Trends in Media Freedom

Rapid political, technological and economic transformations during the period of this study have placed new strains on media freedom. The rise of new forms of political populism as well as what have been seen as authoritarian policies are important developments. Citing a range of reasons, including national security, governments are increasingly monitoring and also requiring the take down of information online, in many cases not only relating to hate speech and content seen to encourage violent extremism, but also what has been seen as legitimate political positioning. The growing centrality of the internet in communications, and the accompanying role and influence  of powerful internet platforms operating across borders, have drawn the attention of courts and governments seeking to regulate these intermediaries, with risks to online expression.
While there has been much discussion of how new media expand freedoms and communications by actors beyond the media, there are also increasing incursions into privacy and an expansion of mass and arbitrary surveillance. These are seen to raise threats to journalistic source protection and to public confidence in privacy, which the UN has recognized is an enabler of freedom of expression. Furthermore, there has been significant increase in blocking and filtering of online content and a rising trend of large-scale shutdowns of entire social media websites, mobile networks or national internet access. The UN Human Rights Council (in A/HRC/32/L.20) ‘unequivocally condemned’ such practices, as representing disproportionate restrictions of freedom of expression and the right to access information, and which have significant social, political and economic impacts. In all this, the traditional limited legal liability for internet companies for content generated by their users, and which has generally been a positive factor for the free flow of information, is coming under strain. While still distinct from media companies that do produce most of their content, internet companies’ gatekeeping roles are coming under the spotlight. Questions of their standards related to privacy and to freedom of expression and their transparency policies, not least with algorithmic processing, are being put on the agenda by many actors and for various reasons. In some cases, the companies are criticized for how they are seen sometimes to limit journalistic content, and how, because of their logic of ‘attention economics,’ they may relegate such content to a level of prominence that presents it as equivalent to other information that does not meet professional standards of verifiability. In other cases, the companies are perceived as opportune targets for what may be seen as politically driven rhetoric that simplistically blames them—and the internet—for particular social ills, and calls for a more active role in terms of limiting content. The proportionality and necessity of such limits, and risks to legitimate expression, are sidelined.
Recent Gallup polls of residents in 131 countries across all regions have suggested that there is a general perception of declining media freedoms across many countries. At the same time, however, media freedom remains recognized and valued by people around the world. Another positive development is that the right to access information gained increased recognition through inclusion of Target 16.10 to ‘ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements’ in the Sustainable Development Goals. The 2015 UNESCO General Conference proclaimed 28 September as the International Day for Universal Access to Information (38 C/70). The number of Member States with freedom of information laws has risen to 112, with especially strong growth in the Africa and Asia-Pacific regions. At the same time, there is also much to be done globally to improve awareness of such laws and their implementation. Accessibility (covering affordability, linguistic diversity, gender-sensitivity, and media and information literacy) has also been recognized as a foundational component of ‘Internet Universality’, a UNESCO concept endorsed in 2015 that promotes an internet that is human Rightsbased, Open, Accessible and Multi-stakeholder (known as the ‘ROAM’ principles). In 2017, UNESCO embarked on a wide consultation to develop indicators for assessing these principles at the  national level.


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