Journalists slowly come trickling in through the entrance of the stately Gazeta Wyborcza headquarters. It is 2 o’clock in the afternoon and everyone is still a little wary – the food and beverages table remains untouched and people are scanning the room. Who should I approach? Not yet the investigative attitude one would expect from Europe’s best journalists.

Soon Bartosz Wieliński, preparatory committee member of the European Press Prize and foreign editor at Gazeta Wyborcza, opens the day with a word of welcome. “Freedom of the media in Poland is at risk. But Gazeta remains independent”, he tells the curious crowd of fifty that has gathered around him. The circle disperses, off to the afternoon sessions where journalists with an extensive track record and young, starting journalists are side by side; discussing issues that affect the both of them equally.

 

One room is occupied by Brigitte Alfter (Arena) and Oliver Schröm (Correctiv), who created a session around cross-border journalism. “How do you actually start collaborating cross borders? Don’t be afraid to get going! Break it down to a step-by-step process”, Alfter advises the journalists in the room. Another room is filled with journalists pondering the question of how to get enough funding for their project. Ides Debruyne (Journalismfund.eu) gives them hands-on tips for making a funding application work. A more debatable topic of today is the fine line between journalism and activism. Nienke Venema and Nadja Groot (Democracy and Media Foundation) host this session and encourage the participants to share their own professional dilemmas.

People listen to each other attentively, and the session runs longer than the rest. Filled to the brim is the room where the Forbidden Stories team gives insight on how they keep stories alive of journalists that were killed themselves. “We decided to create Forbidden Stories to make sure people get access to critical information. We believe that when a journalist gets killed or imprisoned that it is because they have an important story”, Laurent Richard says. Their work visibly touches the people in the room when he talks about the murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. “She was obviously onto something”.

 

In the meantime the common area that connects all the different rooms to each other is filling up with more people by the minute. Food and drinks are going around; all shyness has melted away. The Award Ceremony will start soon – the part everyone has been anxiously waiting for. Almost all twenty-six nominees have flown out to Warsaw, hoping they are the ones to take home one of five prizes to be awarded tonight.

The ceremony hall is full with more than two hundred journalists, editors-in-chief, media organisations, press and journalism fanatics. Living journalism legend and Gazeta Wyborcza’s editor-in-chief Adam Michnik opens the ceremony. Confidently speaking about his life’s work at Gazeta, he knows how to make the audience feel welcome. The feeling of solidarity is almost tangible. “Let’s stick together and not forget that freedom in Europe is our common goal.”

“I wanted to share two thoughts with you about journalism in Europe today.” Keynote speaker Natalie Nougayrède takes over. “The first is that these are critical times for journalism in our part of the world. The second is that there is also hope, and that hope can best be built on if we approach things together, continent-wide, not just nationally.” She has caught people’s attention right from the start. When she compares fake news to junk food, the audience smirks; when she says press freedom in Europe is more fragile now than ever since the end of the Second World War, people nod. Nougayrède fortunately concludes in hopeful and activating words: “There is plenty of talent in this room. And there are plenty of people who care about quality journalism and democracy in Europe. Now is the perfect time to try to shape the future of our information environment in Europe.”

“And now we will reveal the 2019 winners of the European Press Prize Awards.” Vassileva speaks thrillingly. You can see the first two rows of the audience adjust themselves upright in their chairs. This is where the 2019 laureates sit. The talent Nougayrède praised; the journalists whose work was selected out of 569 entries this year.

One by one Vassileva takes us through the nominees for each category, and invites the winners on stage for an interview – and of course the handing over of the prize. Guillermo Abril and Carlos Spottorno (Süddeutsche Zeitung, El País Semanal) take home the first award for the Innovation category: their story about Palmyra is a true work of art, molded into a graphic novel format. They are followed by Katrin Kuntz (Der SPIEGEL), winner of the Distinguished Reporting Award. She wrote her story together with Marian Blasberg and Christoph Scheuermann; a heartbreaking piece about the separation of mother and son as a result of the family separation policy in the U.S.

Madeleine Schwarz (The Guardian) wins the Opinon Award for challenging the idea of Atlanticism – arguing that it is nothing more than just that. Christo Grozev and Roman Dobrokhotov (Bellingcat) take the Investigative Reporting Award. Their investigation reads like a spy novel. Last but not least, there is a Special prize to be awarded. While thinking they had not won in the Innovation category, the Forbidden Stories team is called to the stage to receive this year’s Special Award.

A day of celebration, budding collaborations, fascinating discussion and roaring talent comes to an end. While my adrenaline level finally reaches healthy proportions again, I look over the crowd that is enjoying their well-deserved drinks. Signature blue lighting covers the ceremony hall like a blanket. I have soaked up enough inspiration for the coming year to feast of, without doubt.