Some are urging national governments to ‘regulate’ social media in ways similar to how newspapers, television and radio are regulated. This is easier said than done where globalized social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are concerned, because national governments don’t have jurisdiction over them.
But does this mean that globalized media companies are above the law? Short of blocking entire platforms from being accessed within their territories, what other options do governments have? Do ‘user community standards’ that some social media platforms have adopted offer a sufficient defence against hate speech, cyber bullying and other excesses?
In this conversation, Lankan science writer Nalaka Gunawardene discusses these and related issues with Toby Mendel, a human rights lawyer specialising in freedom of expression, the right to information and democracy rights.
Mendel is the executive director of the Center for Law and Democracy (CLD) in Canada. Prior to founding CLD in 2010, Mendel was for over 12 years Senior Director for Law at ARTICLE 19, a human rights NGO focusing on freedom of expression and the right to information.
The interview was recorded in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 5 July 2017.
Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement (FMM) is media freedom watchdog organization of Journalists. Started in 1992, it completes 25 years in 2017. FMM has been active in all areas relating to media freedom, defending the rights of journalists and other media workres. It also has called for reform of legislation, agitating against censorship and intimidation of media personnel and standing for broad principles of democracy and human rights.
I was invited to speak at the 25th anniversary commemoration held in Colombo on 21 November 2017. Here is a synopsis of my remarks, which were delivered in Sinhala (see below):
Sri Lanka’s media went through its worst period in history during the decade 2005-2014, when journalists and media houses became regular targets of goon squads who acted with impunity. Prominent journalists were killed, made to disappear, or captured and tortured. The government of the day promised ‘prompt investigations’ but nothing happened. For some time, Sri Lanka was one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. FMM and other media rights groups did whatever they could, non-violently, to defend media freedom and the public’s right to know.
That state of siege has ended with the change of government in January 2015. Critics of the government and independent journalists no longer face violent reprisals. But no one can be certain whether this marks a temporary ‘ceasefire’ or a permanent ‘peace’ in the long drawn conflict between the Lankan state and Lankan journalists.
So let us take advantage of the current ‘lull’ — for however long it lasts — to advocate some legal and institutional reforms that will strengthen the safety of journalists and ensure the Constitutional guarantees of free expression work in reality. For the media community to have societal support for these reforms, the media’s ethical conduct and professionalism must be improved, urgently. Otherwise, why should the public support the rights of an irresponsible, unethical and compromised media?
On a brief visit to Berlin, Germany, to speak at a media research and academic symposium, I was invited by Germany’s Reporters without Borders (RSF, or Reporter ohne Grenzen) to address a side event at their office that looked at media freedom status and media development needs of Sri Lanka.
It was a small gathering that involved some media rights activists, researchers and journalists in Germany who take an interest in media freedom and media development issues in Asia. I engaged in a conversation first with Anne Renzenbrink of RSF Germany (who covers Asia) and then with my audience.
I said the media freedoms have significantly improved since the change of government in Jan 2015 – journalists and activists are no longer living in fear of white vans and government goon squads when they criticise political leaders.
But the pre-2015 benchmarks were abysmally low and we should never be complacent with progress so far, as much more needs to be done. We need to institutionalise media freedoms AND media responsibilities. So our media reforms agenda is both wide ranging and urgent, I said (and provided some details).
I used my favourite metaphor: the media freedom glass in Sri Lanka is less than half full today, and we need to gradually fill it up. But never forget: there was no water, and not even a glass, before Jan 2015!
Sri Lanka has risen 24 points in the World Press Freedom Index that RSF compiles every year: 2016, we jumped up from 165th rank (in 2015, which reflected the previous year’s conditions) to 141st rank out of 180 countries assessed. The new ranking remained the same between 2016 and 2017. Sri Lanka is still marked as red on the world map of the Index, indicating ‘Difficult situation’. We still have a long way to go…
When asked how European partners can help, I said: please keep monitoring media freedom in Sri Lanka, provide international solidarity when needed, and support the journalists’ organisations and trade unions to advocate for both media rights and media professionalism.
I was also asked about slow progress in investigating past atrocities against journalists and media organisations; recent resumption of web censorship after a lull of two years; how journalists are benefitting from Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information law; the particular challenges faced by journalists in the North and East of Sri Lanka (former war areas); and the status of media regulation by state and self-regulation by the media industry.
I also touched on how the mainstream media’s monopoly over news gathering and analysis has been ended by social media becoming a place where individuals are sharing news, updates – as well as misinformation, thereby raising new challenges.
I gave candid and measured answers, all of which are on the record but too detailed to be captured here. My answers were consistent with what I have been saying in public forums (within and outside Sri Lanka), and publicly on Twitter and Facebook.
And, of course, I was speaking my personal views and not the views of any entity that I am working with.
The German “Forum on Media and Development” (Forum Medien und Entwicklung, FOME) is a network of institutions and individuals active in the field of media development cooperation. I was invited to participate in, and moderate a panel at FoME Symposium 2017 held in Berlin on 16 – 17 November 2017.
This year’s symposium theme was Power Shifts – Media Freedom and the Internet. It explored how Internet governance issues are becoming more and more important for those who want to develop media (both mainstream media and social media) as democratic platforms.
On 17 November 2017, I moderated an international panel on Fake News: Tackling the phenomena respecting freedom of expression. It brought together representatives from government, civil society and a global media platform to discuss their roles and how they can interact to tackle the issue – all within the framework of Freedom of Expression (FOE).
Miriam Estrin, Public Policy Manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Google
Here are my opening remarks that set the context for our discussion:
Just as there are many definitions of Fake News, there can also be many perspectives on the topic. We all recognise Fake News as a problem, so let’s focus on how it can be countered. What are the local, national and global level strategies? What alliances, tools and resources are needed for such countering? What cautions and alarms can we raise?
To respond to any problem, we need to understand its contours.
Fake News is not new. The phenomenon has been around, in one form or another, for decades! Many of us in the global South have grown up amidst intentionally fake news stories in our media, some of it coming from governments, no less. And the developing world governments don’t have a monopoly over Fake News either: for over half a century, the erstwhile Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries manufactured a vast amount of disinformation (i.e. deliberately wrong information) that was fed to their own citizens and spread overseas in sustained propaganda efforts.
Sitting here, within a few kilometres from where the Berlin Wall once stood, we need to acknowledge that veritable factory of lies that operated on the other side!
So what’s new? During the past decade, as broadband Internet spread worldwide, fake news peddlers found an easy and fast medium online. From websites to social media accounts (many hiding behind pseudonyms), the web has provided a globalised playing field where dubious content could go ‘viral’.
Yesterday at this Symposium, Mark Nelson from CIMA said “We live in a world where lies are very cheap, and much easier to disseminate than the truth.”
Which reminded me of one of my favourite quotes: ““A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes!”
Variations of this quote have been attributed to several persons including Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. Whoever said it first, these words neatly sum up a long standing challenge to modern societies: how to cope with the spread of deliberate falsehoods.
As Mark Nelson asked us yesterday, how can we “make the Internet a place where truth is valued and spread – instead of disinformation?” This is the crux of our challenge.
So what is to be done? Among the options available, which ones are most desirable?
In searching for solutions to the Fake News crisis, we must recognise it is a nuanced, complex and variable phenomenon. There cannot be one global solution or quick fix.
Indeed, any ‘medicine’ prescribed for the malady of Fake News should not be worse than the ailment itself! We must proceed with caution, safeguarding the principles of Freedom of Expression and applying its reasonable limitations.
As human rights defenders caution, there is a danger that governments in their zeal to counter fake news could impose direct or indirect censorships, suppress critical thinking, or take other steps that violate international human rights law. This is NOT the way to deal with Fake News.
In my view, Fake News is a symptom of a wider and deeper crisis. It is a crisis of public trust in journalism and the media that has been building up over the years in many countries. Some call this a ‘Journalism Deficit’, or a gulf between what journalism ought be, and what it has (mostly) become today.
In my view, a free press is not an automatic guarantee against Fake News. In other words, media freedom is necessary — but not sufficient — to ensure that media content is trusted by the public. We need to better measure public trust in media and what the current trust levels mean for those producing media content professionally.
I would argue that the medium to long term response to Fake News is to narrow and bridge the Journalism Deficit by nurturing quality journalism and critical consumption of media. If you agree with this premise, what specific measures can we recommend and advocate?
Let us explore how media development can counter Fake News by exposing it, undermining it, and equipping media consumers with the knowledge and skills to spot it – and not spread it inadvertently.
For this, we need everyone’s cooperation.
We need global social media platforms and digital gatekeepers like Google to join with all their might (and what might!).
We need governments to be thoughtfully, carefully evaluate the optimum responses.
We need civil society to go beyond mere hand waving and finger pointing to help enhance media and information literacy.
We need researchers to keep studying and discerning trends that can influence policy and regulation (where appropriate).
We are not going to solve the problem in an hour. But we can at least ask the right questions, and clarify the issues in our minds. Onward!