World Press Freedom Day: UNESCO Beirut speaks up about “journalism under digital siege”

NNA - UNESCO Beirut Office celebrated today the World Press Freedom Day, in partnership with Social Media Exchange (SMEX), under this year’s theme “Journalism UnderDigital Siege”. The celebration aimed to spotlight how recent developments in technological means of monitoring and surveillance impact journalism and freedom of expression.

Over the past 5 years, 85 % of the world’s population have experienced a decline in press freedom in their country and 400 journalists have been killed while doing their job. Global newspaper advertising revenues have dropped by half, severely threatening the survival of media outlets. These threats have been further exacerbated by the rise of new technologies. There was an increase in digital attacks, especially against women journalists. New digital business models, the development of surveillance technologies, the transparency of Internet companies as well as large-scale data collection and retention, are all changes that pose risks in terms of reprisals against media workers and their sources, thereby affecting the free exercise of journalism, access to information, data protection and privacy. 

Speaking at the inauguration of the celebration, George Awad, National Programme Officer for Communication and Information at UNESCO Beirut, reminded that "freedom of expression is a fundamental human right on which all civil liberties are based. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy, and UNESCO has been entrusted with the task of protecting and promoting freedom of expression, through all means: traditional and modern via the Internet.”

He added: “The recently released UNESCO Global Trends Report, “Threats that silence: trends in the safety of journalists”,highlights that surveillance and piracy undermine journalism.The constant evolution, undetectable, and increasing use of malware and spyware against journalists and human rights defenders by state and non-state actors, jeopardizes a free and independent press. Surveillance can also expose information collected by journalists, including from whistleblowers, and violate source protection, a universal basic requirement for media freedom enshrined in United Nations resolutions. Censorship may jeopardize as well the safety of journalists by disclosing sensitive private information that could be used in abusive judicial harassment or attack.” “Artificial intelligence-enabled monitoring of journalists' movements, phishing of journalists backed by data mining and automated attacks also threaten the free practice of journalism, he said. Lower costs mean that illegal surveillance by state or private actors can be broader, disproportionate, and more intrusive. And there is growing global encouragement for increased transparency about how internet companies exploit citizen data, and how it is used to inform predictive models, artificial intelligence, and amplify disinformation and hate.”

From his side, Abed Kataya, Director of Digital Content at SMEX, affirmed that "just as the means of delivering voice, image and word have evolved, so have the means to prevent it." He added: “There are many challenges in our region, such asoutdated or loose laws: cybercrime laws that only consider a newspaper article or Facebook post as a cybercrime, defense and counter-terrorism laws and laws for the criminalization of fakenews, which of course do not protect societies as much as theyprotect the powerful. Not to forget blocking the Internet, in a comprehensive way, a method that has been adopted at different levels in many countries of our region without taking into account the economic and humanitarian damages resulting from it, and of course, the ban on thousands of news and press websites. More importantly, while digital tools have become essential in journalistic work, protecting them has become equivalent to protecting the journalists themselves. Butjournalists have not given up, and they are fighting today another battle, in the legal framework or outside it, to prosecute those who spied on them and those who provided the spies with technical tools. In front of the public opinion, many colleagues have shown solidarity and synergy, so they joined forces to confront these dangers and share best practices that guarantee physical and digital safety, in order to communicate the truth." 

This year’s theme was then addressed through two sessions. The first one tackled “Media freedom, spyware, safety of journalists and the right to privacy in the digital era” and was moderated by journalist Ranim Bou Khzam, from UNESCO Beirut Office. Jack Bakaev, from Internet Society (ISOC), Lama Fakih, from Human Rights Watch and Abed Kataya, from SMEX, discussedfreedom of the press in light of the various forms of digital attacks against journalists, with the current technological developments that accompany the rise of digital espionage and hacking tools.

The second session, titled “Media challenges in a culture of impunity” was moderated by lecturer and media consultantRouba El-Helou from Notre-Dame University, and featured interventions by Hala Bejjani, from International Media Support (IMS), Roula Mikhael, from Maharat Foundation, Roula Najem, from SEEDS for Legal Initiatives and Edmond Sassine, from Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International. The session focused on protecting sources, as well as finding solutions and alternatives to the current media system, and ways to improve the media from within, without resorting to the judiciary, that is, how to create self-management within the institutions to preserve the ethics of the profession.

Every year, 3 May acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story. World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 following a Recommendation adopted at the twenty-sixth session of UNESCO's General Conference in 1991. This in turn was a response to a call by African journalists who in 1991 produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media pluralism and independence.-- UNESCO

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