Media councils taking up the challenges of online journalism

By Ljiljana Zurovac


© UNESCO

In discussions held on media councils and online media as part of the UNESCO project “Media Accountability in South East Europe and Turkey”, we identified two main challenges linked to online portals.

The first challenge is that anyone can write anything, as there are no legislative measures that require a portal to employ professional journalists or exercise editorial control. This makes it almost impossible to track down certain newsmakers, and thus portals claim to have no responsibility for any misinformation, hate speech or misleading content that they publish, or for news that has been directly copied from other sources.

The second challenge is even greater, that of user-generated content. Such content can be both a powerful agent that gives voice to the community, but also a tool of provocation, hate speech and a platform for lynch mob behaviour.

Journalists today can be subjects to not only political oppression, but also to a form of censorship that comes from communities they are trying to address.  In the ’old media’, where communication was mainly one-way, public opinion was filtered through many channels before it would affect the work of a journalist. Today, the two-way communication of the internet and the direct exposure of journalists to public opinion can have a direct and immediate impact on their careers. In situations where public opinion becomes ‘mob opinion’, the very lives of journalists can be at stake.

While there are ways to regulate the first issue related to platform liability, things become much more complicated once we talk about user-generated content in comments sections.

Language is the window to human behaviour. This becomes very clear once applied to freedom of expression related to user-generated content published in web portals. The introduction of free expression gives us insight into the culture, education, literacy, behaviour and intellectual standards of a certain area.

Freedom of expression is essentially the freedom to think freely, to have an opinion of one's own and to speak this opinion out loud with no fear of social or political repercussions. However, this opens a question we all must ask: How free is a mind that had spent decades under a dictatorship? How free is a mind shaped by societies that promote, or have promoted in the past, bigotry, racism, violence and hate? And more importantly: What form will freedom of expression take in a society that had never before had a culture of free expression?

Hate speech is not always intended as such. More often than not, it is a mirror of societies’ own lack of literacy and inability, due to lack of know-how, to phrase thoughts or frustrations in a coherent and decent manner.

So how can we counter this?

Introducing or ‘enforcing’ freedom of expression is not the answer in and of itself. Education is one of the keys. So is improving the economic situation of the poor. Those who are the least educated and the most economically disadvantaged are the ones most prone to use hate speech, often to defend the very establishment that had put them in such a frustrating position. They tend to direct this frustration on whoever is portrayed as the enemy, be it individuals of other religions, nations, gender, etc.

But hate speech is not endemic to social classes of lower education or socio-economic status. Members of the middle and upper social class are prone to it as well, although as the educational level rises, hate speech becomes manipulative speech. This opens the possibility for misinformation, false interpretations and the twisting of facts that can entice the already frustrated and uneducated ‘mob’ to take certain false information to heart, and to act upon it – often in a violent manner.

Education is perhaps the most important tool for raising standards of freedom of expression in a given society and of raising the professional standards of the media. A person who is taught to inquire, to analyse and to learn, while maintaining a healthy regard for themselves and an egalitarian, humanistic approach to the society they live in is a person who will think freely and thus speak freely, especially against the status quo that prevents them and their social environment from moving forward.

I strongly believe that it is important for today’s journalists to raise their own standards of reporting and for editors to improve the content of their media outlets, to provide more opportunities for intercultural dialogue, scientific (but playful) educational programmes and articles, and objective explorations of other lifestyles and worldviews.

Online portals, just as any other media, are responsible for this guidance. They can, and have a duty to, set the general tone and professional standards for reporting and expression in their respective publications. 

- Ljiljana Zurovac, Executive Director, Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina