The facts are in dispute, threatening democracy
On December 10 1948, the United Nations general assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming the view that “the will of the people” — democracy — should form the basis of any government. But, seven decades later, the world’s democracies are in peril.
After a fourfold increase in the number of democracies between the end of World War II and 2000, we are now in a sustained period of political regression. Once open societies are veering toward dictatorship and in many countries despotic tendencies are strengthening.
These trends can be reversed, but only if we agree on the causes of democratic backsliding and target our solutions accordingly.
That is easier said than done.
In her 1967 essay Truth and Politics, the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted that: “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.” Unfortunately, Arendt’s farce has become our reality.
For any democracy to be meaningful, its people need access to trustworthy information produced in a free and pluralistic environment. But this basic requirement is being tested as never before. Around the world, oligarchs are buying up media outlets to promote their interests and increase their influence, and journalists who report on issues such as discrimination and corruption are met with intimidation, violence and murder. How can we guarantee freedom of opinion under such conditions?
Information and communication technologies were supposed to give us more freedom, not less. The early internet democratised news and ended the dominance of traditional publishers and pro-government conglomerates.
But this initial promise has given way to an “information jungle”, in which deep-pocketed predators out manoeuvre an unsuspecting public. Today, governments wage information wars, politicians use social media to spread lies and corporate lobbyists disseminate deceptive content with ease. As a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently found, fake news spreads online faster than real news — often significantly so.
Simply put, the globalisation of information has tipped the scales in favour of those who view falsehoods as a tool of control. Dictators easily export their ideas to open societies, whereas content produced under conditions of freedom rarely moves in the opposite direction. This problem has been magnified by the growth of multinational technology companies, which have come to dictate the architecture of the public sphere.
In the history of democracy, mechanisms have evolved to improve the accuracy and ethics of journalism. Although imperfect and often invisible, these regulatory protections have brought many benefits to users and producers alike. But the pace of change in the media industry — for example, between television and print, or news and advertising — has blurred the clear distinctions on which these rules were originally based.
Protecting democratic ideals in this conflicting environment is a vital task. That is why Reporters Without Borders is joining with Nobel laureates, technology specialists, journalists and human rights activists to launch the Information and Democracy Commission. As co-chairs of this independent initiative, our goal is to refocus global attention on the value of “a free and pluralistic public space” and to offer solutions that enable journalists to work without fear of reprisal and allow the public to access accurate information easily.
In the coming weeks, we will draft an International Declaration on Information and Democracy and, in co-ordination with the leaders of several democratic countries, work to secure support from governments around the world.
Our efforts will accelerate in mid-November, when global leaders gather in Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day and to attend the Peace Forum and the Internet Governance Forum.
Democracy, with its roots in the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and reason, must be defended. Democratic governments and citizens must not fall victim to fake news, “trolls” and the whims of despots. The International Declaration on Information and Democracy is intended to strengthen the ability of open societies to combat authoritarian forces.
We have the good fortune to be alive during a period of extraordinary technological potential. But we also have the responsibility to ensure that new ways of sharing information are not turned into tools of oppression. As the mission statement of our commission puts it: “Democracy’s survival is at stake, because democracy cannot survive without an informed, open and dynamic public debate.” — © Project Syndicate
Shirin Ebadi is a Nobel laureate and human rights lawyer. Christophe Deloire is secretary general of Reporters Sans Frontières