Recognising journalism as a world heritage under threat

Society could be facing the destruction of a very particular world heritage - namely, journalism. This is what UNESCO’s Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development told media leaders in his remarks delivered in Durban last week

“With declining economics of media, the world has seen the loss of journalists to redundancies. Add in the other challenges today, and we risk a loss of journalism altogether,” Guy Berger told the Congress of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

The UNESCO Director pointed to a growing flood of disinformation posing as news, causing confusion, and eroding society’s expectation that professional journalism can be trusted.

In place of credible journalism, all “truths” could come to be seen as equally plausible. Individuals would have to fall back on only believing the claims of a strong leader, the views of friends, and the bias of pre-existing assumptions.

“Without journalism standing out in the mix, it will not be possible to find the public path to the sustainable development – a path that is based upon evidence, facts and informed analysis.

“To lose journalism will mean that we find ourselves lost,” stated Berger.

Exacerbating the role of disinformation in intentionally seeking to mislead people and sow doubt in journalism, mainstream media itself is being deliberately discredited as if it were responsible for the “fake news” in circulation. Adding to these pressures, there is also an enormous escalation of online threats that seek to intimidate media practitioners.   

Combined with economic stresses, said Berger, the pressures were putting journalism into long-term jeopardy.

 “We have an urgent imperative to protect journalism, and to rekindle and reinspire public expectations of what journalism can do for us. There is need to signal that no other communications service can fill the gap.

“As important as ensuring protection and reinforcing public expectations, journalism needs to live up to its distinctive promise,” said Berger.

During the Congress, the UNESCO Director also gave the concluding address at a workshop for editors about journalists’ safety. Using the acronym “SAFER”, Berger highlighted five roles that the media could play in terms of shielding their employees:  

“S” – Systems and protection protocols should be put in place, or strengthened, in newsrooms, so as to prepare news personnel in advance of attacks.

“A” – Advocacy and litigation by media could help to ensure state protection of media practitioners under threat and the prosecution of attackers.

“F” – Friendship-building through relationships with NGOs and academia could enable newsrooms to tap into external expertise in safety training and research.

“E” – Empowerment of individual journalists requires editors to arrange safety training and ensure that it covers physical, psychological and digital defence.

“R” – Reportage of safety and impunity issues is needed to document attacks and alert the public about the risks to their right to know.

These five roles, said Berger, were evident in media submissions to the upcoming consultation meeting on strengthening implementation of the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Fulfilling the roles would be a major contribution, he added.

The UNESCO Director also moderated a roundtable on press freedom, as well as introduced a panel for the Africa launch of the new UNESCO publication on the protection of the confidentiality of journalistic sources in the digital age.