[ANALYSIS] The global fight for media freedom: Why it matters

Sixty government ministers and 1,500 international journalists, human rights defenders, media lawyers, and academics met in London last week for the first Global Media Freedom conference convened jointly by the UK and Canadian governments. 

Although much skepticism about political motivations and the prospects for concrete action surrounded plans for the event, it was important by any measure for its achievement in bringing so many foreign ministers, and those responsible for media development, together at a critical time for journalism internationally…

A time when journalists are being brutally murdered with impunity… even in the embassies of Western allies. 

A time when journalists are being labelled “enemies of the state,” even by Western leaders.

A time when newsrooms are being raided in leak investigations, and confidential journalistic communications are being inappropriately accessed by law enforcement agents – even in Western democracies.

A time when female journalists are being driven from the profession by the scourge of gendered online harassment

A time when disinformation, sometimes orchestrated by state actors and political interests, threatens to swamp credible, independent journalism with serious implications for liberal democracies.

And a time when digital transformation and platform power are delivering both enormous business model challenges and unprecedented opportunities for journalism innovation.

I’ve been a journalist for 30 years, and I study journalism innovation and sustainability in the context of media freedom challenges at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism where I’m Senior Research Fellow.

My most recent report is focused on 3 Global South newsrooms on the frontline of the disinformation struggle, fighting back through mission-driven journalism. Rappler is among them. I encourage you to read it and draw inspiration from the creative, determined, mission-driven journalists who run the newsrooms featured in the Philippines, South Africa, and India. They can teach the rest of us a thing or two about perseverance, adaptability, and survival in the face of sometimes unrelenting attacks.

But my role at the Global Media Freedom conference was to lead a discussion about "transforming media development" – essential in the context of the serious challenges I outlined above. And important, too, in an era when digital disruption has led to a reconceptualization of media freedom – not just as a right available to professional journalists to support their practice, but also a right essential to audiences in terms of their ability to access reliable information and independent journalism – on and offline.

And this implies a very important role for society-wide digital media and information literacy programs in media development projects.

Critical components

Independent news media are a vital and vibrant part of fostering and preserving democracy internationally. Facilitating media freedom and media development – which are intersecting and overlapping goals – can therefore be critical components of accountable and transparent governance.

For independent media to flourish, it is essential that journalists and other public interest information producers are free and safe to report and publish without fear of reprisal, attack or murder with impunity.

They also require legal and normative environments that support access to information, publication of robust public interest journalism, and the functions of a critical press – again, both on and offline.

And to function as accountability monitors or "watchdogs," independent news organizations must be viable and sustainable – they must be supported by nimble, multifaceted business models that enable robust and enterprising journalism that serves communities at the national and local levels.

In many countries, and not just in the Global South, the news media are facing unprecedented levels of threat and convergent crises. This both increases the need for investment in media freedom and media development, and the risks associated with intervening.

When defense is not enough

But intervention is essential: it’s not enough to just defend media freedom, we must proactively support it. And that requires serious investment – in will, advocacy and real money.

Importantly, it also requires the pursuit of media freedom principles and standards in tandem with media development work.

Traditionally, media development has involved the training of journalists to better equip them with skills and education to fulfil their roles in democratic contexts – such as forensic verification practices, accountability interviewing, digital media production practice and so on. 

However, as UNESCO suggests in its Media Development Indicators – media development programs cannot be effective or sustainable in the absence of media freedom. And media freedom principles and legal frameworks pursued in isolation from media freedom will not lead to viable, sustainable independent news media – which are an essential expression of media freedom.

Attempts to develop open, transparent and accountable democratic governance in the absence of robust, sustainable, independent journalism will be much less effective. That’s why Sustainable Development Goal 16:10 aims to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms”. 

Increasingly, media development programs must also be responsive to issues such as journalism safety risks, digital security threats, viral hate speech, gendered online harassment, and disinformation – problems which flourish in the absence of broader media and information literacy, which should be considered as a key element and goal of media development projects. 

Bigoted 'analysis'

The urgent need for such intervention was on display during the Global Media Freedom conference when the far-right Canadian media purveyor launched arrogant disinformation-fuelled attack on Maria Ressa and Rappler from the floor, while Ressa was on stage.

His brand of bigoted hard right “analysis” is shouty and laced with hubris. It’s the kind of theater that inspires the trolls who peddle “alternative facts” to "pile on" via their social media platform of choice. And pile on they did in this instance – for several days. I was one of their targets. They practiced a mix of patriotic trolling, racism, and misogyny, blending far right narratives with antiestablishmentarianism.

Their indignation was unfortunately bolstered by the problematic banning of propagandistic Russian media outlets, pointing to the complexity of the "information pollution" problem currently destabilizing liberal democracies internationally.

Dealing with difficult information ecosystem problems requires genuine commitment, concrete action and serious, collaborative investment in media freedom and media development in tandem.

Despite the skepticism running deep, expectations are high for the outcomes of the inaugural Global Media Freedom conference, but commitments require resources. Let’s see if the event can deliver in a way that stands up to the sort of independent media scrutiny that we were there to defend. – Rappler.com

 

Dr Julie Posetti is Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. This piece is based on her opening remarks at the Global Media Freedom conference, where she anchored a panel on "Transforming Media Development" on July 10.