Journalism Under Digital Siege

This is the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day.

This was announced during COLPIN, Latin America’s major gathering of investigative journalists, which took place in Canelones, Uruguay, this year’s host of the World Press Freedom Day conference in partnership with UNESCO or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

This year’s celebration spotlights how recent developments in technological means of monitoring and surveillance impact journalism and freedom of expression. In fact, freedom of expression and the right to privacy are among the human rights most impacted by the digital transformation.

While in the pre-Internet world, freedom of expression and privacy were thought to only interact when journalists reported on public figures in the name of the right to know, the rights have become increasingly interdependent. This linkage reflects digital business models and the development of new surveillance technologies and large-scale data collection and retention. The changes pose risks in terms of reprisals against media workers and their sources, thereby affecting the free exercise of journalism.

The event will serve to highlight current challenges to the rights to freedom of expression and privacy, posed by digital business models, the development of new surveillance technologies, and large-scale data collection and retention.

The impact of the increasing use of spyware against journalists and their sources, and the implications on the exercise of free and independent journalism will also be analyzed.

As highlighted in the latest UNESCO World Trends Report Insights Discussion Paper Threats that Silence, Trends in the Safety of Journalists, surveillance  and  hacking  compromise  the  protection  of  journalists’  sources, as was  recently illustrated by investigative journalism and factchecking organizations.

According to UNESCO, protecting against digital threats has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more journalists working remotely and relying on personal devices.

In a global survey on journalism during the pandemic, conducted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, a significant portion of the 1,406 respondents reported blatant threats of government surveillance (7 percent); targeted digital security attacks, including phishing, distributed denial of service (DDoS), or malware (4 percent); or forced data handover (3 percent).”

The World Press Freedom Day Global Conference will reunite relevant policymakers, award-winning journalists, media representatives, specialized NGOs, activists, ICT corporate chief ethicists, cybersecurity managers, AI researchers and legal experts to explore and develop concrete solutions to address the threats posed by increased surveillance to press freedom and privacy.

Every year, 3 May is a date which 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. 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.

At the core of UNESCO’s mandate is freedom of the press and freedom of expression. UNESCO believes that these freedoms allow for mutual understanding to build a sustainable peace.

It serves as an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom – a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world, publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.

It is a date to encourage and develop initiatives in favor of press freedom, and to assess the state of press freedom worldwide.