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Digital rights can’t flourish alone; church, civil society support needed, says German Christian leader, now heading a foundation

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Digital rights can’t flourish alone; church, civil society support needed, says German Christian leader, now heading a foundation
Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

Ellen Ueberschär, president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, addresses participants at an international symposium on digital justice in Berlin, Germany on Sept. 13, 2021. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

As a teenager growing up in communist East Germany in the 1980s, Ellen Ueberschär learned of freedom of speech in her church parish and she believes that fundamental digital rights will not prevail on their own or through voluntary commitments by corporations.

Ueberschär is the Heinrich Böll Foundation president and delivered the keynote presentation at the opening symposium exploring the challenges and opportunities for a more just digital future, 13-15 September in Berlin.

The foundation says it is guided “by the basic political values of ecology, democracy, solidarity, and nonviolence.”

“Fundamental rights will not prevail on their own or through voluntary commitments by corporations,” said Ueberschär.

“That is why the broad support and joint commitment of (civil) society and churches including, politics, science and business are needed to guarantee and protect civil rights in the digital age as well, to make the digital space usable for the common good.”

The symposium was co-organized by the World Council of Churches and the World Association for Christian Communication, focusing on the impact of digital transformation on communities and societies.

‘NOT A LUXURY’

“Digital participation is not a luxury or merely nice to have, but a prerequisite for the development of inclusive societies,” said Ueberschär.

“Free access to information and unhindered opportunities to disseminate it form the backbone of democratic, open and prosperous societies.” .

In her speech spanning multiple issues, she noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, people have learned to appreciate digital communication.

“We even celebrated the Easter service online. We stayed in touch with our beloved ones via Zoom and Skype; some of us were able to do their work entirely online….The traffic in the air and on the streets dropped, so there was some relief for the climate.

“But at the same time, we saw governments using the pandemic to install new surveillance apps, pretending to combat the pandemic,” said Ueberschär, who from 2006 to 2017 was general secretary of the German Protestant Church Congress, also known as the Kirchentag.

She cited the World Health Organization’s references to infodemics, ubiquitous disinformation and fake news, massively amplified by social media and mass access.

The symposium theme, said Ueberschär, underscores the importance and changing role of WACC as a network with its ideas, impulses, prescience, and a particular focus on vulnerable groups.

“We must note, already here, that the relationship between freedom of religion and communication rights is by no means easy and that it also requires debate and conviction within the Christian spectrum.”

Ueberschär marked significant challenges to a just digitalization, including “surveillance and humiliating control versus informational self-determination and dignity.”

AFGHANISTAN EXAMPLE

She referred to a recent example in Afghanistan.

“Services like WhatsApp have been helpful in evacuating Afghans, but they can also make those individuals identifiable targets. The Taliban’s own presence on social media also raises questions about the platforms’ obligations,” said Ueberschär.

She urged the forces of democracy and public welfare to stand together in the fight to build credibility and trust in the digital media world.

“Digital participation is not a luxury or merely nice to have, but a prerequisite for the development of inclusive societies. Free access to information and unhindered opportunities to disseminate it form the backbone of democratic, open and prosperous societies,” asserted Ueberschär.

“Civil society, churches included, have to be involved in finding what it means to have privacy, self-determination, security and ensure equality and justice in the digital space.”

In other opening remarks, WCC acting general secretary, Rev. Ioan Sauca, explained that the WCC had to reinvent its communications and its programmatic work during the pandemic.

It did this chiefly through digital innovation to stay in touch with its constituencies and nurture and nourish its fellowship’s spirituality and ecclesial lives.

That, however, points to the influential and, in some respects, “troubling ascendency of digital media”.

“At one level, there emerges inequitable access to digital media and to the benefits they bestow. Further concerns arise from the marginalization and dismissal that groups and communities experience because they lack the means for effective digital communication,” said Sauca.

“We miss their voices, their stories, their insights. More broadly, we see that digital media not only enhance but also threaten our personal lives as consumers, citizens, and families.

“Even further, public media’s control by corporate interests and exploitation by demagogic forces in society have clouded the prospects for democracy and even truth itself around the world.”

Dr Dagmar Pruin, president of Brot für die Welt, said that the ecumenical symposium is an important platform for international exchange, strengthening the network of civil society, including churches.

“It makes us aware that the transformation of society through digitalization is not only imminent but that we are in the midst of it. Moreover, it enables us to demand social justice for all people with a clear voice and our own position,” said Pruin.

Co-organisers of the symposium included Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World), Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (Evangelical Church in Germany), Evangelische Mission Weltweit (EMW) in Deutschland (Association of Protestant Churches and Missions in Germany), and World Student Christian Federation.

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