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Exclusive Interview with the Director of International Visegrad Fund

26 February 2022

On the eve of the FIRE Conference (1-3 March), we had the pleasure to meet for an exclusive interview with the director of the International Visegrad Fund, Ambassador  Petr Mareš. The Conference in Tirana, the largest ever held in the Western Balkans to tackle hate speech, is organised with the financial help of the IVF and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan. Still, the IVF is providing much more than financial help. Their contribution in know-how, their 22 years of experience in combating hate speech and other phenomena that hinder regional cooperation, and IVF and V4 countries' innovation & expertise make the IVF a precious partner to our like-minded organisation. With Ambassador Mareš we had the pleasure to discuss about the upcoming conference, future projects, his personal thought on hate speech and defamation and much more in this interesting interview.

Your Excellency. Can you explain better for our readers the IVF commitment towards combating hate speech and defamation, as well IVF’s contribution towards WB6?

Among the objectives of the International Visegrad Fund, one would find building of inclusive mindset, fostering of democratic debate, improvement of information and media literacy, as well as protection of cultural diversity etc. Just recently, we have supported a few projects directly related to the issues of hate speech. For 22 years now we have been supporting networking and cooperation withing the Visegrad region and for more than a decade also cooperation with the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries.  

The reasons are obvious. By connecting people and ideas, we are fighting the fear of unknown, which is often what makes us turn our backs to mutual understanding. Combating hate speech and defamation is a part of our activities and it is our honour to be able to join the collective effort of our partners from the Western Balkans Fund and Japan in organising this conference.

Why do you think it is important to team-up, and join our forces together in our two regions. Are our two regions similar, or different regarding the threat of hate speech?

It will be interesting to hear from experts from both regions at the conference their views and I am sure they will find ample similarities as well as differences in the current discourse. I would not, however, draw any geographical lines when it comes to the threats of hate speech. Freedom of religion and belief and protection of human dignity are universal rights which come with the universal obligation of protecting them. Even outside of legal framework, it is our very mutual history telling us to team up, cooperate, communicate, and respect each other. It is in the interest of both regions to join our forces and develop meaningful cooperation within the European union.

Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic had and still has an impact on both of our regions and its societies. We got used to being locked in our own bubbles which made us extremely vulnerable to disinformation and fake news. Once we fall into rabbit holes, how can we get back? This journey out is long and difficult not only for our two regions, but other European countries as well.

Some very important guests will represent V4 countries in Tirana for the Conference. What can we expect from the mix of some of the very best voices of our two regions, with experts from all around Europe?

We need to listen more and also reflect on what we hear. Having mentioned ‘rabbit holes’ – it is exactly the role of communication and media experts who could help us find solutions and understand social and political underpinnings if there is an upsurge in hate speech, or if we are failing in the efforts of countering defamation. Meeting of experts and opinions from both regions should lead to experience-sharing and brainstorming about different methods in different regional realities. How can we be the actor of change in either of our regions? How can we better tackle the threats of hate speech in our communities? I invite all of us to listen to the experts and apply their suggestions into our everyday lives.  

What are IVF expectations regarding the inter-regional Conference of 1-3 March?

We have this very concrete vision of efficient regional cooperation among Visegrad countries and we are always ready to share this experience with other neighboring regions, too. With every of the Fund’s activities, we seek and expect progress in the region. Quality of societal discourse, however, largely determines how successful we might be – a society with deep cleavages cannot progress.  

Will this conference be followed up with other events in the near future?

The International Visegrad Fund supports bottom-up approach, thus, any follow-up activities of civil society members, be it NGOs or academia, are welcome to check our rules and deadlines and come to us with their ideas.

How would you rate the cooperation between IVF, WBF and the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

The Western Balkans Fund is a very close partner organisation to the International Visegrad Fund. A few years ago, Visegrad countries have been there in full support of establishing of the WBF and have offered and shared the organisational model of the IVF to be used also in the Balkans. Ever since, the IVF has been providing technical support to the WBF and remains in close contact. The partnership is in a transformation right now, as both sides agreed to go for even more in-depth cooperation, and we hope to see more equal partnership in near future. As regards Japan, we follow closely and very much appreciate their engagement in the Balkans, as it is always very concrete and well-targeted. In case of this very conference, we were happy to see that there was an immediate consensus that both regions should be there to discuss, recognizing the strategic partnership of our regions.

Allow me a personal question. In your long career, you might have some example or experience in dealing with hate speech or defamation. What is the solution? Is there a silver bullet or a magic stick to use against bullies and others who share this language? What can a normal person do in his normal life to combat this threat? 

We should not be looking for simple solutions, magic wands, or miracles. Social issues are very complex and interconnected, more comprehensive approach must be adopted. What we can all do, and I have already mentioned it, is to listen more. Take your time to fully understand the situation in which the other person or country finds itself. It is our obligation to raise a generation able to take a step back and rationally consider the situation of their opponents and try to respect them. On the other hand, we must educate our societies that respect does not equal naivety and those rights come with obligations and responsibility.

One final question. Our readers often have been informed about scholarships or grant opportunities provided by the IVF. What are the next opportunities that IVF, maybe offer to WBF stakeholders and CSOs?

So far, we have supported hundreds of scholars coming from all six Western Balkan countries to study in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland or Hungary. It must be said that we also have supported a number of higher education institutions in the Western Balkans who accepted scholars coming from the Visegrad region. We have invested 5 million EUR in projects related or directly implemented in the Western Balkans. As regards additional opportunities open to your scholars and researchers, it is less known but not less successful fellowship program we have with the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives in Budapest and the Historical Archives of the European Union in Florence.