A stronger right to seek and receive information, but more curbs on the right to impart, says new UNESCO study


Christian Leffler, Deputy Secretary-General of the European External Action Service; Alice Bah Kuhnke, Swedish Minister for Culture and Democracy; and Frank La Rue, Assistant Director-General of for Communication and Information of UNESCO
08 November 2017

UNESCO unveiled the key findings of the World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: Global Report 2017/2018, to its 195 Member States at a side event to the Organization’s General Conference this week.

Among the major media trends over the past five years identified by this study are:

  • A stronger right to seek and receive information, but more restrictions on the right to impart. 
  • More plurality of information, but no change in gender inequality in and through the media.
  • Strains on business models mean more dependence on outside influence, although media institutions – as well as Internet companies – are giving greater attention to self-regulatory standards.
  • Growing attacks on journalists – a trend that may have been even worse if it were not for the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

These key findings of the UNESCO World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: Global Report 2017/2018 were presented alongside the Communication and Information Commission of the 39th session of the General Conference.

In their opening remarks, Assistant Director-General Frank La Rue; Swedish Minister for Culture and Democracy, Ms Alice Bah Kuhnke; and Deputy Secretary-General of the European External Action Service, Mr Christian Leffler, spoke about the importance of press freedom and the safety of journalists.

UNESCO’s Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Mr Guy Berger, presented the study’s key findings to an audience of over 150 Member State representatives, civil society activists and academics. Mr Berger emphasized the unique scope of the study, and highlighted the link between freedom of expression and media development in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The World Trends Report analyzes developments across the four key focus areas of media freedom, pluralism, independence and the safety of journalists since 2012.

Over the period, large internet companies have emerged as key platforms for individuals to access news and information, while also facilitating the proliferation of unverified news across their networks. Assessing this issue, Swedish Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke called for efforts to boost media and information literacy to counteract propaganda and disinformation.

“Now more than ever, critical thinking and source criticism are so important to see through the façade of false information,” she said.

Tunisian journalist and media expert, Ms Chadia Khedir, moderated an expert panel who commented on the significance of trends within the World Trends Report’s key focus areas.

Zoe Titus, Strategic Coordinator at the Namibia Media Trust, argued that the “single greatest challenge to media pluralism on the African continent is financial sustainability and independence of the media.”

The long-time activist for freedom of expression urged policymakers to prioritize the rights of citizens. She emphasized that the establishment of a sustainable and vibrant media is not just for the good of the media, but for the benefit of the broader public in their ability to access information. 

Marius Dragomir, Director of the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University, highlighted the systemic underrepresentation of women in the media as a key factor undermining media pluralism.

Quoting the Global Media Monitoring Project, the World Trends Report highlights that only one in three reporters and only one in four media decision-makers are women. Moreover, the ongoing issue of online harassment of women journalists can have a chilling effect on women working in the media, further detracting from media pluralism. 

Carlos Lauria, Head of the Free and Safe Journalism programme at Open Society Foundations, stressed the importance of joint action. He called for greater coordination among Member States, the media, academia and civil society to ensure a safe and enabling environment for journalists. Increased collaboration among key stakeholders has been a significant and positive outcome of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

For Lauria, “journalists who come together to push back against violence would prove to be one very effective weapon against those who want to silence them.” 

UNESCO’s Chief of Section for Freedom of Expression, Sylvie Coudray, concluded the session by underlining the opportunity the World Trends Report provides to exchange views among stakeholders and promote debate at the national level and among national policymakers around the world. 

In noting that 2018 will be the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Ms Coudray stated, “the promotion freedom of expression is as indispensable as ever.”

The Government of Sweden supported the World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: Global Report 2017/2018. UNESCO will further disseminate the study’s findings through regional seminars supported by the Government of Norway in collaboration with Oslo and Akershus University College.

The full study will be published in December alongside the Internet Governance Forum, which will be held in Geneva from 18 to 21 December 2017.