19 October 2018 - 14:20
A database for the freedom of the press
How can we defend the right to freedom of expression, one of the pillars of modern democracy?
At the beginning of July, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (Pfuj), an association established in 1950 to represent all the reporters within the country, walked the streets and organised a sit-in for the creeping censorship which had mainly affected The Dawn, the progressive English-written newspaper of the capital. The newspaper could not be found in several newsstands and its TV channel had been blacked out in many neighbourhoods.
The freedom of the press can often be undermined using subtle mechanisms, such as those that regulate distribution, rather than with draconian violent measures. A different story altogether –unfortunately increasingly evident – is when journalists are physically targeted. The website of the International Associations of Reporters without Borders (RSF) publishes a daily barometer on the freedom of the press: in early July, during the protests in Pakistan, the barometer signalled that, since the beginning of 2018, 40 journalists, two collaborators and 9 ‘street journalists’ – a new typology of improvised reporter often documenting illegal phenomena - had been killed. Yet, the barometer also showed that 162 journalists, 19 collaborators and 131 street journalists were imprisoned. Numbers that also show the relevance of a new phenomenon, definable as ‘civil urban journalism’.
The concerns raised by associations such as RSF, Access Now, Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) are shared via radio, television, internet and paper. A specific example can be found in the Think Piece Series, aiming to provide perspectives on the intersections between new technology and various dimensions of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, including the right of the press.
As reported in one analysis, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1.887 journalists have been killed since 1992 and 58 are missing. Further, since 1993, UNESCO has condemned more than 2000 cases of crimes against journalists: of these, 76 took place in 2017 while 262 more journalists were being imprisoned globally. Through the augmenting use of the internet and social media to spread news and disseminate information, attacks and censorship have increasingly moved to digital platforms. International Non-Governmental Organisation, such as RSF or the CPJ, that update global estimates confirm this trend: in 2016, Access Now registered 55 cases where internet was intentionally blocked to impede information flows. In 2017, the registered cases increased to 62. Over the same period, the CPJ signalled that the number of killed journalists (who were principally working through digital platforms) increased to 26. Simultaneously, UNESCO reported that online harassment against female journalists also increased. Bloggers, actors of a new form of digital journalism, are also facing great risks in many countries.
Venezuelan lawyer Maria Teresa Garrido Villareal is currently working on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in the digital era, with particular emphasis on the protection of journalists. In her article Technology and Freedom of Expression: Opportunities and Threats through the Journalist’s Len, she claims that new means need to be developed: “Today – writes Garrido – 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”. In other words, it is no longer enough to work in silos.
“This situation – continues the lawyer – 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. What is needed now is to develop a comprehensive, freely and publicly accessible system. An internet-based system – concludes Garrido- could provide the platform to do this. Emerging technologies like blockchain based on peer-to-peer networks could provide the means to ensure that these reports are secure, transparent and accurate”.
It will be hard to uphold the right to freedom of expression everywhere and at any time, yet, with all the available tools we can laid solid foundations to defend those who gain their livelihood through the exercise of this right.