The keys to improve the media freedom situation in the OSCE region and beyond the next 15 years
By Dr. Agnes Callamard, Director, Global Freedom of Expression Project, Columbia University and Special Adviser to the President of Columbia University
The information technology revolution of the last two decades has profoundly transformed print and broadcast media, journalism, the production of news, and the flow of information. The struggle for media freedom has shifted in part from the physical to the virtual world, demanding from media advocates a substantial rethink of ideas about how best to protect access to information, media independence, pluralism and diversity. Today’s context is quite simply a world away from the era in which standards for these elements were first developed. Reinterpretation, review and adaptation to this reality is essential if we are to protect media freedom and in this there are a number of keys and many locks that must be opened.
The 1st key to unlock media freedom in the OSCE region and beyond for the 21st Century is a more relevant legal and policy framework darted to the new realities that will protect the free flow of information both on line and off line. Strategies to repeal the legal impediments of media censorship, criminal defamation provisions and to combat abuse of national security or incitement laws must be re-focused to fully incorporate on-line media and expression. Knee jerk reactive policies of governments around the world that enact disproportionate laws and regulations seeking control over the production and dissemination of information on-line must be abandoned, denounced and opposed. Equally, new laws and policies are needed to protect the media, journalists, bloggers and ICT users against both mass surveillance by state agencies, and organised censorship by private actors, including intermediaries or social media.
The 2nd key by which to unlock press freedom is stronger protection for those that produce information, whether they be journalists, bloggers and other social media users, information providers or opinion makers. On and off line, the originators and sharers of information are vulnerable to harassment, threat and even physical attacks and killings. These violations are more often committed in complete impunity. Over the next 15 years, enhanced security for those exercising their freedom of expression must be prioritised including by insisting on the implementation of governments’ duty to protect. This should manifest in appropriate security training and protocols and in effective police and judicial institutions that are able to investigate crimes against freedom of information. Crucially, legal protection to information providers must be strengthened, particularly by inscribing in law access to information, the protection of sources and of whistleblowers and by recognising crimes against freedom of expression in criminal law, either explicitly or as an aggravated circumstance leading to heavier penalties, taking into account their serious nature.
The 3rd key to unlock press freedom consists in experimenting, testing, evaluating and strengthening on and off line media institutions, business models and information products that will enable the media – in the broadest sense of the word – to continue to fulfil it vital social mission: to provide a diversity of information and opinion, investigate and report on public interest stories and more generally contribute to strong and healthy civil society spaces by holding governments and other powerful interests accountable for their actions.
Information is (still) power. That power is wielded best when it is vested in the hands of the many rather than in those of the few. The key is to ensure, in both the virtual and physical worlds of the media, that information flows freely for, between and through people without being controlled or diverted into monopolies. In this context, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and her colleagues at the UN, OAS, and AU will be another key to the protection of press freedom, realized through international solidarity and accountability.