Without good journalism societies get sick. I like to use this metaphor: if you only eat junk food, you will get sick. And the same happens to societies: if they only consume junk information, they get sick. They end up divided, making the wrong decisions, electing the wrong representatives.
The challenges associated with freedom of expression, access to information, and the safety of journalists have only become bigger over past decades, says María Ronderos. Compared to a post-war era where liberal thinking and belief in democracy were central, more recent trends are reflective of weaker convictions in and less consensus on not only freedom of expression, but the role of media itself.
“What we see now are governments getting more and more comfortable with the concept of illiberal democracy. But the fact is, freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy, and of societies that respect individual freedoms and human rights. It is worrying to see the repression of journalists and the silencing of expression become more acceptable.”
In a time of abundant, multi-directional information, says María Ronderos, there are two main challenges that we must address. First, it appears that our shared belief in protecting freedom of media and expression is weakening – not necessarily disappearing, but certainly becoming more divided, as governments attack journalists and the boundaries between truths and untruths become blurred.
Secondly, in recognising this, we are confronted with the task of managing such a convoluted mix of information, and clarifying it, without impinging on freedom of expression. In the age of the internet many call for regulation of online content, says María Ronderos, but while we need those who produce information to be accountable and news to be reliable, in regulating recklessly we confer enormous power to those who decide what information is accessible. Herein lies the contradiction of disinformation management: the line between freedom of expression and content regulation.
Strengthening journalism in a murky information ecosystem
According to María Ronderos, the key to picking apart this Gordian knot lies in education. First, we must strengthen journalism by building the capacities of journalists to navigate a new era of information sharing, where everyone has a platform to speak, and the resulting cacophony of voices can make discerning fact from fiction a much more arduous task. In this new era, the traditional media business model, which was already having to rapidly adapt prior to the pandemic, is in real difficulty.
Good quality journalism – that is, journalism that is independent, transparent, accountable and ethical – is still the foundation for democracy, as it holds governments to account and gives people information as a platform to assert their rights. Journalism’s key challenge lies in adapting how it relates to its audiences: no longer the privileged mediator, but rather one among many, it has a role to enable the collective production of truth, in which journalists investigate, bringing valuable information to the table, at the same time as they appeal to the knowledge of civil society in order to build a credible narrative together.
“Media can help people on a – to borrow a term – ‘collective journey’ towards truth. In our new digital era, we are exchanging information and views on huge platforms with wide, responsive audiences – but media is there to curate this info, investigate what happens and why, cross reference it, and give us clarity. It is no longer about delivery of information from one side to the other – we are seeking truth together.”
However, to do this, media must understand how the evolving news and information ecosystem works and learn to work with technology.
“Technology is a blessing in the exercise of good journalism, and organisations like UNESCO can lead the way. UNESCO is at the heart of thinking about how human knowledge can be beneficial to humanity. It can do this by putting science at the service of Freedom of Expression. In this area it can play a visionary role, guiding the way forward.”
Media and information literacy in the fight against disinformation
Our second task, says María Ronderos, is educating individuals to be critical of information, and building their capacity to spot falsities therein. This means incorporating media and information literacy into school curriculums, and training teachers and students.
During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen that false news spreads faster than real news, not hindered by the fact, according to María Ronderos, that the pandemic crisis has made investigative journalism tougher, and many in the media more hesitant to criticise governments.
“Sections of the media have been more fearful of holding governments to account during the pandemic. It has been experienced like a war – you want to be united, and media doesn’t want to be seen as out of touch. But this means you end up with governments doing things without oversight. Also, journalists have had to learn to investigate almost 100% online because of restrictions – which means it is absolutely crucial to the accountability of democracies that governments publish and allow access to information.”
In other words, where circumstances and the quality of the content available to you fail, equipping journalists and consumers of information with the right critical analysis tools is imperative.
Defending the safety of journalists and convening on Freedom of Expression
While building these capacities, says María Ronderos, we also need to reiterate the importance of free and pluralistic media for the promotion of accountability. We cannot do this if journalists are under fire. The harassment and killing of journalists, says María Ronderos, is designed to silence them and to quash this accountability.
We need to track the patterns of impunity – and understand the how and why of impunity. Not only this, we need to address the bullying and harassment of our colleagues online, especially women, some of which has done real harm.
Organisations like UNESCO must support this effort. Highlighting these issues through events like World Press Freedom Day, which has measured real impact in its ability to mobilise communities, celebrities, artists and many others, as well as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists , and the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, is very beneficial to this end, says María Ronderos, because they promote the importance of free press and bring these issues to the forefront of discussion around the world. Advocacy in this area is one of the major focuses of UNESCO.
For María Ronderos, UNESCO’s comparative advantage in this field lies both in its ability to bring together science, education, culture and freedom of expression, and its role as a partner to engage the main players in this field. For example, it can be difficult to engage large commercial platforms with other actors in conversations about crucial issues, she says, like market power and the imperative to support those who produce and disseminate information that can make or break democracies.
“One of the great strengths of UNESCO is its role as a convenor – a platform for discussion that brings together people of all ideological persuasions. When discussing Freedom of Expression, it is vital that we have everyone in the room.”
November 2 is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. You can read the Director General's 2020 Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity here.
María Teresa Ronderos is a member of the Director General’s High Level Reflection Group, an initiative of UNESCO’s Strategic Transformation designed to anticipate and analyse global developments and contribute to the enrichment of UNESCO’s next Medium-Term Strategy.
*The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or official position of UNESCO.