Time to reflect on new media

Beaven Dhliwayo Features Writer
Every year, May 3rd is a date on which the world celebrates the fundamental principles of Press freedom; to evaluate Press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

The date was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 following a recommendation adopted at the 26th session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991.

It serves 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 to remember those journalists who lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

This year, World Press Freedom Day is running under the theme, “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.”

The theme of the day aligns well with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by the UN General Assembly in 2015.

SDG 16 is concerned with issues of democracy and peace as prerequisites for equitable and sustainable development.

It states that: “When freedom of expression and safety of journalists are protected, the media can play a vital role in preventing conflict and in supporting peaceful democratic processes.”

SDG 16.10 also urges states to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”

Ensuring the safety of journalists the world over is primarily the way by which countries can foster the independence and freedom of the Press as crucial for democracy.

Statistics from UN show that at least 1 019 human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists have been killed in 61 countries since 2015.

This is equivalent to one person killed every day while working to inform the public and build a world free from fear and want.

The UN further states that freedom-of-information laws and policies have been adopted by 116 countries, with at least 25 countries doing so over the last five years. However, implementation remains a challenge.

Since 1998, more than half of countries (116 of 197) have established a national human rights institution that has been peer reviewed for compliance with internationally agreed standards (the Paris Principles), the UN says. However, only 75 of these countries have institutions that are fully compliant.

A clear example of persecution on media freedom is the United States of America prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stemming from his publications in 2010 and 2011 of hundreds of thousands of US military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as American diplomatic communications.

The material was originally leaked to WikiLeaks by former army analyst Chelsea Manning.

Appearing by videolink from Belmarsh Prison, Assange said: “I do not wish to surrender myself for extradition for doing journalism that has won many, many awards and protected many, many people.”

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe held its harmonised elections on July 30, 2018 to elect the President and members of both houses of Parliament and no killings of journalists have been reported.

There was a level playing field among journalists from State, private and international media organisations as they covered rallies from different political parties, during and after the elections without any harassment from the authorities.

This was possible because the New Dispensation led by President Mnangagwa before and after his sound victory as the people’s President really understands that the media are essential to democracy, and a democratic election is impossible without media.

It is common knowledge that a free and fair election is not only about the freedom to vote and the knowledge of how to cast a vote, but also about a participatory process where voters engage in public debate and have adequate information about parties, policies, candidates and the election process itself in order to make informed choices, and this was evident as the country geared itself for the last year’s harmonised elections.

All political parties received media coverage in the run up to harmonised elections and not a single journalist was deterred from practising their constitutional duties of informing the public on events of such great significance.

President Mnangagwa promised citizens that freedom of speech, of assembly and the right to criticise the Government is protected by his administration.

“This is an indispensable part of the new Zimbabwe. It is non-negotiable and will not change. We won the election freely and fairly, and have nothing to hide or fear. Anyone is free to address the media at any time,” he said on his official Twitter account in August last year when riot police tried to disrupt a Press conference which was called by MDC leader Nelson Chamisa at a hotel in the capital.

Furthermore, media acts as a crucial watchdog to democratic elections, safeguarding the transparency of the process.

Indeed, a democratic election with no media freedom or stifled media freedom would be a contradiction.

But above all, in order to fulfil their roles and avoid the spread of fake news and hate speech, the media need to maintain a high level of professionalism, accuracy and impartiality in their coverage. Regulatory frameworks are also crucial to help ensure high standards.

In any country, under any government, laws and regulations always warrant fundamental freedoms essential to democracy, including freedom of information and expression as well as participation.

Meanwhile, provisions such as requiring government media, funded out of public money, to give fair coverage and equitable access to opposition parties help ensure appropriate media behaviour during elections.

In the past years, the media have been understood to refer to the printed press as well as radio and television broadcasters.

In recent years, however, the definition has become broader, encompassing new media including online journalism, and social media. Citizen journalism is widely gaining traction, including in countries where traditional media is either controlled or strictly regulated.

However, this new media setting is so dynamic and continues to develop in novel, sometimes unanticipated ways that have serious consequences for democratic governance and politics.

If not regulated, it can cause harm as it is manipulated by malcontent individuals to spread malice that can result, for example unnecessary demonstrations that are meant to unseat democratically elected Governments.

It is now as clear as a bell that new media have radically altered the way that government institutions operate, the way that political leaders communicate, the manner in which elections are contested, and citizen engagement.

The rise of new media has complicated the political media system. Legacy media consisting of established media institutions that pre-date the Internet, such as newspapers, radio shows and television news programmes, coexist with new media that are the outgrowth of technological innovation.

While legacy media maintain relatively stable formats, the litany of new media, which includes websites, blogs, video-sharing platforms, digital apps, and social media, are continually expanding in innovative ways.

This kind of media is what the media fraternity, on this year’s World Press Freedom Day and beyond, should handle cautiously and professionally as it can cause harm to societies because of misinformation. New media can relay information directly to individuals without the intervention of editorial or institutional gatekeepers, which are intrinsic to legacy forms.

Thus, new media have introduced an increased level of instability and unpredictability into the political communication process.

The main celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2019 is currently underway in Addis Ababa from May 1 and will end on May 3, 2019.

The event provides a platform for multiple actors to exchange views on current issues, threats and achievements concerning freedom of the Press.

This year, UNESCO also launched the Defend Journalism Campaign that encourages media to show their solidarity for a free and independent Press through the use of banners on their printed publications and digital platforms.

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