Proposing principles for today’s media policy

Media policy in the digital age should be founded on the enduring right to freedom of expression, according to Guy Berger, UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development.

“Freedom of expression is not an option, it is an obligation in media policy – especially if the aim is to build knowledge societies and achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda,” he said.

The UNESCO official was delivering a keynote speech on “Essential principles for contemporary media and communications policy making”, at the conference in Belgrade, Serbia this week. The event was titled “Agenda for change: developing media in the digital age”, and was organised by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on 16-17 November.

Berger suggested that a rights-based policy-making for contemporary media could be understood in terms of building social consensus based on common interest, but it should also be kept in mind that policy was also invariably about power contests.

“In addition, digital media policy is sometimes chaotic and piecemeal, and at times it serves mainly as symbolic theatre,” he said.

“Nevertheless,” elaborated the Director, “seriousness and co-ordination is certainly needed for media policy in the light of the recognition in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the need for public access to information and fundamental freedoms.”

He went on to highlight the policy relevance of countries now adopting, and adding to, global SDG indicators in order to be able to assess their individual progress towards public access to information as part of sustainable development.

Berger listed examples of long-standing media policy issues that were being intensified in the digital era. These include matters like press freedom, licensing independence, fairness of state advertising, various subsidies, professionalism, concentration of ownership, community media, transparency of ownership, content and staffing diversity, whistle-blowers, confidential sources, freedom of information, criminal defamation, insult laws, media role in elections, and local content amongst others.

New policy issues included matters like: Broadband Internet access and affordability, new media sustainability, digital television transition, filtering and blocking, the interlinked aspects of surveillance-privacy-data retention, digital safety, disinformation, ‘the right to be forgotten’, self-regulation and co-regulation of internet platforms, jurisdictional questions, and the power of technology companies.
He commented that the evolution of the European Union’s digital single market would further enable traditional non-media actors to enter into mass communications, requiring existing media entities to anticipate and respond to increased competition. “This is another issue that Serbia’s policies on media development may need to consider,” he said.

Referring to UNESCO’s new report, World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, the Director highlighted four areas of relevance to contemporary policy-making:

  • Media Freedom globally is experiencing increased state curbs on the imparting of information, which at the same time also contrast with improvements in people’s rights to access information held by the state.  
  • Media Independence is facing increasing political and business pressures on professional standards of journalism, although there is renewed interest in self-regulation in the media and Internet sectors.
  • There are increased verbal, physical and digital attacks on the media, although many actors are pushing back under inspiration the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. UNESCO is closely watching the work of the Commission for Investigating Killings of Journalists in Serbia, said Berger.
  • On whether people globally have increased media choice, the World Trends report notes increasing pluralism of content, but also concern with the decline of newspapers as the primary generators of news, and the lack of progress in gender equality in the media.

It would be of interest for Serbia to assess how it compared to these international trends, said Berger.

UNESCO’s concept of “Internet Universality” is a useful tool for for holistic policy-making, added the UNESCO official, because it covered the principles of rights, openness, accessibility and multistakeholder participation.  The project of developing related indicators could help a country assess gaps where digitally-related policy could be improved, he said.