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What Does Independent Journalism Look Like in the Digital Age?

Greek police and protestors
In 2013, former employees of the Greek state television ERT comfort each other outside its headquarters at Agia Paraskevi, a suburb north of Athens. Greek riot police had stormed the building of former state television ERT and evicted dozens of protesters, who were occupying it when the government abruptly shut the broadcaster, police officials said. The riot police had cordoned off the area and blocked the entrance to the building. © John Kolesidis/Reuters

If you worked in an industry—one absolutely critical to the proper functioning of society—but which exposed you to constant harassment and danger, how would you feel?

This is the situation that many of the world’s journalists find themselves in: punished, vilified, imprisoned, attacked, even killed, for uncovering and reporting the facts. Supportive editors fired, cameras smashed, websites attacked, presses silenced, communications compromised, stories suppressed. From China to Bulgaria to Nicaragua, newspapers, websites, radio and TV stations, and the journalists working for them have faced threats of these kinds.

What you may not realize is that, in many cases, working journalists and media organizations find themselves at the sharp end of these threats as a result of policy, law, and regulations that are either failing and inadequate, or deliberately repressive and controlling. 

Today we’re publishing the global findings of our Mapping Digital Media project, investigating the forces affecting digital media and journalism in 56 countries worldwide—one of the largest such studies ever completed—researched and written by teams of local experts. The reports examine 15 of the world’s 20 most populous countries, covering more than 4.5 billion of the world’s population, and 16 of the world’s 20 largest economies. The reports reveal common themes across the world:

  • Governments and politicians have too much influence over who owns the media, who wins licenses to operate newspapers, radio and TV stations, and how the media are regulated—all of which undermines independent journalism.
  • Many media markets are not free and fair, but are dominated by a few major players, and are rife with corrupt or non-transparent practices.
  • Media and journalism on the internet offer hope of new, independent sources of information, but are also a new battleground for those seeking to control information.

It’s striking how, across 56 countries of every type and size, these issues crop up again and again: political interference, control or even ownership of the media, lack of affordable access to the internet, declining resources, and worsening labor conditions for journalists. One key finding makes clear how vitally important it is for the public interest to have vigorous civil society involvement in the media policy process: without consistent civil society participation, laws are likely to be of lower quality, and are less likely to be properly implemented.

But the upside also comes across clearly in the Mapping Digital Media reports. If digitization is handled in the public interest, it can help advance open society values. Despite the vast and continuing challenges facing independent media worldwide, there are signs in many countries that progress is being made, with inclusive media policies being developed or in prospect.

On an international level, a growing coalition of civil society groups is looking to ensure that the post-2015 development framework includes for the first time a measure on freedom of the media. And increasingly, other sectors are recognizing the importance of supporting and protecting the media on a structural, systemic level. Governance, transparency, and accountability in particular depend on a healthy, robust independent media and journalism sector.

For independent journalism to thrive, policy, law, and regulation all need to change and update to take account of the real and evolving needs of journalism itself as an independent force in society. From increasing channel diversity and market transparency, to supporting new revenue models for independent journalism and greater civil society engagement in media and communication policy, to protecting the safety, security, and sources of journalists, the opportunities are within our reach.

The Mapping Digital Media research we’re releasing today—accessibly written and focused on the public interest dimensions of the media environment—adds a new dimension to the wealth of analysis and diagnosis from policymakers, academics, regulators, and industry players. The time has come for the opportunities created by digital media to be grasped.

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