Advocates of free speech and media freedom are working hard to ensure the media we consume every day is capable of informing us as well as debating with us, capable of carrying out investigations, and resilient enough to hold officials to account for their actions.
Yet the challenges are considerable. Media are doing this work in a rapidly evolving landscape: platforms and apps, print publications and radio, TV and digital broadcast outlets. And across this media space, evidence is mounting that there is the opportunity to contribute to what we call ‘information for public good’. But so much is at risk and in trouble, including support for independent journalism. Why?
The answer from many working on this issue is that these efforts must be backed up by government policy, and by law.
“No matter their business model, either commercial or publicly-funded, the sustainability of media that are capable of producing reliable and accurate information will inevitably require an enabling legal and regulatory framework,” says Pierre François Docquir, Head of Media Freedom at ARTICLE 19.
“States have a duty to enact laws that create an environment where media can develop freely and independently. Pluralism and diversity in the media landscape is one of the best approaches to issues of disinformation.”
Thirty years ago, media freedom advocates came together to establish the Windhoek Declaration on the safety of journalists. The landmark commitment called for global support for free, independent media and announced that “States should be proactive in protecting journalists and advancing opportunities for citizens to exercise freedom of expression”.
For World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) 2021, ARTICLE 19, along with activists, journalists and legal experts, look back on Windhoek to reflect on the achievements the declaration has helped secure, examine current priorities, and assess the challenges ahead. Two journalists — one from Cambodia and and another from Kenya, both of whom ARTICLE 19 has worked with — also contribute to the discussion.
The sustainability of online media is a regular subject of debate, not least because of the role it has played in spreading disinformation. The Freedom Online Coalition, of which ARTICLE 19 is a member, hosted a discussion about tackling online disinformation and promoting freedom online.
Taking a look at country-specific initiatives to tackle media sustainability, ARTICLE 19’s regional offices in Bangladesh and Brazil will coordinate a range of WPFD events. These include social media initiatives and webinar discussions on how protecting journalists can improve media sustainability.
During the first week of May, ARTICLE 19 will publish findings about joint work with BBC Media Action on Bangladesh and South Asia, and on violence against journalists in Kenya. Prior to World Press Freedom Day, Sigi Waigumo Mwanzia, Mugambi Kiai and Winfred Gakii from the Eastern African team looked at a range of issues that affect media sustainability in Kenya, including the need to overhaul defamation laws; the need to protect freedom of expression on digital platforms; and the absence of women in Kenyan media.
COVID-19 response challenges media at every level
“In the current times, due to the COVID-19 crisis and the digital evolution of media, the question of providing funds to media through public advertising or state subsidies is all the more acute,” says ARTICLE 19’s Pierre François Docquir.
“Such funding needs to be organised very clearly in law, allocation must be transparent and audited, and there needs to be important safeguards that ensure that public money isn’t used to undermine the independence and freedom of media beneficiaries. But shouldn’t the same questions also be asked when funding comes from tech giants in the form of philanthropy?”
During 2020, COVID-19 was a key issue for press freedom because the impact of the pandemic saw human rights compromised in almost every sphere of life. As part of WPFD, ARTICLE 19 took part in “Emergency Measures to Support Media Hit by COVID-19,” a review of media around the world during the pandemic, with specific focus on Congo, Nigeria and Guinea.
As part of a consortium, ARTICLE 19 assessed the information made available to the public during the pandemic and what support the media received to make sure its work was viable. It looked at a range of questions such as: what was the media’s relationship with governments during the crisis? How did media engage with the health sector and how effectively did media fact-check the information the public received? How did the media raise awareness of the experiences and needs of marginalised communities?
In addition to the three African countries highlighted, the session also discussed experiences in several Latin American countries, including Haiti. ARTICLE 19 also highlighted its work with Meedan running fact-checking workshops throughout 2021, and during the discussion six organisations based in Sub-Saharan countries were identified as eligible to join the project.
ARTICLE 19 will also be hosting an event with three Special Rapporteurs for free expression, focusing on the right to information and its role in equipping people with the tools they need to actively participate in civil society. Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Teresa Ribeiro, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and Pedro Vaca Villarreal, Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), will join Quinn McKew, Executive Director for ARTICLE 19, in conversation. The Special Rapporteurs will each look at freedom of information from the perspective of their mandates and the session will also hear from the free speech community about experiences of promoting and pursuing the right to know.
The right to information has long been upheld as a cornerstone of a transparent and accountable government because it enables individuals to find out what is happening within governments, expose corruption, and have more say in the way they are governed.
The goal of a sustainable and strong media should be the focus of all governments and regulatory bodies. It should be the goal of every person who relies on information to run their homes and livelihoods, access health information, and exercise their right to vote. Protecting journalists, and protecting a free media are the keys to achieving that goal.
For the advocates working with ARTICLE 19 for sustainable media and the protection of journalists we hope that World Press Freedom Day shines a light on the reasons why.
You can find out more about the World Press Freedom Day programme.