promote professional journalism and the capacities of media outlets across the region. And we will continue to do so. The Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press that we award very year here in Beirut is probably the most well-known example in this region.
And this leads me to another positive point that I wanted to highlight tonight: That the relationship between the EU and Lebanon is strong and getting stronger. Last year, Lebanon was the first country in this region to finalize the new Partnership Priorities with the EU, where we agreed to strengthen our cooperation on security, good governance, economic growth and migration. Just two days ago, the EU's 28 foreign ministers in their monthly meeting stated their full support to Lebanon and congratulated the new government, and I hope that very soon, we will be able to welcome our High representative, vice president Mogherini, for a visit here, where she can personally convey this message.
Tonight is an occasion to honour all of you who on a daily basis work to ensure the free flow of information and a dynamic and critical press. We thank you for your interest in covering what we do here, even when you ask the difficult questions. I would like to invite you to jointly honour the courage and dedication of all those who in written media, audio-visual media or on-line, pursue the liberty to know and to argue freely, both in Lebanon as well as in Europe.