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Challenges to Media Development Require Global Solutions and Multi-Stakeholder Action

30 March 2017
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GFMD is co-hosting a session titled “Trump, Brexit and the Future of Independent Media and Digital Rights Activism” at the Access Now RightsCon event to be held in Brussels from 29-31 March 2017. The session is led by Susan Abbott of Cross-Pollinate Consulting; Susan is an independent consultant, providing services in the areas of programme monitoring and evaluation, research, project management, and capacity building in support of independent media, digital rights, and access to information. She has worked with both state and private institutions including USAID, US Department of State, Access Now, CIMA, and Fondation Hirondelle among others. The roundtable discussion at RightsCon will include Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch, Mira Milosevic of Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), Javier Ruiz of Open Rights Group, Kate Coyer of Central European University and Berkman Center, Tara Susman-Pena of IREX, Rohan Jayasekera, independent consultant, and Friedrich Lindenberg of OCCRP. Also joining us will be Anne Marie Hammer and Caroline Giraud of GFMD.

In an era of Trump and Brexit, what is at stake for independent media and media freedom?

We live in a time of immense possibility and great potential and promise for global communication, and the promise and hope that independent media and internet freedom inspire, but the socio-political realities of our times also pose a number of great threats and dangers to freedom of expression, access to information, and digital rights and freedoms. The political atmosphere that led to victories for Trump and Brexit are indeed not so unfamiliar to many people who work in environments engaged in supporting independent media or internet freedom initiatives.  What has been so troubling is that the US and the UK have long been considered countries that have high standards, traditions, and expectations associated with freedom of expression and protecting the rights of citizens and journalists alike when it comes to their freedom of speech, rights to privacy, and assurances of human rights and liberties. The era of Trump and Brexit have alarmed a number of human rights actors, academics, and lawyers for many reasons. The threats to individual rights and freedoms and an erosion of freedom of speech is of great concern to many. Now, as you have probably noticed, many long-time observers of media landscapes and measures of press freedom are increasingly tuned in to the US, the UK, and mainland EuropeThe problems and challenges of international media development are no longer the domain of so-called developing and transitioning countries. They are truly global problems, and as such will require global solutions and action. Now more than ever we need all the expertise and commitment to support the free and independent media and internet freedom sectors and channel their networks, energies, and support to all corners of the globe. This indeed is a daunting challenge and one that we need to be prepared for. What is especially troubling in this new era is that many policy responses aimed at combating problems such as "fake news" or the global war on terror, may in the long run also harm freedom of expression, access to information, and our rights to privacy.  We need to look at the legal culture and as a sector -- the media development and digital rights communities -- we need to come together in forums like RightsCon to come up with new ideas, collaborative thinking, and a human rights centred framework that we can support and fight for.

In which ways do media development and digital rights communities already collaborate? What is needed to further this cooperation and what do the communities stand to gain by further collaboration?

There are a number of ways that the media development and digital rights communities already collaborate. Two that come to mind are journalism safety and digital security. Thanks in large part to the work of many digital rights and internet freedom NGOs and civil society actors, digital security issues have become mainstreamed into the public consciousness.  Similarly, digital literacy, and media literacy go hand in hand, and there has been a lot of overlap and mutually reinforcing work between the media development community and the digital rights communities in these sectors. We live in a world that is increasingly dominated by smart phones, tablets, and digital experiences.  Journalism and news production are a part of this digital revolution, and as such, it is in the interest of the media development community to work closely with the digital rights sector. Going forward, as the role of digital communication takes on new forms and the way we experience journalism and news media changes, there will be new and important ways that the two communities can support each other's work. In addition to the issues of safety, security, and media/digital literacy, media law and policy issues and internet law and policy issues are also extremely important to the work of both the media development and digital rights communities. The future presents a lot of room for collaboration and partnership between the civil society organisations, lawyers, and law and policy specialists working to support freedom of expression and access to information. Now more than ever we need to support the work of organisations like Media Legal Defence Initiative, EFF, Internews, and so many others across the world that are working to channel support to lawyers, legal teams, and NGOs working to foster an enabling environment for free and independent media and digital rights for all.

What will be the discussion points for the RightsCon session on "Trump, Brexit, and the Future of Independent Media and Digital Rights Activism", co-hosted by GFMD?

For our session at RightsCon, we will focus on a number of inter-related questions. Some of them include:

  • What does the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote mean for freedom of the press?
  • Similarly, what does the Trump Administration and post-Brexit vote signify for digital rights and broad stroke concerns around key internet policy issues?
  • A recent symposium at NYU engaged with the question of “What are likely to be the challenges to the First Amendment going forward [under the Trump Presidency], and how does America’s history of robust dissent support the protection of speech and press today?” This leads us to the question: How does America's decline in terms of press freedom impact the work that many American NGOs and donors seek to do in terms of media development and supporting digital rights in other parts of the world?
  • In these times of declining levels of press freedom and threats to freedom of expression, how does the media development sector/ internet freedom/ digital rights sector come together – what are the differences of agendas and priorities that are keeping these communities apart? Can we identify some common ground that will keep these communities together? Is there overlap? Examples of why this matters? What more could we get accomplished and what could we gain by better aligning ourselves?
  • How do we adapt to this changing landscape? How do we modify and rethink our roles and efforts?
  • What trajectory do the freedom of speech and freedom of the press seem to be taking in your respective work and the countries you operate in?
  • Fake news – what’s really the problem?  Is this a new phenomenon or simply something that has been elevated to a more popular awareness in light of popular support for Trump and Brexit?
  • As noted by a recent report from the US CATO Institute, "On the campaign trail, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump called for “closing down” parts of the Internet as an anti-ISIS measure. Trump further claimed that freedom of the press was detrimental to the fight against terrorism, and demanded that libel laws be expanded to allow individuals to sue media organisations that publish unflattering stories about them. Following the 2016 election results, pundits blamed social media for creating an increasingly polarised voting public; Facebook and Google announced an initiative to go after so-called “fake news sites,” despite controversy over which sites, exactly, should qualify as fake. More and more platforms have adopted increasingly restrictive policies regarding acceptable speech." How do you respond to this increasing awareness about fake news -- is this a growing problem or are we simply more in tune with a problem that has long been around?