Five insights from UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day Conference

by Heba Kandil
Friday, 6 May 2022 16:43 GMT

This year’s UNESCO World Press Freedom Day conference in Uruguay saw policymakers, journalists and media practitioners come together to discuss matters of press freedom, privacy and sustainability within a sector facing existential digital threats, surging violence and unregulated surveillance. It is these multifaceted threats that defined the theme of this year’s conference: ‘Journalism under Digital Siege’.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) outlines five key trends that emerged at the conference, including during panel sessions hosted by TRF and the Media Freedom Coalition:

1) Journalism and democracy are under siege… but the fight is fierce

There is growing recognition among stakeholders that press freedom is freedom for all; an independent media is the bedrock of democratic societies.

The President of Uruguay, Luis Lacalle Pou, who attended the opening ceremony of the conference, called for “certainty to journalists, not just to ensure their freedom of expression, but their freedom to work.” He emphasised the need for the sustainability of journalism, because “local media is extremely important to the sustainability of our culture and our idiosyncrasies.”

Referring to the increasing numbers of stakeholders fighting back to ensure a “democratic digital future”, Shoshana Zuboff declared that “for the first time in a long time, I have hope.” She cited the European Union Digital Services Act as an example of progress.

The 2022 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize awards $25,000 to recognise outstanding contributions to the defence or promotion of press freedom, especially in the face of danger. As a testimony to the journalists fighting to report the facts about the Ukraine crisis, this year’s Prize was awarded to The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). The BAJ is a non-governmental association of media workers with the objective of promoting freedom of expression and independent journalism in Belarus.

2)  The digital siege is gendered

A disproportionate number of journalists who are monitored, blackmailed, persecuted and targeted with harassment are women. Furthermore, misogyny and sexism intersect with other forms of discrimination, leaving women experiencing multiple types of targeted abuse concurrently, and traumatised. Women are often left to deal with this violence alone, with a lack of support from their employers.

The violence also manifests offline. According to The Chilling report by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), funded by UNESCO, 20 per cent of survey respondents identifying as women said they had been attacked or abused offline in connection with online violence they had experienced.

There is an urgent need for newsrooms to acknowledge that this scourge of online violence is a workplace safety issue. Employers are advised to enact gender-sensitive policies and social media codes that support and advocate for women journalists, not just govern their conduct. These and other recommendations were discussed in detail during the panel session on ‘Newsroom responses to online violence against women’, hosted by ICFJ and outlined in the newly-published research excerpt. Last year, TRF partnered with UNESCO, the International Women's Media Foundation, and the International News Safety Institute to develop practical and legal tools for journalists, media managers and newsrooms to counter harassment.

The second excerpt of the ICFJ and UNESCO report highlighted stark failings by many internet and social media platforms to take responsibility as forums for online violence. Women journalists find themselves in a double bind: heavily reliant on the very same services that are most likely to expose them to online violence.

But women are fighting back, with the support of technologists, industry experts and other stakeholders. In our panel on ‘developing effective tools to counter gender-based online violence’, TRF, in partnership with Google’s Jigsaw, showcased TRFilter. This new tool will enable women to limit their exposure to abusive content by automatically identifying abusive content and allowing them to block, mute or save comments at scale.

Another tool, Areto Listener, measures an online community’s toxicity and sentiment across the globe, enabling organisations to understand the health of their digital community, protect their brand ambassadors from digital bullies, and address any emerging hot spots before they flare-up.

But it was clear from the conference that a culture shift is still needed to ensure that what is illegal offline is also illegal online, breaking the alarming trend of impunity for online violence. Which brings us to the third trend: increased scrutiny on strengthening legislation to keep pace with technological developments.

3)  Laws must keep pace with technology

While technology has accelerated the world’s access to free and independent information, some new innovations can be harmful or exploitative. For the effective regulation of technology, the law must keep pace with the current realities of the digital landscape – as stated by Quinn McKew, Executive Director of Article 19.

In a panel hosted by the Media Freedom Coalition, supported by TRF as secretariat, Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, highlighted the slow progress to regulate the use of spyware. Khan emphasised the urgent need for “a global moratorium on [its] sale and transfer”. Ethical standards and guidelines don’t fix the problem, she explained: “It is very difficult to litigate, because it’s hard to collect evidence.” As such, she highlighted that a moratorium is needed as an immediate, short-term measure to prohibit all current sales activity – a call that is supported by others including Amnesty International, the European Parliament and the Government of Costa Rica. Khan explained how this will enable society to develop a firmer understanding of the damage this technology is causing and develop appropriate regulatory framework in the medium- to long-term.

Khan argued that the responsibility to address these issues lies with governments and individuals collectively – yet also highlighted how there should be independent oversight of the use of surveillance by governments. “We need to set a high bar for governments to cross if they want to survey human right defenders. Let them go to an international body to prove why they need to survey [them].”

Will Cathart, Head of WhatsApp at Meta, described an “out-of-control spyware industry” as he referenced past unsuccessful attacks that have targeted Whatsapp: “We need groundbreaking reporting on spyware to put tech companies under scrutiny and incur consequences.”

4)  We need more ethical and transparent AI

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can boost freedom of expression, as well as damage it.

It can also enhance journalism. For example, newsrooms regularly use AI to make sense of large collections of documents, to map hate speech online, and to develop better tools to aid reporting and newsgathering.

However, the lack of transparency around these algorithms and the opaque processing of that data creates ethical complexities at best, and at worst stokes polarisation and manipulates user behaviour to undermine democratic processes.

The question is how to connect and enable these automation processes within the parameters of protecting civil liberties and human rights. Accountability and transparency about the development of machine-led learning is essential and, when curating content, the algorithm cannot just default to curating the loudest voices.

The global agreement on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence was launched at the UNESCO General Conference last year and was adopted by its member states. It is a groundbreaking first step to ensuring that AI technology is an agent for good.

5)  Donors: Long-term core funding vs. short-term project support

Another theme that emerged from the conference focused on sustainable funding streams: when developing principles for effective media assistance, donors must pivot from short-term, thematic project support to long-term core funding.

This means, when dispatching grants and aid money, donors should consider what will enable the development and growth of the organisations they are supporting in the longer-term. Financial support that is prioritised to fund the building of knowledge and learning systems will enable resourcing for several years, ensuring sustainability of the news outlet beyond the lifespan of a single project.

Growth must be strategic, and grantees need to be given input into these discussions to ensure their viability.

When it comes to evaluation, metrics alone are insufficient to assess impact. The needs of the beneficiaries and the constraints they face must be placed at the front and centre of the solutions designed, to ensure they land and work. . 

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