Global Conference for Media Freedom: Summary of the regional consultations in the Middle East and North Africa
- Canada held regional consultations on media freedom in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in preparation for the second Global Conference for Media Freedom. The consultations were held in two parts: 1 in French on October 7, 2020, and 1 in English on October 8, 2020. Discussions took place under the Chatham House Rule.
- Participants spoke of a decline in freedom of expression, media freedom and civic space in the MENA region. They also reported an erosion of trust in the media in several countries, with people often unable to distinguish between fact and fiction (disinfodemic) and journalists facing increasing risks in practising their profession. Participants discussed the coherence that is needed between media freedom policies and development support policies, and noted an increase in the number of cases of sexual harassment against female journalists.
COVID-19 and media freedom
Some participants said that journalism ethics have receded in the media industry in favour of governments taking control of COVID-19 information and promoting misinformation to protect their interests. It is often difficult to verify facts, which encourages the public to get their information from social networks. The lack of journalists covering the pandemic who specialize in scientific issues only aggravates the situation. The polarization and politicization of the media, with several networks owned by business people with partisan interests, further undermines media freedom.
In several countries in the region, security forces commit crimes against journalists with impunity. It is often difficult to get a press card, and the authorities do not always respect these documents.
The human rights restrictions in response to COVID-19 and the precarious nature of the media sector are having an impact on the sustainability of journalism in several countries. Economic and social restrictions in the wake of the pandemic have resulted in journalists being laid off. The ban on print newspapers ordered by some governments during the pandemic has severely affected the sector. The big tech companies’ (Google [Alphabet], Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) monopoly on advertising revenues and the use of journalistic content without paying royalties are also considered central to the problem.
Artificial intelligence, digital technology and media freedom
The use of artificial intelligence (AI) has turned the media sector upside down. Some participants spoke of journalists’ shortcomings in terms of computer security and denounced violations of personal data by some government bodies. They denounced the lack of ethics on social networks and the misuse of AI by security services to track journalists. The big tech companies’ power has created informational chaos, leading to the privatization of censorship through algorithmic processes generated by these companies.
AI also presents new opportunities. Public-private partnerships and local start-ups could make it easier to use AI for journalistic investigations. Above all, AI must be used to protect human rights and to promote multi-sectoral, inclusive and open approaches.
Media freedom and international assistance
Participants spoke of the need for more coherence between media freedom policies and development support policies to foster media freedom and the protection of journalists.
Some participants indicated that international assistance should focus more on those who are most vulnerable, including female journalists in rural areas. Journalism is still in its infancy in several countries in the region, and the lack of a code of conduct for journalists leads to widely divergent views on the issues.
Journalism and gender
Female journalists are constantly subjected to verbal and physical attacks. There is also a perceived increase in the number of cases of sexual harassment against female journalists and attacks against journalists who defend the rights of people in minority communities. In several countries, women are not allowed to work as journalists or as experts on television.
The participants recommended the following measures to promote media freedom in the MENA region:
- Create or strengthen a legal or regulatory framework that is conducive to practising journalism, media freedom and the sustainability of the journalism sector.
- Protect the practice of journalism by fighting the impunity of law enforcement officials for repressive or criminal acts against journalists.
- Systematically call out autocratic governments on the repression of media freedom.
- Ensure coherence between the public policies of donor or seller governments and the respect of media freedom and human rights by recipient governments.
- Start a global discussion on the social responsibility of AI platforms and big tech companies, in particular to ensure fair compensation for the use of journalistic content, the transparency of search algorithms and the economic survival of independent media.
- Prohibit the sale of surveillance or AI technology to autocratic governments that violate human rights and media freedom.
- Educate and train journalists on cybersecurity practices.
- Create a UN special adviser on the protection of journalists.
- Establish legal mechanisms to provide a form of immunity for journalists.
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