Research and impact | By Chris Lines

Defending media freedom

Taking steps to address the threats facing journalism in the modern world.


Media freedom is increasingly under threat in a troubled world. Digital technology has undermined the business model that has traditionally sustained journalism.


Social media has given ‘citizen journalists’ the tools to break stories themselves, not to mention leaving (particularly female) journalists considerably more vulnerable to threats of violence or death. Throw in the increasing concentration of media ownership in many countries, and the tendency of populist politicians and leaders to dismiss outlets that don’t suit their own agenda as being peddlers of ‘fake news’ – ultimately the net result is fewer jobs and fewer outlets available for journalists to work in.


Then there is the ever-present danger in which many journalists are forced to work. In 2021, around five hundred journalists and media workers were in prison globally and 46 were killed while doing their jobs in 2021 – that is nearly one a week, highlighting the continuing challenge facing media freedom, particularly in authorities in countries such as Belarus, China, Egypt, Myanmar, the Philippines, Russia, Uganda and Yemen.


In February 2022, 50 foreign ministers met at the third Global Media Freedom Conference in Estonia to renew and strengthen their commitments to advocating for media freedom. Fifty-two states comprise the Media Freedom Coalition (MFC) – an intergovernmental partnership established in 2019 by the UK and Canada.


But what impact, if any, is the coalition having on the physical, legal and economic threats that journalists face?


Professor Mel Bunce, Head of City’s Department of Journalism, was part of a team of researchers who carried out a two-year evaluation of the Media Freedom Coalition, which shows that it still has a long way to go before it can claim to be helping to reverse the global decline in media freedom.

Professor Mel Bunce in the Department of Journalism’s Television Studio in College Building.

The Media Freedom Coalition has so far published over twenty joint statements publicly condemning those who violate media freedom. For example, the coalition published a statement this year expressing “deep concern at the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese authorities’ attacks on freedom of the press and their suppression of independent local media in Hong Kong”. These statements are designed to impose a ‘diplomatic price’ on those who violate media freedom by publicly condemning and stigmatising their actions.


But Professor Bunce is critical of the impact of these messages. “These public statements have often been very poorly publicised,” she says. “Until very recently, the coalition did not even have its own dedicated website or social media accounts. As one media freedom activist told us, ‘a statement that nobody sees has no impact’.”


Joint statements relating to abuses of media freedom in specific countries were signed, on average, by just 57 per cent of member countries. Some members have been particularly quiet.


Spain (27 per cent) and Belize (27 per cent) are the worst offenders, having both signed fewer joint statements than even Afghanistan (31 per cent) – which surprisingly has not been publicly suspended or expelled from the coalition despite what Reporters Without Borders (RSF) describes as an “extremely fraught” environment for journalists in Afghanistan, since the Taliban takeover.


In fact, at the time of writing (June – August 2022), the coalition has not yet published any public statements condemning abuses of media freedom by some of its own members – despite clear violations of media freedom in countries such as Afghanistan, Croatia, Slovenia, Sudan and the US.


In Sudan, one media worker recently told Professor Bunce and her colleagues: “There is no such thing as media freedom in Sudan right now. Sudan is not safe for journalists anymore. Why is the Media Freedom Coalition not talking about this?”


But despite these limitations, there is reason for optimism. The coalition has recognised many of these issues itself. It has a new secretariat, executive group members and online presence.


The coalition also has some early successes it can build on. Several states have made positive improvements domestically, as a direct result of joining the Media Freedom Coalition. For instance, in July 2020, Sierra Leone repealed its criminal libel law, removing the threat of imprisonment to suppress journalism.


Professor Bunce says: “In our report, we identify concrete ways the Media Freedom Coalition can continue to improve its efforts to defend media freedom. These include implementing a proactive communications strategy, improving the volume, visibility and support for its public statements and strengthening the minimum requirement for membership to include contributing to the UNESCO Global Media Defence Fund.”


“Perhaps most importantly, the coalition should explain when and how it will be implementing the ‘toolkit’ of concrete measures designed by its independent advisory body, the High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom. These include practical suggestions such as strengthening consular support to journalists at risk and providing emergency entry visas for journalists needing to flee oppressive countries.”


The former deputy chair of the panel and human rights barrister, Amal Clooney, recently urged coalition members to adopt such measures, saying: “It is time for states that claim they defend democracy to start acting like it.”