Global Conference for Media Freedom: Summary of regional consultations in Europe
- On October 15, 2020, Canada hosted virtual regional consultations for the second Global Conference for Media Freedom, encompassing 16 journalists, academics and civil society participants from Europe. Discussions took place under the Chatham House Rule.
- Participants agreed that the state of media freedom is increasingly precarious, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.
- Regional threats to media freedom include political interference, market concentration (particularly in the hands of government-friendly oligarchs), lack of artificial intelligence knowledge and media literacy, and discrimination, all of which have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
COVID-19 and media freedom
There was unanimous agreement that COVID-19 only further reinforced and highlighted long-standing negative trends in the media environment. COVID-19 has led to the greatest public demand for information but also a great loss in public trust.
The pandemic has increased financial distress for already vulnerable media outlets. Participants noted that it has also encouraged certain governments to implement broad application of disinformation laws that deliberately or inadvertently targeted independent media. Governments have increasingly failed to provide information or in some cases have deliberately manipulated information. In some cases, journalists seeking information on COVID-19 have faced harassment campaigns.
Given these circumstances, media in the region faces a precarious balance of public service reporting (such as encouraging compliance with government measures) and investigative reporting (such as challenging government performance). In regions such as Eastern Europe, independent media’s lack of expertise in public health has occasionally resulted in inadvertent reporting of false information. This, in turn, has undermined their credibility and left them open to government prosecution.
Artificial intelligence, digital technology and media freedom
Participants noted that artificial intelligence (AI) content appears increasingly authentic, and neither media workers nor audiences possess competencies to recognize AI-driven output. They emphasized that the flood of fake news poses a real danger to societies and makes gatekeeping important. Participants also noted that problems have arisen because social media giants police information and not all governments will regulate fairly. Low-tech information manipulation to produce fake news poses as great a risk as AI in its ability to spread false or dangerous information.
Several speakers warned that social media companies and autocratic governments have the funds and know-how to use AI and algorithms to promote selected information and reduce the space for critical and independent journalism. Governments have also used targeted mass reporting of articles to take down social media content. In contrast, independent journalists often lack the skill set to know how to use algorithms to their benefit, putting them at a further disadvantage.
In addition, many journalists are unable to recognize copyrighted content due to low digital literacy, exposing them to targeted prosecution. Privacy and anonymity of sources is being put at increased risk. Financial pressure combined with lack of knowledge has led to the prevalence of pirated software, which is vulnerable to hacking. Lack of encryption knowledge can put sources at risk if journalists’ computers are seized. The criminalization of encryption technology and web anonymity has put investigative journalism and the protection of sources at risk.
Political manipulation and financial pressure
Participants noted that not all government action to undermine independent media is overt. Financial weakness can leave media open to influence by external actors. Some Eastern European governments have successfully “re-nationalized” media by investing in and consolidating struggling media outlets while also preventing amalgamation and blocking foreign funding for critical independent media. While the EU has strong laws that protect media freedom, journalists in Eastern European states often do not understand these protections or how to use them.
Social media giants are also exerting pressure by monopolizing advertising revenue. Anonymous portals spreading disinformation, including foreign-government-supported efforts, are attracting advertising revenues away from serious newsrooms.
In some cases, publicly funded broadcasting can offer media financial security and independence. Participants highlighted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as an example of a well-trusted broadcaster that has managed the digital change on a relatively small budget.
Violence and threats against vulnerable groups
Beyond physical threat, many journalists and particularly women, minority and LGTBQ2I journalists are at risk in the digital realm. Coordinated smear campaigns using social media can damage the reputation of journalists and weaken their credibility. Online attacks against female and minority journalists can lead to self-censorship and result in a loss of diverse voices. Cyber-bullying against female journalists is exacerbated by a lack of security training for journalists and weak responses from the justice system. Some participants argued that hate speech, particularly against the LGBT2QI community or racialized groups, needs to be redefined to better tackle activities not covered by existing laws.
Participants recommended several actions to increase media freedom in the European region:
- Global solutions for some media freedom challenges require local, targeted implementation.
- Governments must face political pressure to refrain from practices that negatively impact independent media.
- The EU and democratic governments must address the suffocation of media freedom within the union and in neighbouring states, such as the Western Balkans.
- Major software providers should be convinced to extend or launch programs providing free software to independent media, decreasing reliance on insecure tools.
- Access to credible news is essential to uphold pluralism. International funding mechanisms should be developed that provide support to media, and particularly investigative journalism, without affecting their independence.
- Funding should also promote digital literacy and help small, independent media become better able to function in the AI-dominated social media environment.
- The role of social media giants in determining how advertising revenue is distributed and in shaping available content online must be addressed. Many participants noted that advertising revenues should be shared between producers of original content (often traditional media) and multipliers (social media).
- Canada and the EU should lead the development of AI regulations that strike a balance between over-regulating and under-regulating. The Toronto Citizen Lab exemplifies interdisciplinary research at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights and global security.
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