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Perspectives of the Media on UNESCO’s Guidelines for regulating digital platforms

During the session titled “Overcoming Divisions, Building Trust – Perspectives of the media on UNESCO’s guidelines for regulating digital platforms” held on June 19 at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, crucial discussions revolved around safeguarding the media from personal safety risks and economic pressures posed by digital platforms. The session moderated by GFMD’s Executive Director Mira Milosevic delved into the Guidelines and strategies to ensure that digital platforms do not continue to jeopardize journalism survival online.

Author: Yelyzaveta Bezushko | 13. July 2023

Perspectives of the Media on UNESCO’s Guidelines for regulating digital platforms

UNESCO has launched a global dialogue on the regulation of digital platforms starting to develop the first version of the guidelines for regulating digital platforms in October 2022. The guidelines aim to support regulators, governments, legislatures and companies, dealing with content that potentially damages human rights and democracy while protecting freedom of expression and the availability of accurate and reliable information. The third version of the guidelines was the main topic of this session which aimed to explore the role of media and journalists in relation to digital platforms.

Relationship between journalists and platforms

News organisations and platforms have a love-hate relationship, says Javier Garza Ramos, Founder and editor of EnRed2 Laguna.

“We need them to spread out our content, but we hate them because they steal a lot of traffic from us and that prevents us from monetizing or getting revenue out of the content. That is a debate that is not yet resolved”.

Javier Garza Ramos, Founder and editor of EnRed2 Laguna.

Javier Garza Ramos, Founder and editor of EnRed2 Laguna

Furthermore, the emergence of platforms has completely disrupted the traditional relationship between journalists and the public. The sheer proliferation of information sources has blurred the lines between news organizations and other entities posting content, making it difficult to determine what truly constitutes journalism according to long-established standards. This ambiguity also raises policy and regulatory concerns, particularly in defining who qualifies as a journalist and the corresponding privileges or obligations they should possess, especially in the realm of social media. Striking the right balance is a delicate task, as any guidelines or regulations implemented could potentially restrict access or exclude individuals who may have a genuine interest in reporting, particularly at the grassroots community level.

Gaps in regulating digital platforms

The digital transformation of communication has posed significant questions for journalists and society as a whole. It is crucial to recognize the importance of information as a public good, not only for individuals but also for the international community.

“While digital platforms are not inherently good or evil, it is essential to acknowledge that they are driven by private interests as their goal is to make money,” noted Latifa Akharbach, President of the High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HACA). “However, in this public space of information, we cannot allow private companies to subject information to their own interests. Access to information is a human right, and therefore, it must remain reliable, free, and transparent, which is the responsibility of journalism”.

Latifa Akharbach, President of the High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HACA)

Latifa Akharbach,
President of the High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HACA)

We have observed that digital platforms have become the primary gateways for accessing information and knowledge, which raises concerns about the integrity of information and knowledge itself. The increasing power of platforms necessitates addressing three crucial questions: first, we must not allow platforms to become regulators of public discourse; second, we need to consider the adverse consequences for workers and make this issue a part of public policies; and finally, we must find ways to preserve journalism’s role as a critical element in fostering public debate and democracy.

Role of the regulations

One key question that arises, according to Mira Milosevic, is whether guidelines for regulating digital platforms solely focus on statutory regulation or encompass other forms of self-regulation. Additionally, determining the scope of these guidelines, particularly regarding content moderation and business models, requires careful decision-making by the UNESCO team.

According to Guilherme Canela Godoi, Chief of the section of Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists at UNESCO, out of the 115 paragraphs in the text, only about 15 pertain to content moderation and curation. Additionally, terms like “business models” are often used as buzzwords without a clear understanding of their significance. When the guidelines address transparency and human rights risk assessments, they are indeed engaging with the business models of these platforms. Transparency and adherence to international human rights law are directly linked to a platform’s business practices, including algorithmic decision-making and employee treatment. It’s crucial to be cautious when framing the debate, as the intention behind these guidelines is not to impose unhelpful definitions but to align with international law.

Guilherme Canela Godoi, Chief of the section of Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists at UNESCO

Guilherme Canela Godoi, Chief of the section of Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists at UNESCO

Journalists often investigate the digital ecosystem and platforms as part of their work. In doing so, they rely on established standards and recommendations, similar to environmental journalists using IPCC recommendations for climate change investigations. However, in the digital ecosystem, we currently lack universally recognized standards. This is where the guidelines can play a crucial role, according to Guilherme Canela Godoi.

“We think these guidelines will be an important instrument for the journalists to do their work of holding these platforms into account regarding the decisions they’re taking”, he noted.

Whether it’s the expulsion of a platform’s president or governmental regulation of platforms, journalists can refer to these guidelines and inquire about human rights risk assessments, transparency, and adherence to international standards. So, while it is essential to focus on the survival of journalism and its relationship with platforms, we must not overlook the role of journalists in holding these powerful entities accountable and the standards they reference in their work.

Double standards in the digital sphere

According to Javier Garza Ramos, Mexican journalists face challenges in terms of organization, particularly at the level of news organizations, where individual journalists have formed collectives and sub-organizations primarily focused on safety and protection issues rather than digital platforms. Dealing with online hate speech and threats remains a concern, but reports on these matters often do not yield significant results. NGOs such as Article 19, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) work to support journalists facing platform-related problems, but overall, Mexican journalists are underrepresented in investigating platforms, and their capacity to do so is limited. The revelations from whistleblowers shed light on platform practices, such as Instagram’s impact on young teenagers, but these instances are rare and do not receive widespread attention.

“I do believe that the world would be a better place with independent regulators, professional journalists and digital platforms who hold responsibility,” said Latifa Akharbach.

Globalization impacts our digital sphere, yet it is marred by double standards and inequalities. African users, for instance, face challenges as toxic content moderation is primarily focused on English-speaking regions, leaving them more vulnerable. Latifa Akharbach also shared her experience in organising a conference to foster dialogue between regulators and platforms. According to her, it was disheartening to witness the lack of interest from platforms in engaging with Africa, undermining security concerns and exposing the need for change. Nevertheless, these platforms continue to expand their business ventures, such as Facebook Meta’s investment in infrastructure. In Africa, platforms like TikTok play a dominant role in delivering information and news, while the integrity of local media and traditional outlets suffers. It is crucial to acknowledge the larger context of our shared digital and media space, where information and digital risks intersect.

Risk assessment of regulations

Mira Milosevic rightfully noted that guidelines for different contexts, especially authoritarian ones, could be misused by governments to target various actors or restrict spaces or regulate in a way that violates human rights or freedom of expression. How can we assess the risk of guidelines themselves?

Perspectives of the media on UNESCO's guidelines for regulating digital platforms

From left to right: Javier Garza Ramos, Latifa Akharbach, Guilherme Canela Godoi, Mira Milosevic

Guilherme Canela Godoi stressed that the guidelines UNESCO is developing go beyond solely regulating platforms; their aim is to protect freedom of expression in the digital ecosystem amidst challenges like hate speech and illegal content. While it’s impossible to create a document impervious to misuse, UNESCO’s goal is to establish a robust framework that aligns with international human rights standards. Stakeholder consultation and transparency are key aspects of the process, as all received comments are published and their relevance is openly discussed. Moreover, it is vital to examine the broader puzzle and evaluate if the demands for governance, civil society involvement, and user empowerment are sufficient.

“We also need to demystify the idea that companies don’t like regulation. They like the regulation that is favourable to them…The question is whether the regulations prioritize the protection of human rights for all individuals, rather than favouring specific groups or sectors”, he concluded.

Relevant resources

To know more about how to support journalism and media, sign up for MediaDev Insider, your guide on supporting journalism and media from the Global Forum for Media Development and GFMD IMPACT. Join our growing community!


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