DEMOCRACY OR DESPOTISM?
The Renaissance of Dark Powers

Thursday, 14 September 2017, Sanssouci Orangery, Potsdam/Germany

“Before, the question as to whether the West will survive would have invited accusations of hyperbole and alarmism,” Republican politician John McCain remarked at the Munich Security Conference: suddenly, he said, it had become the key question of the 21st century, “with a deadly seriousness.” Western cohesion is only possible if it is based on shared values.

Sixty years after the foundations were laid for the Europe that we know today with the Rome Treaties, the search for these common values is proving difficult, however, given the current political situation. As early as 2003, sociologist Zygmunt Baumann, who died in January, described over-emphasis on the market, unfiltered communication and a lack of common ground as the dark sides of postmodern society. There is little to be found of cohesion and common values in Europe today, with growing populism, anti-Europeanism, nationalism, autocratism and racism on the rise. Great Britain is on the brink of Brexit, a Greek “Grexit” might still be a possibility, and if Marine Le Pen becomes the French President, an immanent “Frexit” would destroy Europe’s foundations completely.

Tensions with Russia, the Ukraine conflict, worrying political developments in Turkey, the seemingly endless Syrian war and consequent refugee crisis, ongoing migration into Europe, rising terror threat and heavy stress on transatlantic relations since Donald Trump’s election to the American Presidency have put tremendous pressure on the European Union. The situation is further complicated by propaganda, a loss of public trust in traditional media, competition from online social networks, their possible influence on elections, the use and handling of fake news, and an ever-growing restriction of democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of opinion.

Faced with this abundance of threatening issues and developments, many people feel overwhelmed and tend to choose politicians who offer simple solutions and promise to bring back the “good old days” through isolation and return to nationalist, hegemonic structures.

A report by Freedom House found that democracy has been declining for a decade. Internationalist authoritarian regimes are investing considerable intellectual work and resources into influencing global public opinions and discussions. With a great deal of effort and financial means, they silence divergent opinions, “before they even get loud. Repressive states have learned to use the right in a purely formal way to suppress an independent civil society, while developing ever-more sophisticated techniques to manipulate new and traditional media alike.”

Obviously, we have to face the idea that the world order as we know it is past, and what we are seeing is the dawn of a new era on the social, political and media fronts. The idea of Europe as a community of values is crumbling – throwing Europe itself into question. Or could the current disruption also offer a chance for Europe to start again? What role does the media play in this complex situation, and what is their responsibility?

Building on the “War or Peace” theme of the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium in 2016, this year’s conference examines the impact of current political developments, discusses the world situation after Trump’s first 9 months in office (shortly before Germany’s own parliamentary elections), inquires about the future and responsibility of the media and asks whether they are still able to fulfil their traditional role as enlighteners, watchdogs and givers of orientation.

60 to 70 leading media- and opinion makers, politicians and science representatives from across Europe are invited to engage in a constructive, inter-sectoral discussion on how political, social and economic developments affect prospects for a free, democratic Europe, to offer solutions and bring new approaches to the debate.

The conference will end with a festive award ceremony, during which the M100 Media Award will be given to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the protection of freedom of expression and democratic values. Previous laureates include Roberto Saviano, Charlie Hebdo, Vitali Klitschko, YanukovychLeaks, Kurt Westergaard, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and Bob Geldof.

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