UNESCO’s report on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development was the focus of a lively discussion at the annual conference of the International Association of Media and Communication Research, held in Oregon, USA, last week.
Six academics from six countries compared the report’s global trends to those in their localities. They also gave insight into what trends might be expected to intensify over the coming five years.
Speaking on the panel were: Robin Mansell, London School of Economics; Ramon Tuazon, Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication; Aimee Vega Montiel, National Autonomous University of Mexico; Manisha Pathak-Shelat, MICA; Levi Obonyo, Daystar University; and Olunifesi Adekunle Suraj, University of Lagos.
Among the outcomes of the discussion were strong expressions of interest by the participants to integrate the UNESCO Report into courses at their respective universities.
A summary of the Report was presented by UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger. “The analysis covers four parts of the media environment that impact on the present and future of journalism,” he said.
“These four cover the issues of media Freedom, Independence, Safety and How much pluralism exists – summarized in the acronym F.I.S.H.”.
Among the expert comments that followed were several dealing with the “F” - about Report’s signaling of a trend of declining media freedom in global terms. Speakers validated this trend, but elaborated that it was just a result of governmental issues, but also of less overt restrictions imposed by political ownership of media as well rising social thuggery – both of which cause self-censorship.
At the same time, speakers said, the positive trend of ever-more freedom-of-information laws being passed, needed to be considered in terms of actual implementation and impact, it was argued.
Regarding “I”, the point was made by one expert that while independence of media was often weak at the national level, online media produced by the diaspora could help to compensate.
Safety in media is being compounded by the evolving “ecosystem of violence against journalists” and the lack of public awareness of the issue, commented a panelist.
Concerning “H” – trends in how much media choice there is - it was noted that growth in ICT access is strongly enhancing linguistic diversity, especially in entertainment content. However, the plurality of options is going hand in hand with mounting expressions of intolerance and polarization.
Addressing the media-gender trends outlined in the UNESCO report, a speaker highlighted the issue of inequalities in terms of men continuing to disproportionately hold positions of power in the media. A lack of investment in gender-disaggregated media statistics was noted.
In overview, it was suggested by one participant that the trends in the UNESCO Report should be conceptualized within a picture of increasingly centralized power. Future attention should be paid to the impacts of 5G telecoms, artificial intelligence and machine learning, which could further weaken media business models.
The next edition of the World Trends Report should look at trends in investment in Media and Information Literacy, it was further suggested.
From the audience, a strong appeal was made to assess future trends in F.I.S.H. more deeply by using a political economy approach. This would help explain the capture of media by special interests, the role of internet companies as regards advertising, and “the poisoning of the well” in online expression.
A powerful message was also delivered that “UNESCO and academia need to understand young people better” if future trends in media and freedom of expression are to be accurately predicted going ahead.