Global Conference for Media Freedom: Summary of regional consultations in Latin America
- On October 14, 2020, Canada hosted virtual regional consultations for the second Global Conference for Media Freedom, encompassing 19 journalists, academics and civil society participants from the Latin America and Caribbean region. Discussions took place under the Chatham House Rule.
- Participants spoke of emerging challenges, including increased polarization, inequality in access to information, increased government efforts to discredit journalists, weakening business models and the widespread use of digital technologies, particularly during the COVID‑19 pandemic.
- Prominent themes included increased restrictions on freedom of expression and lack of transparency and potential “misuse” of data by digital technologies related to artificial intelligence (AI).
COVID‑19 and media freedom
Under the pretext of responding to an unprecedented health crisis, participants noted that most governments in the region quickly moved to centralize information, limit access to data and control the official narrative. A staggering proportion of journalists have reported restrictions, obstructions in accessing information (often from governmental sources) and intimidation. Many participants referred to increased indirect censorship that will be difficult to reverse post-COVID-19. They noted that the pandemic has highlighted the precariousness of institutional mechanisms to guarantee people’s right to information.
Participants also highlighted increased violence faced by journalists during the pandemic. Sometimes targeted with hostile language by political leaders, journalists are now considered by many as “enemies of the state,” leaving them in vulnerable and unsafe conditions. This has led several outlets to downsize and reduce investigative work. The pandemic has also worsened existing patterns of exclusion of Indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities. In some cases, the absence of relevant content in Indigenous languages has had a detrimental impact on Indigenous communities’ right to health.
Many participants also denounced the rise of disinformation during the pandemic: some governments used disinformation as a strategy to weaken scrutiny of public health policies, although the phenomenon increasingly involves several different actors and factors. Regional studies have indicated that national and subnational governments alike are often at the root of the problem, generating false or confusing information on the state of the crisis.
Artificial intelligence, digital technology and media freedom
Participants agreed that widespread use of digital technologies has significantly changed the media landscape, posing emerging challenges. They criticized the opacity in which digital platforms present data to their users. While new policies attempt to control the spread of disinformation, the growing use of algorithms has increased the removal or blocking of legitimate content and the suspension of accounts with little transparency or accountability. This is particularly worrying in Latin America, where digital technologies at times have censored and silenced dissent.
Some participants spoke about the potential “misuse” of data that digital technologies have allowed. One organization spoke of the “temptation” that these digital technologies have created to use mass surveillance to violate the right to privacy in the absence of clear safeguards.
Experts also decried restrictions to accessibility—what many experts call “the digital gap.” In a region with a large portion of the population living in remote and rural areas, access to information can be difficult. However, participants also highlighted the positive aspects of the use of digital technologies in media, seeing them as a “catalyst” for a wider dissemination of information and democratization of media.
Violence and threats of violence against media workers
Violence against journalists remains a worrying concern in Latin America, and the region has among the highest murder rates of journalists in the world. Some participants argued that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated violence toward journalists, with many governments using hostile rhetoric against those wanting to access data.
Verbal abuse and harassment on social networks have become problematic, often leading to self-censorship by journalists. Indeed, some have reduced their presence on social networks to avoid harassment and attacks. While most participants noted increasing violence against journalists in their countries, participants also highlighted a noticeable increase in violence against racialized groups and women.
Participants recommended several actions to increase media freedom in the Latin American and Caribbean region:
- The international community should be supportive (“solidarity, financial and technical support”) of local, quality journalism, as well as civil society organizations that promote legal mechanisms and reforms to protect those who fight for freedom of expression.
- Governments and civil society groups should develop programs that focus on digital literacy and critical thinking skills to empower journalists and consumers of media.
- Governments should work with traditional media actors to increase the viability of new business models, as well as digital platforms to enhance transparency, accountability and accessibility policies. Participants requested that countries such as Canada continue promoting media freedom, legislation and education to increase the inclusion of all voices in the regional and global media landscapes while denouncing hate speech and restrictions of media freedom.
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