/ 24 June 2021

Call for a New Deal for Journalism to strengthen democracy

Governments trying to suppress the media are not necessarily succeeding.
Changes in news consumption practices and in the information ecosystem have hit newspapers hard

Shirin Ebadi, Christophe Deloire, Navi Pillay, Mario Vargas Llosa and members of The Commission on Information and Democracy write:   

We urge democratic governments, the media themselves and digital stakeholders to join in a New Deal for Journalism, in the form of a commitment to promote public interest media that is free, independent, trustworthy and of the highest quality. We call for a huge collective effort to promote journalism based on respect for professional methods and ethics. Our vision is based on high standard journalism, one that we think is essential both to strengthen democracy and to address the challenges faced by humankind.

In November 2018, we issued a Declaration that inspired the Partnership on Information and Democracy, which was launched in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019 and has been endorsed by 42 governments. We state in the Declaration that “journalism’s social function is that of a ‘trusted third party’ for societies and individuals”, that its purpose is “to give account of reality, to reveal it in the broadest, deepest and most relevant manner possible, allowing for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion”. This social function warrants a collective effort to safeguard journalism’s financial viability.

Technological upheavals have undermined democratic safeguards for the public debate and have transformed the competitive journalism environment, which is liable to be eclipsed more and more as long as disinformation, rumour and hate speech enjoy competitive advantages in the digital space. We have unfortunately embarked on what Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called a “decisive decade for journalism” in 2020. It would be disastrous if this decisive decade proved to be a fatal one. It would be all the more disastrous because journalism is the best vaccine for combatting disinformation.

The economic crisis and major financial losses resulting from the pandemic have exacerbated an already precarious situation for the news media. The media have not only been hit by past financial crises such as the one in 2008 but also by changes in news consumption practices and in the information ecosystem. The news media’s losses in 2020 are put at $30-billion. A PwC analysis predicts that global newspaper industry revenue would fall from $108-billion in 2019 to $86-billion in 2024.

The Forum on Information and Democracy, the instrument created to implement the partnership, launched a working group on the sustainability of journalism in November 2020 with a steering committee composed of 17 international specialists and chaired by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the head of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. This working group has just submitted its recommendations and concludes that the situation warrants a new order for journalism, a new deal allowing journalism to emerge from the crisis that threatens its sustainability.

The report recommends not only increasing public sector development funding for public interest journalism but also facilitating philanthropic support for both commercial and nonprofit media. As regards taxation, it recommends mechanisms that range from allowing individuals to support media outlets of their choice to international measures for taxing digital platforms. And finally, it recommends adopting initiatives such as the Journalism Trust Initiative, which make it possible to give quality journalism a comparative advantage online, and recommends incorporating the issue of the effect on journalism and media into national Artificial Intelligence roadmaps.

The New Deal for Journalism is not about defending corporate or industrial interests. It’s about defending every person’s right to information, in the sense of reliable information. Freedom of opinion and expression obviously presupposes freedom of the press, but it also presupposes that every person, as a citizen and a human being, can claim to know the truth and reality without being constantly deceived by disinformation and rumour. Insisting on respect for journalistic methods and ethics is crucial to prevent press freedom being used as grounds to defend content sponsoring or deliberate content manipulation.

We think a change of approach is essential. This is what we have begun in the Declaration on Information and Democracy when we developed the concept of the right to reliable information. The rights of content transmitters and information recipients need to be expressed and defended more clearly because of the unprecedented capacities for content manipulation and disinformation. This new approach aims to build a new system of accountability in the online information and communication space. It aims at nothing less than keeping human beings free. It aims to prevent them from reentering the cave in which they could only see shadows, the cave from which they emerged thanks to knowledge.

The other signatories are Emily Bell, Teng Biao, Nighat Dad, Mireille Delmas-Marty, Can Dündar, Ulrik Haagerup, Hauwa Ibrahim, Adam Michnik, Antoine Petit, Aidan White and Mikhail Zygar.

Although this article was given as an exclusive to Mail & Guardian, we offer it as free to republish in solidarity with our fellows in the media.