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null The need for media ethics: on press freedom in 2022

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. Every year, this day acts to remind governments of the need to respect press freedom and media professionals of the need for media ethics. It is also a day of support for media subject to restricted or abolished press freedom and of remembrance for journalists who have lost their lives at work.

In 2022, World Press Freedom Day remains a necessity. In fact, UNESCO data analysis shows that globally we have the worst press freedom score since the Cold War, with 85% of the world’s population experiencing a decline in press freedom in their country over the past five years. 

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s annual press freedom index, in 2021 journalism was completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries evaluated. RSF’s figures show that, as of 2022, 480 journalists are imprisoned globally, and 28 have been killed since 1 January of this year. The recent murder of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli armed forces and the “whitewashed” coverage of her death by many Western media sources highlight the stark reality of press freedom worldwide.

As a global network of teachers and institutions working to share knowledge on ethics, believes in the critical importance of press freedom. Journalists work to analyse and explain facts and present the truth. We need press freedom for democracy so that those with power can be held accountable for their actions and so that the public can make informed decisions. 

Freedom of the press is limited in different ways and to different extents globally. Journalism is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. In Ukraine, since war broke out in February 2022, 20 journalists have been killed, have disappeared, or are being held hostage. And it’s not just conflict journalists who are at risk. In recent years, the number of fatal attacks against journalists reporting on corruption, human rights violations, environmental crimes, trafficking, and political wrongdoing has risen.

In areas where physical violence against journalists has declined, those in power have often found other ways to curb press freedom. This is not an issue that pertains solely to non-democratic countries. Many states that we consider democracies still have dubious media ownership, widespread disinformation campaigns, little protection of journalist rights, imprisoned whistleblowers, and a lack of public trust in media - in many cases driven by politicians themselves.

The increase in digital media has had a significant but mixed impact on press freedom. The internet, and particularly social media, means that in many countries, we have easy, constant access to information and pretty much anyone is free to report on whatever they like. With that said, digital media poses its own challenges to press freedom. Journalists’ work can easily be taken offline and internet censorship is relatively common, from mass blocking of websites by certain governments to companies restricting sites they don’t want their employees accessing during working hours.

Digital media also provides new channels for oppression and violence, especially towards women. According to a UNESCO study, three out of four women journalists surveyed had experienced some sort of online violence and 41% had been targeted in online attacks thought to be related to orchestrated disinformation campaigns.

The freedom of the press on social media is a particularly pertinent issue considering Elon Musk’s recent Twitter buyout. Just like with traditional media, the ownership of digital media platforms can pose a serious threat to press freedom, especially when these platforms are owned or funded by the ruling elite or private sector autocrats.  

Musk himself claimed he bought Twitter “to defend democracy”. However, as Christoph Stückelberger pointed out in his presentation at the Round Table on Cyberlaw, Cybercrime and Cybersecurity, it isn’t very democratic for one person - who has some 265 billion USD in assets - to own a platform that most governments use as a diplomacy channel. The ethics of Musk’s Twitter ownership comes further into question considering he also owns some 2000 satellites which provide Internet access coverage to 32 countries, meaning he controls two key areas of digital space. 

What’s more, the economy of social media does not lend itself to the promotion of truth. Because these platforms are run as businesses, rather than as free journalistic platforms, their algorithms are designed to favour posts that will get clicks. Popular stories that will spread easily will be promoted whether or not they are factual, so many accounts will use sensationalist headlines and refrain from fact-checking and other ethical media practices in order to sell their stories.

The pandemic has brought to light numerous examples of abuse of press freedom globally, especially where governments have taken advantage of states of emergency to push their own agendas. During the pandemic, ‘cures’ and conspiracies about vaccination and the origins of the pandemic spread like wildfire over social media. Setting up accountability systems to limit this kind of false information is an important step toward press freedom, however, when governments make spreading ‘false’ information about Covid illegal - punishable by jail time in Bolivia, Russia and the Philippines - and that information is simply government data on the virus - press freedom once again takes a hit. 

No matter how much technology advances, the motivation to cover up the truth, suppress journalists and discredit the media remains the same, leading to people and societies being unable to distinguish fact from fiction and therefore leaving them open to manipulation. Without the freedom of the press, there are no democratic societies, and there is no freedom. So, how do we ensure press freedom and keep journalists - and societies - safer?

At the top of the RSF index are the Scandinavian countries, nations which have strong media accountability systems to support ethical journalism and a culture of trust in public service media. Following their lead in responsible leadership and best practices in the media would allow for significant steps toward press freedom. 

Media outlets owned by self-governed foundations dedicated to supporting free and professional journalism and subsidised by the state so as not to rely on advertising can prevent them from unethical management practices. Journalist trade unions can protect journalists from market volatility, can negotiate insurance (currently prohibitively expensive for journalists in Ukraine, for example), can promote media ethics and encourage political support for media pluralism. 

There is also a call for national and international legislation to provide a right of access to public documents and to avoid defamation cases, encouraging investigative journalism and facilitating holding elites accountable. The EU’s recent agreement on digital services made a start in implementing transparency and accountability regimes for digital media platforms. In the face of Musk’s Twitter takeover, the RSF has called for the US to follow suit and pass similar legislation to protect the platform as a democratic communication and information space.

Press freedom is critical for the freedom and safety of all humans and for the future of society and the planet. It is vital that ethical values, responsible leadership and accountability be key tenets of media ownership and journalism, and that legislation and other structures be put in place to safeguard the freedom of the press globally.

Learn more about media ethics and press freedom in the Library.
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