Threats to Media Sustainability and Freedom of Expression in the Digital Era
This post originally appeared on The GNI Medium in a series on freedom of expression in the digital era reflecting on the this year’s World Press Freedom Day.
Journalists and the news media industry as a whole face unprecedented threats in the changing information environment — economic and market challenges, increasing distrust and denigration of their work, and new forms of digital repression — that are often overlooked in today’s regulatory conversations. Especially now with the perfect storm of disinformation, market destabilization, digital repression of critical voices, and the disruption of our daily lives caused by the COVID-19 crisis, the situation facing journalism and news media is dire. The need to address these challenges are what led us at the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), an international network of journalism support and media development organizations, to work with our members and partners to establish the Dynamic Coalition on the Sustainability of Journalism and News Media (DC-Sustainability). The DC-Sustainability is an open, multi-stakeholder initiative operating within the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) that already includes multiple Global Network Initiative (GNI) members, and seeks to work more with GNI via GFMD to promote one of our core shared concerns: protecting our online information ecosystems by promoting human rights, press freedom, and access to information.
While the Internet has opened up a world of possibilities for citizens’ empowerment and information exchange, allowing independent content producers the ability to reach a global audience of millions if not billions, it has also created myriad threats to information ecosystems and freedom of expression. In the area of press freedom in particular, the global trends are disturbingly negative. In the 2019 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows “growing animosity towards journalists” by governments in all regions of the world, contributing to fear, silencing, and violence. “The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline, while authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media,” RSF added. Freedom House offered a similarly gloomy assessment in its 2019 Freedom of the Media analysis, stressing that media freedom has deteriorated around the world over the past decade, with new forms of repression taking hold in open societies and authoritarian states alike.
For examples of how this manifests, look no further than the digital sphere. The Internet is essential to contemporary journalism and dissenting voices, especially investigative and cross-border journalism networks that rely on information sharing across continents to expose corruption and wrongdoing, as well as communicate invaluable information to the public in times of crisis such as with the current pandemic. Yet, repressive actions such as government use of digital tools to monitor journalists and their sources undermine journalism as well as divert resources that could be used for new storytelling to ensure the privacy, safety, and security of journalists and media workers. Instead, such actions generate chilling effects via legal and regulatory manipulation, abusing antiterror or similar legislation to quell dissent and censor political speech, or suppressing vital information relevant to public health. State-sponsored or encouraged harassment has also become the bane of many news outlets’ existence, especially small and local ones. Add to this multiple new and evolving challenges, from data breaches to the proliferation of third-party surveillance technologies.
In addition, media independence is waning. Media capture, where governments and centers of power use media systems for their own interest, is on the rise, for instance, which is compounded as the market landscape for financially sustaining and monetizing independent and trustworthy news media is faltering. With falling revenues and fewer journalists, we are seeing the emergence of “news deserts,” with entire communities and regions bereft of any meaningful coverage ranging from the rural United States to communities across Colombia and Latin America. These trends have severely affected the role of journalists, and are leading to unforeseen consequences for the future of both developed and emerging democracies. Not only does the lack of professional journalism impact our ability to access high-quality information, but it inherently erodes the very foundations of democratic societies. See, for instance, the vicious cycle of undermining credible journalism that is not optimized for social media platform algorithms, or which is simply drowned out by bots, trolls, and malicious actors who exploit such algorithms to spread disinformation and disrupt information ecosystems — as more resources must then be devoted to combating such phenomena. What is also not so obvious in an age where authoritarian attacks on press freedom have insidiously filtered into mainstream discourse, is that critical information in the time of crises or humanitarian disasters as well as problematic political developments like Internet shutdowns and election interference is paramount. The lack of public-interest journalism and trust damages society at-large by enabling the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation, and endangering access to critical, high-quality information. Therefore, there is a pressing need for multi-stakeholder actions that address the core problems and not just the symptoms of decline, such as what the DC-Sustainability aims to accomplish.
The previously described challenges are only exacerbated by one of — if not the — most critical challenge currently facing the journalism and news media sector: financial sustainability and economic viability. It is important to recognize that lesser alternatives to independent and sustainable local and investigative journalism intrinsically risk press freedom, access to information, and freedom of expression since not all information is created equally. While someone can create an informative, ten-minute-long YouTube video in a few hours that receives a million views, an investigative report running for the same duration needs time, resources, and much more to produce a serious piece of journalism. If journalism and news media organizations cannot meet their basic financial needs or must increasingly redirect precious resources to safeguard themselves from troll farms, botnets, platform algorithms, and content demonetization, it is an even greater lift to address the countless other concerns journalists face — from safety to muzzling press freedom.
The media industry is one of many economic sectors that are disrupted by the Internet economy, and global debates taking place within legislatures, regulatory agencies, and policy circles are considering the wider impact that the digital economy, government regulation, and digital platform policy have on society. Yet, these debates often overlook or minimize journalism and news media, and the implications of digital platforms’ market power on access to high-quality news content. Thus, any serious effort to address the mounting problems plaguing digital platforms — from misinformation and hate speech, to content takedowns and violent and extremist content — must also prioritize their impact on and the challenges faced by journalism and the news media sector. In other words, content-related issues must also be seen within the wider context of market-related challenges, while clearly distinguishing content regulation from market regulation.
With the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the ensuing economic fallout, journalism and news media have never been more vulnerable. For them to thrive, it is essential to strengthen democratic governance and safeguard an environment that is conducive to producing high-quality, fact-based information. To foster independent and pluralistic media ecosystems that counter disinformation, local and independent journalism and news media sustainability must be a priority. This means that we have to fight for our information ecosystems and for public-interest media. Our advocacy via the DC-Sustainability and GFMD’s larger network and programs allows us to amplify journalism and news media voice within digital policy spaces while shaping policy agendas to prioritize the current threats. On this upcoming World Press Freedom Day, we mark the anniversary of an ongoing struggle to preserve everyone’s right to access information, protect the individuals on the front lines who work tirelessly to help keep the public informed, and celebrate one of the bedrocks of our democracies: free, independent, and pluralistic media.
Stay strong and well in this time of crisis!
Mira Milosevic & Michael J. Oghia