Energize, Polarize, Mobilize! Human Rights, Participation, Activism, Internet is the title of an international conference taking place in Berlin today, followed by two days of workshops tomorrow and on Sunday. The idea behind it:
The spread of digital technologies has given new opportunities to activists around the world. At the same time they can also be the cause of new threats to activists and people using digital media for political communication or mobilization.
I just presented my keynote on old and new threats to press freedom (I was asked because I’m on the board of the German section of Reporters without Borders).
Now I think there’s a danger inherent in talking about press freedom on a global scale: one can barely escape comparing the severity of threats to press freedom. So it would be hard to escape the impression that I’m equating things that are not equal – a threat to press freedom in form of a lawsuit against a journalist is in most cases less severe in its consequences than if the journalist is beaten up, tortured or even killed. Nevertheless, it is still a threat to press freedom; it can have existential results, for example the destruction of the journalist’s economic livelihood, and we need to defend ourselves against it.
So instead of using a normative approach I’d like to follow a more analytical path and will try map out the different threats to press freedom that currently exist.
In order to do this in an organised fashion, I used a mind mapping tool. This is what came of it (click to enlarge):
Uh-oh. Pretty complex, isn’t it? Certainly. But the only way to map out where threats to press freedom come from is to acknowledge this complexity. Because it clarifies that there are no states where freedom of the press is absolute. We have some states where only few of these threats exist or some are only minor; we have states where all of these threats exist and therefore press freedom is a distant dream for many.
It also helps us to identify latest developments in threats to press freedom (these claims are still contested because of different ideas and definitions of what constitutes censorship [Wikipedia definition]).
Censorship on the individual level
In the past, only publishers were targeted by censorship. „You can’t publish this, therefore no one can read it.“ Now that we’re all publishers, all of us can be censored. Additionally, while censorship of publishers of course still exists and even worsens under some circumstances, censorship can also work on an individual level: „We don’t want you to read this, therefore we’ll block this piece of information for / from you.”
This last instance of censorship can be performed not just by governments, but also by private corporations. Now we must not make the mistake of underestimating the threats from governments, even in so called open societies:
The Obama administration has prosecuted more alleged leakers of national security information under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. [via]
At the same time, we need to look very closely at the issue of what we at Reporters without Borders call platform neutrality, knowing that this is not (yet) an established term or definition. It’s the idea that some players / actors need to be regulated by society because they have established a reach that puts them in a dominant position in distributing information and providing access to it. There is ample evidence of this happening.
But to assess the situation and continue the discussion about whether this establishes a situation that requires regulation, we need a lot more evidence and examples. So if you stumble across instances where this happens, especially when journalism is affected, let us know. Either by leaving comments here or by using good old email.