Media for democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation

Michael O’Flaherty
Speech during a UN panel debate in Geneva on Media for democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation to mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2019.


Mr Almuzaini,

Mr Hugger,

Ambassador Seck,

Distinguished panellists and participants,

It is my great pleasure to be with you today.

As I prepared my words for this morning's event, I did so under the shadow of the death in recent days of Dejan Anastasijević, the distinguished Serbian journalist who played such an important part in reporting on the conflict in what we then called the former Yugoslavia.

He, through his journalism contributed to the building of a sound peace and a strengthened democracy in that part of the world. Indeed, his death brought back to mind my own experiences of working for the United Nations as a human rights monitor in the region during the 1990s. I can recall very vividly how it was invariably journalists, such as in Sarajevo during the siege, who provided me with what I needed to know to support better respect for human rights.

Journalism plays no less critical a role today for the protection and the strengthening of peaceful democratic societies. The crucial role played by journalists and the great bravery that they show in carrying out their profession was so tragically brought to our attention by yet another death in recent days, that of Lyra McKee. Lyra was killed by terrorists in Derry, Northern Ireland. Her death has achieved considerable attention in the particular context of what it says to the fragility of the Northern Ireland peace process. However, for me today, what is in mind is how she was playing a vital journalistic role that exposed her to mortal danger. She is one of over 95 journalists who have been killed worldwide since the beginning of 2018.  

To say that the role of journalists is as critical today for strong and healthy democracies as it ever was in the 1990s, or in other times, is easy. But we have to acknowledge the quite dramatic ways in which our world has evolved. First and above all else, we have to observe the emergence over time and the increasing domination of the digital public space - with all that that implies for how media operate. This public space is largely privately controlled but it permits anyone and everyone to place content.

The digitalised world has a most astonishing scope and potential for the delivery of human good, but it is no less a risky space. We are as yet only partially aware of the risks and threats of the digitalisation of our lives. I think in particular today of course of the extent to which mis- and disinformation plays malign roles for all of us. Needless to say ‘fake news’ and propaganda are as old as humanity.

Nevertheless, there is a new quality to the impact of disinformation on the internet in the context of the absence of the traditional filters which were largely indeed exercised by the media. Instead, we see the consolidation of filter bubbles where we, in congregation, share news with those with whom we agree, and where there is rarely a meeting from across diverse viewpoints.

It is also relevant in terms of the extraordinary impact today of disinformation. The digital space is not subject to any form of central supervision. The debates still have a long way to go in terms of the appropriate regulatory framework for the Digital Commons. But as, “disinformation and propaganda can serve the strategic goal of overthrowing democratic systems”, any regulatory framework “should provide for an equal and fair setting for all opinions to be heard and for human rights to be protected”. This is how it was put in a recent study for the European Parliament on disinformation and propaganda and its impact on the functioning of the rule of law in the EU and its Members States.

Side by side with the evolution of society and media, journalists and journalism of course have also evolved. We observe changes in the journalistic profession. Indeed, Lyra McKee is testimony to a new form of journalism – of a journalist who operate principally online, and in what we might term a gig economy, is self-employed and operates across numerous diverse contexts and platforms.

As the role of the journalist has evolved, so also have the forms of journalism. Whilst there is nothing new about the various forms, nevertheless, they are increasing prominent in the modern digitised space. We are seeing more attention than ever to the journalist as a defender of human rights. There is a welcome new and strong focus on a form of journalism called Solutions or Constructive Journalism, which proposes answers as well as reporting situations. Also, largely in the context of big data, we see a new wind in the sails of data journalism.

So how do we maximise the impact of today's media for the maintenance and the strengthening of the democratic space? In the first place it is important to name and identify the impediments and risks that hold back the media. The Fundamental Rights Agency, in 2016, published data on exactly this issue. Within the particular context of the EU, the agency identified a number of threats and risks to which journalism is exposed.

  1. As tragically exemplified by the murder of Lyra McKee, there is the extent of violence and threats of violence.
  2. Journalists reported to us the high degree of interference in the context of their attempts to report public assemblies.
  3. They reported worrying patterns of interference in their operations by political actors.
  4. Not unrelated, they often indicated extreme acute pressure to disclose confidential sources.
  5. They mentioned interference in their work by security and intelligence services.
  6. We repeatedly heard of diverse forms of regulatory, financial and economic pressure.

There was still one more form of pressure which we were able to name in 2016 and that was back then, and I think still is the,

  1. excessive invocation of defamation law in too many States with the effect of repressing free media.

Across all of these areas, time and time again, it was brought to our attention the extent to which threats to media and journalism are gendered. In other words, women journalists face particularly hostile environments and are more exposed/at risk than their male colleagues.

If we were to test our 2016 research findings in 2019, I am afraid that much of what we heard then would be no less valid now. What is more, today we perceive ever more vividly other such threats like the impact of significant falls in advertising revenue which are likely to lead to the biggest wave of journalistic lay-offs in years – weakening further the ability for media to play their critically important role in societies.

In addition, today we must acknowledge – at least in Europe - the extent to which the journalistic ‘brand’ has been devalued – at least online – where we see dips in the levels of trust in journalistic content. Again here this is in large part in the context of the extent of disinformation in the digital space.

So how do we push back? How do we re-establish the centrality of the journalistic and the media role for healthy societies including those confronting elections?

Today, focussing on the particular situation of individual journalists rather than on what we might term ‘macro’ solutions for whole industries, I would suggest three key actions:

  1. The first is that we as societies, and not just specialist groups within those societies, particularly through our political leaderships, must re-acknowledge the central role of journalism in our societies.

Back in 2011, I had the honour of serving as rapporteur - principal drafter - for the (UN) Human Rights Committee's General Comment 34 on the freedoms of opinion and expression. This spoke extensively to the role of media in vibrant societies. I believe that our text captured well the centrality that we need to re-acknowledge and re- champion. We wrote in paragraph 13 of the general comment that “the media constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society… [it has an] … essential function. The free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elections elected representatives is essential. This implies a free media and free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint, and to inform public opinion”.

We need to hear our political leaders say that.

  1. Hard legal actions. Journalists, no less than anybody else in society, are protected by our criminal and human rights laws. We are not doing a good enough job to deliver criminal accountability. If we include Lyra McKee, this is a very recent tragedy of course, but including her, there have been three prominent murders of journalists within the past, just three, years in the EU. And as far as I'm aware, nobody has yet been held to account for any of those crimes. So we have to do a better job of protecting journalists through enforcing criminal law when they are victims of criminal acts.

But we must also acknowledge the extent to which journalists also are the beneficiaries of human rights protection. I have quoted General Comment 34 but we need to do a more systematic job of framing the operation of journalism in our society, the role of the journalist and the need to respect the journalistic space as issues of human rights. Here, speaking as a visitor these days to Geneva, I applaud the United Nations’ work in this area. I acknowledge in particular the leadership shown by UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye. At the regional level, we need to learn from such UN good practice.

  1. Then third, the soft tools, the smart non-normative actions of which there are so many. For instance, we as societies and States can do a better job of supporting good, ethical journalism. That means deepening our investment in training, and developing models of partnerships between the different social forces within our societies and journalism - for example, by developing media toolkits in our areas of interest. At the Fundamental Rights Agency, for example, we will in the coming weeks publish a toolkit for media on ethical, inclusive and good reporting of issues of migration. It is no less valuable to invest in media literacy for our general populations, especially children. This is another area of current interest for my agency.

Dear friends,

let me conclude my remarks this morning by returning to Dejan Anastasijević, and quote from an article he published in Balkan Insight in November 2016.

I think within just one paragraph of that article he identified so acutely the actual and the potential role of the journalist embedded more broadly in society and thus working together with the other social forces contributing to building a better world. With his brief words he gives us hope.

He wrote: “in my country, we fought against Milošević long and hard. Some, like me, worked on exposing his crimes and abuses for the entire world to see. Others braved police batons and water cannons at mass protests, which sometimes lasted for weeks. We got organised and in the end Milošević was voted out of power.”

Thank you.