Online media rights & advocacy for free expression in Europe

There are plenty of developments in corporate practice and regulatory environments affecting media development and free expression rights online.

Most are well known: such as the spread of intermediary liability, the use of ‘choke points’ in the internet to block access to online content and the ‘privatisation’ of censorship – states pressing industry to censor for them, legally or otherwise.

There’s the legal and illegal use of online filtering, blocking and surveillance technology, its under-regulated sale to authoritarian states, and the creeping criminalisation of certain kinds of ‘offensive’ online content including ‘hate speech’, often to the long term detriment of free expression rights.

We should aim to mainstream free expression rights in digital policy at the European Union’s executive Commission (EC), with our own governments, at the global institutions on which they are represented, and wherever online corporate practices are refined and regulated.

The EU’s powers to lead policy among member states and influence it in the ‘Neighbourhood Policy’ states to the EU’s south and east, should make it a greater force for online rights than it is. The EC also has influence with regional alliances in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and other key participants in the institutions of global internet governance.

The EC wants the ICT sector to integrate social, ethical and human rights concerns into their ‘operations and core strategy,” covering policy visibility, ‘best practice’ by large and small enterprises, “self- and co-regulation,” and support for background research and monitoring by civil society.

It opens up opportunities for groups like Index on Censorship and advocacy partners like the Global Network Initiative, Consumer Focus and the Institute for Human Rights and Business; news industry bodies like WAN-IFRA and the International Federation of Journalists, other members of the IFEX network of free expression groups; and Index’s past and present media industry sponsors.

We aim for the best possible placing for media development and free expression rights in EU policy, in Commission proposals, Council directives, and EU summit statements and more coherence on free expression rights in EC digital strategies devised by the EC’s departments (DGs) for development, aid and foreign affairs.

The DG for enterprise & industry is examining options to introduce EU-wide corporate social responsibility (CSR) to the ICT sector to reflect the UN ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ framework, while the DG for Communications Networks, Content & Technology has a very strong freedom of expression agenda that includes Neelie Kroes’ “No Disconnect” strategy.

We are exploring roles for mainstream and social media and media rights groups in bringing more accountability, openness and responsiveness to digital policymaking, and a greater understanding of digital media and freedom of expression rights across governments, business and civil society in Europe and the ‘neighbourhood’.

Media advocacy development seeks new ways to defend and promote free expression and the rights of the media to report independently, fairly and safely, especially in ‘fragile’ states. Journalists expect their rights to be based on self-regulation as long as they work in the public interest, act independently and respect the law, even in when breaking it, as is occasionally necessary.

I’m wary of reliance on voluntary CSR policies to protect media rights online, but equally wary of new regulations to underwrite CSR in the media, as environmental and labour rights regulations underwrite CSR in the oil and sportswear trades. I also wouldn’t want attempts to moderate the influence of corporate practice in the ICT sector to sideline urgent, direct action for free expression.

We need to diversify and broaden our support base. We look to the part played in media development and advocacy by media literacy; the ability to critically consume and create media.

The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) suggests a holistic approach to media development giving media literacy equal weight to other factors, while the World Bank’s CommGap project offers three areas where media literacy could be incorporated into media development initiatives.

Media literacy enables access to a new and evolving public sphere where opinions can be formulated, shared and turned into consensus for mobilisation. It’s a step change in the practice of politics, the way “politicians and citizens exchange and debate ideas,” a power shift from the leaders of nation states and their allies, cutting across old hierarchies, to individuals and networks of individuals.

Facilitating that access will be a key reponsibility of both new media and new advocacy.

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