How are the Changes in Media Affecting Media Freedom?

By Ian Morse.

This is the second piece in a recurring story set. The first article can be found here.

I’d like to tackle another apparent paradox with you.

The Internet has given those with access to it an incredible abundance of information at their fingertips. With an Internet plan or a walk to an Internet cafe, you can browse over a billion websites and even more webpages on which infinite amounts of information and opinions are available. Information can be accessed anywhere at anytime. The sheer scale of information and breadth of its sources is needless to say unprecedented.

At the same time, more and more people have reason to feel less informed than they have ever been. Freedom House sees that global Internet freedom has decreased for the fourth consecutive year.[1] According to the CPJ, the last three years have seen the most jailed journalists in the world, the majority of whom used the Internet to publish their content.[2] Governments have abandoned their former tactics of behind-the-scenes control of the Internet for more overt laws that allow them to exercise full control over media.

So the problem comes when people feel they have access to more information than ever before, but beneath the surface the sources of those facts and opinions are being persecuted like never before. While information is far more accessible than in years past, how much of that information is corrupted? I won’t try to speculate a guess here, but what’s more important to consider is why this is happening.

Whatever your friend says on the street can be immediately checked against thousands of sources. In a speech, status, or simple conversation, you have to think about how easily the information you say can be checked through a verifiable source. Leaders must realize that nothing but fact will be accepted by their constituents, who can all be fact-checkers.[3] The number of recently active organizations that search for the “ground truth” has exploded to almost 100 in the last few years, according the Duke University’s Reporter’s Lab.[4]

But what of the crackdown on bloggers from Tunisia to Thailand? And the blocking of social media applications from the UAE to Uzbekistan?[5] Not linked to credible news organizations, these are often individuals sharing opinions and engaging in factual discussion over the web. That’s key: it’s on the Internet. Opinions had always been expressed and discussed in public areas, but it’s difficult to limit verbal conversation with the advent of new technologies. Now that opinions are both publicly widespread and on a vulnerable medium, those in power have found they can simply restrict information and easily identify sources of dissent. Our gravitation towards more user-friendly wireless networks has also allowed governments to monitor and censor information much more easily. Dissent is more visible, quantifiable, and blockable than it has ever been.

Sitting at home, you may think that the monitoring of the forum on which we spread and discuss information has little impact on you. There are however two direct effects, one more hidden than the other. Another country’s censorship policies are not felt only inside its borders. If you carry out a search in Chinese to learn the language anywhere in the world, you will be routed through China, and your search will thus be filtered for “dangerous words.”[6] Less visible is the decrease in the quality of journalism when a reporter can no longer guarantee anonymity to a source when all types of communication besides verbal can be monitored.

Before accepting this as the reason for increased media restrictions, consider what has happened now that information is widely available and anybody can ‘publish’. There is a perception that anybody be a credible journalist. But sitting at our computers, we forget that the information we absorb about the current world does not simply come from the Internet, but from humans on the front lines. The ‘front lines’ are not only where war correspondents are, but also where journalists investigating corruption and human rights abuses must find their sources.

These online journalists are just as vulnerable to repression as a war correspondent is to physical violence, if not more. For example, political journalists are increasingly rejected from interviewing important and powerful sources due to other unfavorable reporting. This is not to mention targeted tax audits and legal intimidation. The result is often that interviews are only conducted with journalists who the interviewees feel may act in their favor.

This issue in media freedom is directly linked to the increased power journalists have with the Internet. Front line journalists are the source for the majority of information that occupies private news channels, which are the source for most people’s knowledge of the world. Journalists thus stand in a position of power, one that may be seen as competing with others in power, including government officials.

Another important idea connected to a more accessible medium of news has been mentioned by Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who made the decision to publish cartoons depicting Muhammed in 2005, igniting a global debate that left protesters around the world dead. Publishing the cartoons has led to threats from Muslim governments, a fatwa issued against Rose, and repeated terrorist attempts against the paper itself. In a recent interview, he said the most important thing he had learned from the ten-year debate on the cartoons was that in this age of widely accessible Internet, contexts are lost.[7]

Without making a judgment on his actions in 2005, he brings up a critical point about the broader audience that can now be reached by local publications. Rose had allowed the cartoons to be published through his Danish magazine and for the Danish debate on free speech.[8] The cartoons were interpreted differently in every country they reached, because they arrived solely as pictures, without the environment in which they were originally published. Many were unaware that in addition to mocking Islam, Charlie Hebdo cartoons mocked Catholicism, the French government, and Judaism. Cross-cultural media have stifled the debate on the limits of “free speech.”

So the increase in media restrictions concurrent with a media revolution may be caused by the use of a public and blockable forum, the increased power that journalists have and that their adversaries recognize, and increased media antagonism that comes with reaching a broader audience. These reasons are only a few possibilities, but the reality is that it happens and prevents free dissemination of information needed for individuals to be able to govern themselves. Internet users should recognize the substantial potential power of their voice, but at the same time there should be a certain responsibility with each ‘publication,’ a topic I’ll focus on in the coming weeks.

[1] Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2014, Report, 2014.

[2] https://cpj.org/imprisoned/2012.php

[3] A good article on this topic can be found here: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142741/glenn-kessler/just-the-facts

[4] http://reporterslab.org/fact-checking-census-finds-growth-around-world/

[5] Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2014, Report, 2014.

[6] Simon, Joel, The New Censorship, 2014, 110.

[7] http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/copenhagen-speech-violence?intcid=mod-latest

[8] Rose, Flemming. Tyranny of Silence. (2014, CATO Institute Press)


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