Johannesburg launch of UNESCO’s report on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development-Special Digital Focus 2015

The old Women’s Gaol Atrium at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, hosted on 17 November 2015, the launch of UNESCO’s report on “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development-Special Digital Focus 2015”. The report explores emerging opportunities and challenges for press freedom in the digital age, with a focus on online hate speech, protection of journalism sources, the role of internet intermediaries in fostering freedom online, and safety of journalists. The event brought together about 40 media lecturers, media researchers, free expression defenders and journalism promoters from South Africa.

Hezekiel Dlamini, Adviser for Communication and Information at the UNESCO Regional Office for Southern Africa (Harare) opened the event with an overview of the report. In his presentation, Mr Dlamini highlighted that “The issue of source protection has come to intersect with the issues of mass surveillance, targeted surveillance, data retention, the spill-over effects of antiterrorism/national security legislation, and the role of third party internet intermediaries. Legal and regulatory protections for journalists’ sources are increasingly at risk of erosion, restriction and compromise”.

Prof. Eric Louw, University of Queensland, (Australia) and Prof. Ylva Rodny-Gumede, University of Johannesburg (South Africa) were the two discussants at the launch, and presented their observations on the report.

Prof. Louw noted that “You can’t believe the amount of surveillance that is taking place. A legal response, suggesting national laws that should be in place to protect journalists, whistle blowers, etc and transnational codes of conduct are unlikely to make any difference in this, because of the national and international interest in surveillance.  The solution may be to train journalists to expect that they will be monitored, as well as their sources. So journalists have to do their job in a different way and train their whistle-blowers to also do things differently”.

Prof. Rodny-Gumede observed that this was “a comprehensive report with various statistical data” and commended UNESCO for including data on gender. She highlighted that “In South Africa, for instance the law against hate-speech has come a long way, but still you see hate-speech online because perpetrators believe they will get away with it”.

Participants observed that indeed media laws and codes of practice were not adequate to protect journalists and their sources on the digital space. They suggested that media organizations should engage in dialogue with internet intermediaries to explore ways of enhancing protection online.

The launch was organized in collaboration with Dr. Julie Reid of the Department of Communication Science at the University of South Africa and leader of the Media Policy and Democracy Project of the South African Communications Association (SACOMM).