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An independent, impartial and fact-based media is an essential component of any democratic society. Ideally, media provides quality information that citizens require to make responsible and educated decisions and also acts as an agent of transparency that holds governments accountable to their electorate.
Yet, we increasingly see governments around the world employing tactics of various kinds to silence critical voices and restrict the maneuvering space of media and civil society. Social media taxes, internet shutdowns, imprisoned journalists, online harassment, threats against those exercising their rights to freedom of speech and even killings seem to be the new normal for many journalists and bloggers operating around the world. Freedom of expression for private persons as well as for journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and broader civil society across the world is shrinking. Those assuming that these shrinking spaces only exist in a few rogue countries are mistaken, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), governments around the world - democratic as well as authoritarian - are pushing back against democratic developments and limiting human rights. CPJ found 1338 journalists were killed between 1992 – 2019 and 251 are currently imprisoned and as a direct consequence of their work.
The circulation of traditionally printed newspapers has fallen across the globe and while the number of internet users has accelerated to 4.39 billion (almost 60% of the global population) in 2019 algorithm-ranked search results and social media news feeds have contributed to fake news stories and the created of “echo-chambers” in which people reinforce their beliefs rather than dialogue across differences. One internet platform attempting to combat misinformation by offering quality journalism through independent bloggers across Africa is the KAS supported Africa Blogging. This network features a plurality of voices and views supporting democratic culture and debate in Sub-Saharan Africa and provides fact-based information and diversity of opinion by encouraging open debate on matters not adequately covered by traditional media.
To further explore how the media can be a guardian of democratic values and multilateral institutions KAS New York welcomed bloggers from Africa Blogging, hailing from Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa and Senegal to New York.
Talks were held with relevant UN agencies such as the Spokesperson’s Office of the Secretary-General, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Women, the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), the Department of Peace Operations (DPO), the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate as well as with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Security Council Report, the UN Correspondent's Association, WITNESS, ProPublica and AccessNow.
Some key takeaways from the meetings include:
- Impunity. According to UNESCO’s World Trends report on Freedom of Expression and Media Development, 9 in 10 cases of crimes against journalists remain unpunished, this includes killings. The vast majority of victims are journalists and bloggers operating in local settings. A helpful resource is CPJ's 2018 Global Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free. The UN Plan of Action on the safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity includes an impunity accountability mechanism, which requests countries to report the status of murder cases.
- Laws. Several legal provisions including defamation, insult, blasphemy and lèse-majesté laws give governments grounds to prosecute journalists and bloggers whose editorial freedom they want to restrict. These laws often result in self-censorship and their application inhibits real public debate on the conduct of public officials and government performance.
- Harassment. Journalists and bloggers are facing growing digital threats including cyberattacks, surveillance, hacking, intimidation and rise in online harassment, especially of women journalists. Here the global media and advocacy community looks to Silicon Valley and other tech hubs which need to step up their response to prohibit threats in private messages as well as public displays of hate speech.
- Funding. As print news is slowly dying and cash flow through digital media often takes a certain level of expertise or at least time to grow the media’s traditional business models are disrupted and its dependence on government and corporate subsidies increases. As funding from the government and other interest groups can cause a bias and loss of impartiality a consequence can be diminishing public trust. Funding streams that don’t restrict editorial freedom are therefore vital for sustainable media revenue models. This can include anything from public fundraising, transactional models, advertising, civil society donations, subscription-based models and others.
- Shutdown. To control dissent and freedom of speech, an ever increasing number of governments choose to take the drastic step of switching their country’s internet access off. According to AccessNow the number of global internet shutdowns increased from 75 in 2016, to 108 in 2017, to 188 in 2018. These are often preemptive or reactive measures to public protest, during elections or after a government scandal. A helpful resource is the Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP), created by AccessNow intended to record global internet disruptions.
Perhaps the most important take away is for the public to remain seized on the working environments of journalists and bloggers who risk their lives daily to provide fact-based information. Killed journalists can’t be forgotten; tech companies need to be held accountable for the spread of fake news and online harassment; impunity is unacceptable; and every attempt at deliberate internet shutdowns should be recorded and called out internationally. Although we’ve been spoiled with free content online, understanding the shrinking space of journalists and bloggers to do their work might also mean recognizing that fact-based news is worth paying for. Until then, independent blogs like Africa Blogging remain an indispensable contribution to access of quality information, diversity of opinion and democratic values.