Emerging digital trends in freedom of expression presented at 12th Internet Governance Forum

22 December 2017

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Irina Drexler

UNESCO presented the key findings of the World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: Global Report 2017/2018, at the 12th annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which was held in Geneva, Switzerland from 18 to 21 December 2017.

On Day 4 of the IGF, 21 December, UNESCO brought together media experts and civil society organizations to discuss recent developments in freedom of expression and media development worldwide, particularly emerging digital trends, such as the rise in internet shutdowns, the impact of algorithms on diversity of content, and the production, circulation and responses to so-called ‘fake news’ (misinformation or disinformation).

Since its first edition was published in 2014, UNESCO's flagship series on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development has offered a critical analysis of the new trends in media freedom, pluralism, independence and the safety of journalists.

Anna Karefelt, representative of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), which supported the 2017/2018 Report through the project “Promoting Democracy and Freedom of Expression", opened the session. Ms Karefelt stressed the importance of monitoring trends in media development, both off-line and online, and calling for more comprehensive approaches to countering media crackdowns, which “only contribute to hindering freedom of expression and threaten an open, human rights-based internet.”

Guilherme Canela Godoi, Advisor in Communication and Information in the UNESCO Office in Montevideo, gave an overview of the major media trends over the past five years identified in the report. These include a stronger right to seek and receive information, but more curbs on the right to impart information; growing attacks against journalists; and more plurality of information, but persistent gender inequality.

Talking about the increasing number of internet shutdowns and its impact on media freedom, Florence Poznanski, Head of desk of Brazil Chapter from Internet sans frontières, warned that shutdowns affect more than those producing news. “We're talking about the entire society, people receiving information, people who are citizens who need to communicate and think in order to interact in society,” Ms Poznanski said.

Tackling the effects of algorithms and the rise of so-called ‘fake news’ on media pluralism, Cláudio Lucena, Professor at Paraíba State University in Brazil, explained that traditionally, people who wanted to control and manipulate information found that it was always operationally difficult and costly. However, with the advent of social media and its impact on access to content, he added, “those people have spotted this opportunity and finally overcome the two obstacles. They can scale, and it is less costly.”

Speaking about emerging challenges to media independence and the work of independent journalists and media workers, Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now, raised the role of internet companies.

“We see that more and more, journalism is being distributed through and produced by intermediaries, including the largest internet platforms,” Mr Micek observed. He stated the the increased pressure on these companies has led to over censorship and that better legal frameworks are needed.

Bishakha Datta, Executive Director of Point of View, expressed her concern about the safety of journalists, in light of the trend of increased online harassment against women journalists.

“[Online violence] takes away our freedom of expression at a very fundamental level. Online violence cannot be seen as a silo any longer, but as critically connected to freedom of expression and something that governments, internet users and media must address.”

Finally, referring to global developments in Internet governance, Thomas Schneider, Director of International Relations of the Swiss Federal Office of Communication (OFCOM), drew attention to the recommendations from the Council of Europe regarding the safety of journalists, internet freedom, media pluralism, and liability of internet intermediaries.

The full report on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development will be published in January 2017.

The Executive Summary of the World Trends Report at: https://en.unesco.org/world-media-trends-2017