Democracies under attack: What is the role of media?

Seventy years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in Paris, a new Information and Democracy Commission released a project of an ‘International Declaration on Information and Democracy’. This in order to establish basic principles for a new global information and communication space.

Simultaneously, the first ever Paris Peace Forum will be taking place 11–13 November, gathering all actors of global governance under one roof for three days — states, international organisations, local governments, NGOs and foundations, companies, experts, journalists, trade unions, religious groups and citizens — in order to centre on those who seek to develop solutions for today’s transborder challenges.

In this article, The Global Editors Network has conducted exclusive interviews. Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Justin Vaïsse, President of the Paris Peace Forum Executive Committee both share their views on the challenges of a globalised and digitalised world and the role of media for fighting misinformation and cyberwar.

Christophe Deloire, Reporters Without Borders: ‘We are living in a news and information jungle’

The International Declaration on Information and Democracy, released by Reporters Without Borders in early November, is a six-page document that sets out democratic guarantees for the freedom, independence, pluralism and reliability of information at a time when the public space has been globalised, digitalised and destabilised.

This declaration was adopted unanimously by the members of the Information and Democracy Commission, chaired by Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and by Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi. Behind the commission stands 25 prominent figures of 18 nationalities, including Nobel laureates.

GEN: Why do you define the global information and communication space as a ‘common good of humankind’? Is information now a fundamental resource for the human race, like clean air or pure water?

Christophe Deloire: Information and communication are the air and water of our political and social life. Recognising that the global information and communication space is a common good of humankind provides the grounds for establishing democratic guarantees. Enshrining a ‘right to information’ — understood here as reliable information — is a notion that establishes that human beings have a fundamental right to access information that is freely gathered, processed, and disseminated, according to the principles of commitment to truth, plurality of viewpoints, and rational methods of establishing facts.

In the seventies, UNESCO coined the term ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ (also known as the MacBride commission) in order to define a new global communication order. That effort is largely thought to have failed. What is the difference between those efforts and today’s declaration, which is asking for ‘an international framework for information and democracy’?

I just recently read the MacBride report and found that it contains a great in-depth analysis. The ‘Information & Democracy’ process is based on an analysis of what the global communication and information orders have become since then, especially after the creation of the Internet. The initiative aims at setting out democratic guarantees for freedom, independence, pluralism and reliability of information at a time when the public space has been globalised, digitalised, and destabilised. The changing paradigm of this space distorts the line between trustworthy news and information on one side, and rumours, sponsored content, and all types of disinformation on the other side. It also creates a distortion of competition, that’s to say unfair competition, between despotic regimes and democratic models.

A few of the Information and Democracy Commission members. From the top left: Dr. Shirin Ebadi, Ann Marie Lipinski, Eli Pariser, Maria A. Ressa, Hauwa Ibrahim, Can Dündar (Photo credit: Joel Saget / AFP)

You always refer to ‘the communication and information space’ in the declaration. What is it in more concrete terms? Why not just say ‘the media’?

Because it is not the media. The communication and information space is the ground where media are acting. It is composed of the technical means, norms, and rules of communication, including the architectures that are shaping choices. Platforms, for instance, be it American, Chinese, or any another nationality for that matter, are mostly not media outlets: they are entities that contribute to the structure of the information and communication space. That’s why they must respect basic principles. We know that ‘code is law.’ We could add that ‘algorithms are the new regulation.’ Where are the democratic guarantees, so to say the constitution? Where are the checks and balances?

Is a digitised world a more fragile world for journalism and fair information, compared to the 80s?

The digitalised world offers new opportunities but creates new risks that are far beyond just changing business models and norms. We lost the rules. We are living in a news and information jungle. 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.

Why do you consider that the concept of freedom of expression has been used to justify the lack of accountability of platforms that create the architectures shaping choices and the norms for the information space?

The media, and the people, have the right to exercise their freedom of expression. But the entities that structure the space have to respect the basic principles that are not related to freedom of expression, transparency, neutrality of the space itself, etc.

Which kind of accountability and transparency can be asked from digital platforms?

Digital platforms should be asked to comply with the principles of political, ideological, and religious neutrality; on diversity of ideas and information, in addition to media pluralism and serendipity. I do quote the declaration itself: ‘Such entities must be predictable for those over whom they have influence, resistant to any manipulation and open to inspection. Platforms shall be transparent over curation algorithms, moderation (whether human or algorithmic), content sponsoring, collection of personal data, and agreements they may have entered into with governments.’

Commencing many years ago, the news media has been defined as ‘the Fourth Estate’ that has the capacity and duty to challenge the three other estates. However, the declaration makes vague claims about the duty of the news media to check governments, big corporations, or international non-profits or foundations.

Everybody is free to consider whether news media is, or should be, the ‘Fourth Estate’ or otherwise. However, the Declaration stipulates that ‘Journalism’s social function is that of a ‘trusted third party’ for societies and individuals. It allows for the establishment of checks and balances and empowers people to fully participate in society.’ We also note that ‘Journalism’s task is not just to portray events but also to explain complex situations and changes, being comprehensive and inclusive, allowing the public to distinguish the important from the trivial.’

Even in democratic states, governments are regulating media and restricting their right to inform the public or to develop investigative journalism. Why would governments suddenly adhere to a pro-democracy declaration? Don’t you fear to be considered naive by some people?

Why would democratic leaders adhere to a pro-democracy declaration? That’s simple, because democracy is in danger. The principle is clear. Reliable information is free by nature.

In Action. Reporters Without Boarders in discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Some states, like China and Russia, will never recognise the right to a more democratic global society. So what is the ambition of the current declaration? What are its limits?

This process will help mobilise democracies in front of despotic regimes. Who would say that it is not useful?

After the signature of 25 Nobel prize laureates and other personalities, what do you expect next?

On 11 November, some important leaders will launch a political process on the basis of this declaration. We’ve worked a lot to convince heads of states and governments to comply with our vision.

Thanks Christophe. I will interview now Justin in charge of the Paris Peace Forum.

Justin Vaïsse, Paris Peace Forum: ‘We have to progressively create bubbles of regulation’

From 11 to 14 November 2018, major thinkers and actors of the digital transformation will be gathered during the Paris Digital Week around three international events.

  1. The Paris Peace Forum is centred on those who seek to develop solutions for today’s transborder challenges. It is focused on 120 governance projects and initiatives from around the world, selected from 850 applications. It gathers all actors of global governance under one roof for three days — states, international organisations, local governments, NGOs and foundations, companies, experts, journalists, trade unions, religious groups and citizens.
  2. The Internet Governance Forum at UNESCO. It is a dialogue platform for multiple stakeholders examining issues related to the governance and organisation of the Internet. This particular meeting will focus on the theme of “the Internet of trust” and will seek to address the future of the Internet with concepts such as trust, regulation, security, stability and the role of state as well as institutional and non-state actors in mind.
  3. The GovTech Summit at the Paris City Hall is the first summit entirely dedicated to the digital transformation of states and democracies. Its goal is to imagine the future digital government. This particular edition of the GovTech summit will focus on how to support the emergence of a European ecosystem of innovators that serve the public sphere when it comes to improving the use of new technologies in the public sector and increasing collaboration between states and start-ups.

GEN: Holding the Paris Peace Forum could signify that there are new risks of war. What would be the main dangers according to you?

Justin Vaïsse: The open world is at stake and international stability is challenged, as we live more and more in a multipolar environment. The problems are not President Trump or President Putin; they come from multipolarity and the difficulty to rule in a digital world. It is a challenge for multilateralism*. Global governance is the answer, but how to do it? Everybody wants a better organisation of the planet, but we want next week to mobilise in favour of collective action and multilateralism when we discuss security, environment, new technologies and inclusive economy.

One thing is how to protect our democracies and here, the role of states is essential for securing our digital infrastructures, another thing is to call for more soft laws in order to organise today’s internet. Next week we will claim for a “Digital Democracy Charter” in order to create a safe environment for a digital peace. At the moment, we live in a digital chaos.

To clarify, what about a risk of war?

We are already in war with multiple cyberattacks in various countries. Media are targeted, as well as parliaments, public institutions and big corporations or NGOs. Democratic values are under attack, but we have to understand that the old vocabulary of peace and war doesn’t work any longer: the goal is not to destroy and to control something (a territory, a state, etc.), bad actors want to weaken, undermine and disorganise. In some ways, it’s enough for them to create confusion and uncertainty.

Disinformation is a key issue for war and peace and it is not the first time that the world has to fight disinformation. Now social media is changing the game. Is it time for regulation of the platforms?

[We need] more soft laws, more regulation, more transparency. Clearly, at the Paris Peace Forum we believe in the role of institutions for defining the frame of those discussions. We call for a new global governance, but we don’t want to forget the current democratic institutions. Ten years ago, ‘regulation’ was a bad word, but today there is a consensus for regulating platforms such as Facebook and Google. We answered to the question Why, not yet to the question How.

You say ‘more regulation’. This can be considered as quite vague. Could you be more specific?

We need more regulation about data ownership, artificial intelligence, blockchain and internet governance. People think the internet is global, but it is not the case: you have a Russian intranet, a Chinese intranet, an Iranian intranet and many undemocratic regimes would like to do the same. It is our main challenge — how to avoid a balkanised digital world.

The world is continuously producing more data. How does it impact the global governance issues? Who are the owners of those data and how can they be more transparent?

Again, I’m not an idealist and we will not find a solution in a few months or a few years, but we have to progressively create bubbles of regulation and the European GDPR on data protection is a good example. Six years ago, very few people would have bet on its success and today, it is discussed in California, Japan, Korea and other countries. Nevertheless, it is not enough, I would like the emergence of other bubbles of regulation. We definitively need more norms and rules, including for people asking for a better global governance. Big foundations, civic tech startups are not really transparent. They are becoming powerful organisations, but who is checking them? Where are the counter-powers? Our goal at the Paris Peace Forum is to introduce some solutions: goodwill is not enough.

How can one avoid seeing the Paris Peace Forum as part of the ‘Macron storytelling’? An initiative serving his (or France’s) interests and not the international governance challenges?

Look at our Steering Committee made up of 16 high-level experts on global governance from around the world, look at the foundations supporting our initiatives and you will understand that we are not Franco-centric. There is a momentum for multilateralism and we consider it is essential to call TODAY for more international cooperation and more multilateralism.

Christophe Deloire and Justin Vaïsse (see below their biographies) were interviewed by Bertrand Pecquerie, GEN CEO

*Multilateralism — A situation in which several different countries or organisations work together to achieve something or deal with a problem.

Christophe Deloire is the Secretary General of the leading press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Headquartered in Paris, the organisation has 12 international offices and correspondents in 130 countries over 5 continents. He has also served as the director of one of the leading journalism schools in France (CFJ).

Justin Vaïsse is the Director of the Center for Analysis, Forecasting and Strategy of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. He sits as President of the Executive Committee for the Paris Peace Forum, responsible for the overall organisation and implementation.