Numerous government and civil society representatives are meeting in Estonia’s capital this week for a global conference on media freedom. Can it pave the way towards urgently needed action?
The upcoming global gathering is the third conference of the Media Freedom Coalition (MFC), an informal alliance of governments who want to advance media freedom as a topic of international policy. The MFC was established in 2019 and now has over 50 members.
Against a backdrop of growing awareness of the rising need to bolster media freedom, the group could have powerful potential to drive development. But some experts say the MFC will need to work harder to move beyond symbolic commitments and enact real change on the issue. Here's a primer to put the conference in context and look at how it can be most effective.
The figures are staggering: The share of the world’s population living in autocracies has risen from 48 percent to 68 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the V-Dem Institute. In 2021, Freedom House reported a decline in global freedom for the 15th consecutive year. Threats to independent media, and to freedom of expression more broadly, play a key role in these developments — with major implications for international stability and the UN development agenda.
Civil society organizations, think tanks and media development organizations have been promoting media freedom and viable information ecosystems for many years. While these topics were long considered somewhat niche in the diplomatic world, this has now started to change.
This was apparent at the December 2021 Summit for Democracy, where media freedom featured prominently on the agenda and numerous states present promised to increase support for independent journalism at home and abroad. At the summit, several MFC member states committed to increasing their engagement within the alliance, most notably Canada and the Netherlands, the next co-chairs of MFC.
Independent media is in crisis in many parts of the world, owing to profound changes in media consumption, digitalization, and the rise of social media. However, governments have often overlooked the complex issue of media viability — which would involve fostering a political and legal framework for a healthy media ecosystem as well as supporting media houses in developing business models that allow them to thrive in the digital age.
It is therefore encouraging that there is growing international support for a number of initiatives geared at fostering media viability across the globe. One example is the
International Fund for Public Interest Media, launched in November 2021, which aims to support media outlets' ability to work independently in resource-poor and fragile contexts. Another project, the Media Viability Accelerator, aims at improving the financial independence of media outlets in challenging circumstances. With its Media Viability Indicators, DW Akademie has provided a framework for assessing the viability of media landscapes across the globe.
The MFC's newly created working group on media development is another indicator of the growing interest in independent media as part of broader development efforts. It is also a prominent topic at the conference in Tallinn: among others, the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) will host an event on media viability, where panelists will discuss how to design effective interventions for a strong and sustainable media sector.
At the same time, as media development becomes a focus of attention globally, it is important to ensure initiatives uphold the core principles of effective aid. In this regard, the MFC has a vital role to play. It can link its diplomatic efforts with the media development community and contribute to further standard- and norm-setting. The MFC’s working group on media development can provide a much-needed forum for discussion and experience sharing among diplomats and practitioners.
Surveillance as a threat to journalist safety
Governments increasingly make use of digital technology to track and control journalistic activities. In extreme cases, this can result in appalling consequences. In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression found that the "surveillance of individuals – often journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics and others exercising their right to freedom of expression – has been shown to lead to arbitrary detention, sometimes to torture and possibly to extrajudicial killings".
Recent revelations concerning the powerful Pegasus spyware once again underscore the need to reign in digital surveillance technologies to protect citizens' digital privacy and human rights. However, despite the Special Rapporteur's calls for an immediate moratorium on the sale and transfer of such technology, effective measures have been lacking so far.
The MFC Conference in Tallinn provides another opportunity for governments, media, and civil society to change this. A broader consensus on the issue could be built ahead of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, when a UNESCO Conference is set to discuss "journalism under surveillance". MFC could also provide vital input for the high-level conference marking the 10th anniversary of the UN Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which will be held in November 2022 in Vienna.
The MFC is here to stay, but must level up
The Media Freedom Coalition was launched only a little more than two years ago at the initiative of the governments of the United Kingdom and Canada. It is not a standing organization, but an informal coalition of governments committed to advocating for journalists' safety and protection, and holding those hindering their work, even harming them, to account. This includes diplomatic engagement and issuing statements on individual cases.
But critics note that the MFC's profile is, as yet, scantily defined: Scholars from University of East Anglia found out that many regard the group's activities as primarily symbolic. In Tallinn, the scholars will present an evaluation report on the first two years of the MFC, which might spark further discussion on the role and direction of the coalition in the years to come.
So, what could be effective next steps? The recently opened MFC Secretariat, hosted by the Thompson Foundation, could bolster the MFC's capacity for action and engagement. For this, it will be crucial to engage closely with the MFC's civil society consultative network.
It appears that for now, the MFC is here to stay. However, other questions remain unanswered: Will it develop into a forum for effective support, or remain one diplomatic initiative among others? How does the MFC propose to link with, and build on, the work of bodies like the United Nations? And which activities will MFC members undertake to realize their goals?
If MFC members are serious about strengthening journalistic safety and promoting media freedom worldwide, these are the questions they need to address. In the face of democratic backsliding, digital authoritarianism and shrinking space for civil society, strong voices in support of media freedom are needed more than ever.
Miriam Küller is Advocacy Officer at DW Akademie