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Technology and Freedom of Expression: Opportunities and Threats through the Journalist’s Lens

26 Mar 2018

  • Author(s): Mariateresa Garrido Villareal

Technology and Freedom of Expression: Opportunities and Threats through the Journalist’s Lens
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series, From Disruption to Transformation? Linking Technology and Human Rights for Sustainable Development, launched to coincide with the 37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this series, experts from academia, think tanks and civil society engage with the topic of linking technology and human rights, and share their experience at the front lines of policy-driven research and advocacy aimed at leaving no one behind in an increasingly digital, automated world.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes the role that journalists play in ensuring fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression and access to information. SDG 16 in particular calls for the effective monitoring of crimes against journalists as an indicator to measure progress towards promoting peaceful and inclusive societies. Despite this, threats against journalists and media personnel are on the rise, and an accurate and comprehensive measurement system is still missing. Technology can help us to address this gap, and this Think Piece proposes a way forward.

Mariateresa Garrido Villareal is a Venezuelan lawyer and a professor at the UN mandated University for Peace. Her current research is focused on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in the digital era, with particular emphasis on the protection of journalists.

Sustainable Development Goal 16 calls on the international community to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. By bringing urgent issues into the public domain, journalists play an essential role in realizing SDG 16 by protecting fundamental freedoms, especially the right to freedom of expression. Threats to journalists are therefore threats to this Goal. All over the world journalists are being harassed, attacked and killed in increasing numbers. Sometimes these cases grab headlines and impact national politics, as has been the case in Slovakia in recent weeks, but more often they do not. Despite the clear call by SDG target 16.10 to track these abuses, the systems needed to collect data and measure progress on this issue are missing.

To address this, state and non-state actors should create new data gathering tools to register the number of crimes committed against journalists in a standardized, accountable way. This Think Piece maps the situation of journalists (including in on- and offline contexts) and discusses some of the opportunities that information and communication technologies (ICTs) present to foster the protection of journalists within the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The increasing precarity of journalists

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 1,887 journalists have been killed since 1992, and 58 are missing. Similarly, since 1993 UNESCO has condemned 2,049 cases of crimes against journalists. Of these, 76 took place in 2017 alone, and 262 more journalists were imprisoned globally. With the increasing use of the internet and social media to disseminate news and information, attacks and censorship have also increasingly shifted to a digital realm. International NGOs like the CPJ, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Access Now keep global records, and their numbers demonstrate this tendency. For instance, in 2016 Access Now registered 55 cases in which the internet was intentionally shut down to control the flow of information. In 2017, the number increased to 62. In the same period, the CPJ indicated that the number of Internet reporters killed increased to 26, and UNESCO reported that online harassment against women journalists also increased.

If journalists are impeded from investigating the situations that they consider important and the dissemination of and access to their reports is hampered, individuals and society as a whole cannot exercise their fundamental rights. This has a direct, negative impact on progress towards achieving the 2030 Agenda. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the outlook for media personnel is getting darker every day, there is still time to change. ICTs in general can facilitate communication and the dissemination of information in a timely and accurate manner, and more importantly, they can be used to keep track of human rights violations in the form of attacks on journalists and restrictions to the right of freedom of expression. The development of technological tools can therefore contribute to the collection of the information required by indicator 16.10.1. Because only when we understand the full scale of the problem can we truly address it.

Creation of data-gathering systems

Today, there is a serious lack of accurate systems to keep these records. Organizations working on the protection of journalists tend to have their own systems and classifications, which usually differ from the ones developed by national authorities. These differences affect numbers, and in consequence, policies.

For example, El Salvador ranks 62nd on the RSF 2017 Report, and Freedom House considers it a partially free country. Leading organizations like RSF and Freedom House report that Salvadorian media have been affected by widespread violence and that journalists have been physically attacked and murdered. However, the data does not always line up. In this case, the RSF’s report does not specify how many journalists were killed, and while Freedom House’s report does mention one case, national authorities do not provide information on the number of journalists attacked or killed. Recognizing the problem, in 2017 UNESCO made efforts to develop a National Plan to Protect Journalists in El Salvador, but the development of the much-needed data systems was not part of the conversation.

This situation repeats all over the world. Records are kept in several databases and for different purposes. People do not always have access to these records, and if they do, they cannot trust their accuracy. At the moment, we cannot measure the indicator, compare progress, or even identify effective policies due to the lack of reliable, standardized data. We need to improve data-gathering systems because without a standardized tool, we are walking down a winding path with our eyes closed. To fix this, ICTs can be our best allies.

What is needed now is to develop a comprehensive, freely and publically accessible system. An internet-based system could provide the platform to do this. Such a system should be in accordance with open data criteria and facilitate registering the number of cases of censorship and crimes against journalists. It should also include detailed data on the victim (with information like age, gender, type of medium used, beats covered and geolocation of the crime) and the investigation conducted by authorities to avoid impunity. To develop it, we can use UNESCO guidelines and promote the creation of technological partnerships within the framework of SDG 17. In doing so, we need to consider that safety of the victim’s data and privacy must be guaranteed. While the investigation is conducted, information that allows the identification of the affected persons, or their families, should be protected.

Accuracy is a major concern for any such initiative. Information gathered from police and members of the judiciary is important, but not necessarily enough. In many cases, journalists do not present their claims to authorities, but rather to civil society organizations. The system should include a space where NGOs and other interested persons can file reports on situations that should be investigated by authorities, or in situations of abuse of state power. Emerging technologies like blockchain based on peer-to-peer networks could provide the means to ensure that these reports are secure, transparent and accurate. To understand why journalists do not file complaints to the authorities, the platform should allow people to explain their reasons for preferring to use alternative mechanisms. This tool will not only improve the protection of the right to freedom of expression, but it also will improve the observance of due process and promote access to justice.

To achieve SDG 16, stakeholders need to work together. The protection of journalists is an issue that calls for our attention and offers a space for cooperation. The creation of this much-needed system will necessarily involve technology developers, journalists, lawyers, NGOs and state representatives working for a common goal. This process needs to start as soon as possible if we are to ensure that states fulfil their obligations as defenders of human rights in today’s increasingly digital, networked society.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.