The impact of technology on media ethics and freedom of the press
by Alain Modoux
The so-called New Information and Communication Technologies (NICT), in particular the Internet, offer tremendous hope for millions of people who until now had no other choice but to keep silent because they lacked the appropriate tools to communicate beyond the sound of their voices or were condemned to silence by their governments. Thanks to the Internet, these men and women can now escape isolation or censorship and openly exercise their rights which include the ability - according to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". They are gaining their "personal sovereignty" in the information society. Used properly, information technology can be a tool of empowerment for ordinary people giving them greater self-confidence and better understanding of their rights and encouraging more involvement in the exercise of democracy.
But the Internet upsets or even disconcerts many established powers, in particular where authoritarian or totalitarian regimes prevail. Officially driven by moral and/or religious considerations which, in fact, conceal very often political or security considerations, these authorities believe that they should restrict free access to the Internet and/or limit its impact. Although, contrary to traditional means of expression on paper or film, this new media is more difficult to control because its intangible nature renders it somewhat elusive. This often undetectable censorship, however, is perfidious because it is based on an immaterial support of information. Thus, the Internet becomes part of the long list of means of expression which are victims of censorship.
The scope of measures which governmental authorities can take to restrict the free access to the Internet and/or limit its impact, is very diverse:
Firstly, there are the fiscal and financial measures, such as imposing high taxation on the necessary basic material (terminals and modems), or fixing exorbitant telecommunication rates.
Secondly, there are the administrative measures such as obliging customers to register with the authorities to obtain the permission to use the Internet or to open a site and those forcing service providers to filter or block sites which are judged to contain information contrary to certain moral, religious, political or security standards.
It is interesting to note that these restrictive measures affect primarily the people of developing countries, thus widening the gap which already divides them from the industrialised countries of the North. Nevertheless, there is hope that a development towards more freedom will take place in the future in the wake of an emerging or continually evolving democratic process. Maybe I am being too optimistic!
Other countries, while reaffirming their commitment to respect freedom of expression, are concerned about potential abuses and lack of control on the Internet, whether it be related to the protection of children, confidentiality of personal data, protection of the private life of individuals or intellectual properties and copyright. The list is not exhaustive.
In some instances, for example in the war against paedophilia and racist or hate propaganda, it is often very tempting to condemn the "crime weapon" rather than the criminals themselves. In these cases, therefore, the Internet and the service providers which facilitate its distribution are blamed since the criminals are more difficult to identify. We must not mistake the target ! Yet, there are some other very delicate issues, for example, the war against terrorism, which include the significant difficulty of finding a balance between the restrictive measures required for the war against crime and the respect of fundamental rights, especially, the right to information.
However, the most alarming problem - alarming because it cannot be solved in the short term - is that of people who are left out because of poverty. They are excluded from the "information society", deprived of an extraordinary means of communication, that is the Internet, and cannot exercise their right to information. These hundreds of millions of men and women - more than four billion live on less than 2 dollars per day - will be even more isolated in the future than they are today. The gap widens not only between the North and the South, but also within the South, between the educated and wealthy elite and middle classes of the cities and the most underprivileged, which includes people living in large cities and in the rural areas. On a smaller scale, this dichotomy also exists in the North where unemployment has become the main factor of exclusion.
The changes brought about by the NCTI are altering radically the way traditional media are working, be they print or broadcasting media. Actually they introduce the concept of "new journalism" in a multi-media, multi-channel and satellite environment and offer the possibility of developing inter-active news and current affairs services on a 24-hour basis. Thanks to technological developments information can be disseminated around the world swiftly and easily. These new services are expected to enhance economic performance, increase employment and dramatically improve levels of pluralism. On the other hand, they are also altering employment conditions by making them less secure and by favouring the use of a growing number of freelancers whose community, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), is "the fastest growing sector in the world of journalism",
In general, less money is spent on investigative reporting and training, while new qualification standards require that journalists take on new skills in order to maintain existing jobs, very often at the expense of creative journalistic work. As traditional media companies are increasingly becoming multi-media factories where information is processed and used for various media at differing times, the barrier between audiovisual journalism and publishing is disappearing. Convergence is bringing journalists together, but often at a heavy price when it comes to quality and standards. At the same time the barriers between the commercial areas of media activity - advertising, marketing, promotion - are also being broken down as journalism is defined more and more as an economic rather than social and cultural activities. Distinctions between journalistic and public relations work are increasingly difficult to maintain.
According to the IFJ which is conducting in-depth studies on the NICT impact on journalism, "although thousands of jobs are being created in the information processing business, much of it overlapping with traditional areas of journalism, many of these new workers are not identified as journalists. Often they work in companies which lack appreciation of notions of journalistic standards and ethics. Journalism traditionally has been seen to have social and cultural responsibilities to society, but many new multi-media companies see information only as a commodity".
The IFJ report also stresses that "the history of traditional media, newspapers and broadcasting organizations, is rooted in democratic values and citizenís rights. The public information space has been largely people-centred, reflecting the variety, plurality and diversity of society. Now exploitation of new technologies and media convergence is creating a volatile global marketplace in which traditional values are diminished and that demands action to protect peopleís right to information, to maintain independent and professional media to guarantee accessibility to all services, and to maintain privacy."
The issue of content control, whether it is a matter of journalistic ethics or the types of services on offer to the public, remains one of the most delicate problem facing journalists in the age of the Internet. There is a general agreement among all media professionals, journalists as well as publishers or broadcasters, to strongly oppose attempts to monitor and regulate their work by outsiders, particularly by legislators. As mentioned earlier when speaking about the Internet, many governments are looking for technical mechanisms to ensure that existing restrictive laws and standards of regulations concerning content of information apply to the new media.
Codes of professional conduct such as those supported by journalistsí unions and ethical monitoring structures that maintain standards of content are an important basis for self-regulation. The aim must be to promote self-regulation and voluntary methods of setting and maintaining standards of content. Journalistsí unions should support efforts to define ethical issues that apply to electronic information services. In particular, they can promote professionalism through training programmes for on-line journalists and content providers to try to ensure a minimum set of standards in the gathering, preparation and dissemination of reliable information in a digital environment.
Editorial independence as the safeguard of free information must be ensured in the new information services. Quality of information, which can be guaranteed by promotion of independent professional journalism working to high ethical and professional standards, will help expand the information market-place and inspire public confidence. Furthermore, as emphasized in the IFJ study, "Where monitoring of content is needed there should be a clear separation in the framework of regulation between responsibilities for regulating technical infrastructure and competition policy and the monitoring of content. These two areas of activity are distinct and should not be merged."
Another very sensitive issue related to the NICT and the media concerns the authorsí right. Journalists are fighting a hard battle for authorsí rights in Europe where newspaper publishers, television and multimedia producers argue that the continental European concept of authorsí rights should be changed to match the Anglo-American copyright system where the original author loses all his or her rights once he or she has received payment for his or her work. This not only concerns the material aspects of journalism, but it also has implications for editorial independence, freedom of expression, ethics and quality.
Authorsí rights give authors the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, perform, broadcast, translate and adapt their work. Journalists, photographers and programme makers deem it essential that they retain authority over their intellectual property and control what happens to their work.. They feel they should be able to decide for themselves how their work may be used and by whom. Distorting or twisting facts arranged in a specific order can give a story a different turn or angle. In short, they are of the opinion that strong moral rights guarantee the authenticity, quality and integrity of work, and can also promote high ethical standards.
Regarding the official position of UNESCO towards these issues, it is worth noting that the General Conference endorsed, in November 1997, the concern expressed in the Sofia Declaration by media professionals that "the access to and the use of these new media should be afforded the same freedom of expression protection as traditional media". This position is consistent with the New Communication Strategy adopted by its Member States in 1989 which aims "to encourage the free flow of information, at the international as well as national levels, to promote the wider and better balanced dissemination of information, without any obstacle to freedom of expression, and to strengthen communication capacities in the developing countries in order to increase their participation in the communication process". Recent discussions of the Executive Committee of UNESCO follow the same direction. Member States also believe it is preferable to encourage self-regulation among Internet users according to ethical values applicable to each society.
As a first objective of this new strategy, UNESCO committed itself to promoting freedom of expression, the cornerstone of human rights, as well as its corollary, freedom of the press, the essential component of any democratic society. Freedom of expression is a sine qua non condition for all citizens to participate in the democratic life and development of a society and the building of peace. Free exercise of this right is in fact a condition for the realization of all other rights. It is essential to the equitable practice of justice because the principle of the rule of law is insufficient. Laws must be just and not the product of an authoritarian power beyond the control of its citizens who are reduced to silence and submissiveness.
In addition, the current UNESCO strategy consists of defending the freedom of expression and information; encouraging affordable access to information for all, that is promoting universal access to new media, primarily the Internet; and helping the most underprivileged individuals to participate in the "information society" whether it be traditional media or the NTIC and have access to basic communication and information services. This will be carried out by setting up structures and implementing programmes which allow those excluded to receive the basic knowledge required to achieve their "personal sovereignty" and thus become fully-fledged citizens of the information society.
Globally, this consists of preserving free access to information "available to the general public" while maintaining an equitable balance between the legitimate interests of the holders of copyrights and the public interest: The Internet should not become a medium dominated by business interests. Finally, everything possible should be done to introduce pluralism in the information society. This is necessary, on the one hand, for the individual to benefit from new technologies, and on the other, for other languages to find their place in cyberspace, alongside the dominant language, English. In addition to language, survival and development of minority cultures are at stake.
In conclusion, only a major collaborative effort of the whole international community will ensure that a maximum of men and women benefit from the extraordinary opportunities offered by the new information society, especially the Internet . This is required to prevent a gigantic virtual "cyber-ghetto", on the fringe of a privileged minority, to which billions of individuals excluded from the information society will be relegated. These are the new helots of the 2lst century. As a result, not only Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be compromised, but the entire edifice of human rights, and especially its Article one which states " All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
| || ||Mr Alain Modoux is Director of UNESCOís Unit for Freedom of Expression and Democracy|
This paper was first presented at the Second annual Carribbean Media Conference, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago 30 April - 2 May, 1999,
Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.