Confronting the Challenges to Journalism in the Digital Age

By Edrine Wanayama |

Across the world, journalists face daily affronts physically and online for the work they do. Although the proliferation of technology has come with benefits for the practice of journalism, it has also adversely affected the media landscape to the extent that in some countries journalism has come under siege under the digital era. 

Technology has served to enable major shifts in how journalism is practiced, in addition to enhancing freedom of expression and access to information in addition to  complementing the promotion of accountability and transparency. However,  negative aspects such as digital surveillance are endangering the practice of journalism. The use of sophisticated technologies by governments is fuelling rights violations as it is now easier to track, arrest, detain, persecute and prosecute media professionals whose content is deemed unacceptable to the authorities.

This year, World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) was commemorated under the theme ‘Journalism Under Siege and recognised  how recent developments in technological means of monitoring and surveillance impact journalism and freedom of expression.

Digitisation offers several  benefits for the journalism sector, including the pace at which content can be collected and shared across online platforms. However, the risks and harms that come with digitisation, such as the elimination of professional gatekeepers who also uphold journalistic ethics, fabrication of content, falsification of information, misinformation and disinformation, hate speech, and online harassment, have become major threats to the sector.  

While in the pre-Internet world, freedom of expression and privacy were thought to only interact when journalists reported on public figures in the name of the right to know, the rights have become increasingly interdependent. This linkage reflects digital business models and the development of new surveillance technologies and large-scale data collection and retention. The changes pose risks in terms of reprisals against media workers and their sources, thereby affecting the free exercise of journalism, UNESCO

Even though the digital space offers broad opportunities for the practice of the journalism profession, various  countries in Africa have taken systematic steps to limit the enjoyment of freedom in the digital space. Many states across the continent including Egypt, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have enhanced their surveillance capacities including through enactment of enabling legislation which is often used against state critics and journalists.

Furthermore, mass data collection initiatives such as registration of persons for national identification documents, SIM card registration, voter registration and the creation of interlinked databases by the government for various services, have increased the precision with which state authorities can identify their targets. This is of particular concern for the media and their sources.s.

As such, at the WPFD commemoration in Uganda organised by the Uganda’s Media Sector Working Group (UMSWG) in conjunction with the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the Makerere University Department of Journalism and Communication, the Media Council of Uganda, Uganda Communications Commission, and the Uganda Human Rights Commission, attendees discussed the country’s shrinking digital space, surveillance, arrests and persecution amidst growing digitalisation practices across sectors and the population. 

These concerns were echoed at the Africa Media Convention held  in Arusha, Tanzania around the WPFD and organised by UNESCO and the East Africa Editors’ Guild. The convention discussions were largely informed by a research report by CIPESA and UNESCO on journalism under siege in the digital era. In turn, the discussions resulted in the  Arusha Declaration on Journalism Under Digital Siege, which reaffirms the importance of human rights and freedom of the press and states’ commitments to provide an enabling environment for freedom of expression and the press. 

Journalists should use technology responsibly to guard against counter productivity.  There should be deliberate efforts aimed at guarding against online vices such as disinformation and misinformation, false news and hate speech to ensure reporting events and stories is based on truth and objectivity. 

Similarly, states must take all measures to ensure their compliance with universally recognised human rights standards by repealing all laws, policies and practices that limit journalism practice. They should also progressively enact laws that promote digital rights and freedoms including those of journalists. 

Specifically, recommendations in the 2022 Arusha Declaration on the World Press Freedom Day should be adopted by states, media, civil society, technology companies and development partners  if the media sector is to become better and operate with minimal interruptions.

Journalists Urged to Embrace Opportunities in Digital Technology

The Uganda Media Sector Working Group (UMSWG) and industry stakeholders on 5 May 2022 commemorated the World Press Freedom Day focusing on the theme “Journalism Under Digital Siege” during a gala event at Mestil Hotel in Kampala. UMSWG partners who co-sponsored the event were the Media Council of Uganda, CIPESA (Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa), Uganda Communications Commission, Uganda Human Rights Commission, African Centre for Media Excellence, and Makerere University Department of Journalism and Communication.

In his welcome remarks, Charles Bichachi, a member of the UMSWG founding committee, said the annual World Press Freedom Day was an opportunity to reflect on outstanding issues in the news media ecosystem. This year’s theme, he said, highlighted global trends such as surveillance by state and non-state actors and how user data collection, artificial intelligence, and digitally-mediated attacks on journalists had impacted journalism, freedom of expression, and privacy. Bichachi pointed out that marking World Press Freedom Day was to help all those with a stake in the media to understand the enormity of the digital siege and how they could harness its positive aspects and avoid being crushed by it.

Hon. Jacklet Rwabukurukuru, on behalf of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, emphasized the importance of World Press Freedom Day and its relevance in evaluating Uganda’s progress in upholding media freedom. She said that Uganda’s commitment to human rights was enshrined in the Constitution and in the international and regional human rights instruments that the country has ratified.

Hon. Rwabukurukuru gave an assurance that the Commission would continue to monitor and investigate cases of alleged human rights violations against journalists and media practitioners. The Commission, she said, would engage with all stakeholders, including duty bearers, to address all instances of media rights violations and to ensure that the perpetrators were held accountable and that the victims got justice.

The keynote speaker, former Vision Group chief executive officer, Robert Kabushenga, shared his thoughts on “Saving Journalism from the Digital Siege.” First, he contended that journalists, rather than journalism, were under digital siege. Kabushenga then exhorted journalists to embrace the opportunities that the digital revolution presented instead of lamenting about the situation. He noted that only those who were prepared with the relevant skills and right mindsets would survive in the digital future.

Edrine Wanyama, legal officer at CIPESA, headlined the panel discussion with a presentation on the “Impact of Digitisation on Journalism in Uganda.” The discussion was moderated by Catherine Ageno, a broadcast editor with KFM radio. The panelists were Carol Beyanga, head of mentorship, partnerships, and monetisation at Monitor Publications Limited, Penlope Nankunda, content manager, digital, at Vision Group; Giles Muhame, managing editor of ChimpReports; and Roland Byagaba, innovations officer at Media Challenge Initiative. Wanyama explained that as a result of digitisation, journalism had benefitted in a number of ways such as through easier and faster creation of content through new technologies and platforms such as YouTube; greater capacity to reach larger audiences over a short span of time; faster sharing and dissemination of information; and increased awareness among journalists of the need to protect their identities in the digital space.

Yet, on the other hand, Wanyama pointed out, digitisation had also brought about certain risks. These included the imposition of restrictive laws and policies such as the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act, 2010 and the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2002, online harassment of journalists especially women, and surveillance of communications. Moreover, regulations against hate speech and national security have sometimes become convenient excuses to clamp down on media freedom.

Paulo Ekochu, chairman of the Media Council of Uganda, called for unity among media practitioners. This, he said, would make it possible to work together to address the persistent problems of the industry including journalists’ safety, professionalism, and effective regulation. Ekochu called upon the UMSWG to revamp the difficult, yet long overdue, conversation about the professionalization of journalism and the appropriate regulatory framework to protect the industry.

The Minister for ICT and National Guidance, Hon. Dr. Chris Baryomunsi, who was the chief guest, told journalists that the digital revolution highlighted the importance of balancing media freedom with responsible use of media platforms. He cautioned against the use of digital platforms and devices to insult others and violate their rights. Hon. Baryomunsi reminded the media practitioners gathered that the laws in place were intended to prevent abuse and punish offenders, and not to restrict free speech and the flow of information.

At the climax of the event, the Uganda Media Women’s Association, veteran media trainer Ben Bella Illakut, and long-time newspaper street vendor Baylon Katahikire received UMSWG Awards in recognition of their outstanding contributions to the development of the media industry.

This article was first published on the Uganda Media Council website.

World Press Freedom Day 2021

The event acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. For more information on the event, please click here.

World Press Freedom Day 2019

Around 1000 participants and high-profile speakers are expected to attend the event, including representatives from governmental and international organizations, the media, academia and civil society.

Since 1993, when the UN General Assembly declared 3 May World Press Freedom, this day has represented an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom and develop joint initiatives in this area. It also serves as an occasion to remind citizens that in many countries around the world, censorship is rife, while journalists, editors and publishers continue to be harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.

See the event page here.

World Press Freedom Day: Exploring the Relationship Between Media, Network Disruptions and Disinformation

By Juliet Nanfuka |
This year marks the 26th celebration of WPFD and is themed, “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”. The day will be celebrated in more than 100 countries in addition to the main event that will take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at the African Union Headquarters; and will serve as a platform to discuss current challenges faced by media during elections, as well as the media’s potential in supporting peace and reconciliation processes.
In his annual WPFD message, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has recently stated: “No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.”
Unfortunately, the media and ordinary citizens in several countries are increasingly facing limitations to their freedom of expression, access to information, and the right to associate. This has been witnessed in the  Sub-Saharan context where up to 22 African governments have ordered network disruptions in the last four years – while since January 2019, seven African countries – Algeria, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), Chad, Gabon, Sudan and Zimbabwe – have experienced various forms of network disruptions.

See Despots and Disruptions: Five Dimensions of Internet Shutdowns in Africa

Many of these states have often cited the need to preserve public order and national security as the basis for their disruption of digital communications. The necessity to control fake news, misinformation, and hate speech are also cited in justifying the blockage of access to the internet. However, these actions are also a direct affront to media freedom, often undermining the ability of journalists to gather and impart information, to file reports, contact sources, or verify stories.
This goes against the premise of democracy, particularly at a time when journalists need to robustly play their role as society’s watchdog and when citizens need access to a diverse pool of information to inform their decision-making. In an age of increasing disinformation including by state actors, it is fundamental that the channels of communication, and information sourcing, remain accessible by all to establish the credibility of information and to counter false information with facts.
To mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day (WPFD),  the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) will participate at the global celebration in Ethiopia and at a national event in Uganda to speak about the relationship between network disruptions (such as internet shutdowns and social media blockages), freedom of expression and the role of the media.
Among the sessions CIPESA is participating on at the main WPFD event is one titled “Understanding Electoral Information Flows: Mapping the Impact of Digital Technology from Network Disruptions to Disinformation” which is hosted by The Global Network Initiative (GNI). It  will map the different ways that digital technology impacts election-relevant information flows, as well as the inter-relationships between these impacts with the goal of developing a systems and data flowchart that can help policy makers, companies, elections administrators, elections observers, media, and other stakeholders identify and mitigate risks, improve planning and coordination, and enhance transparency around their efforts to support elections.
This will be followed by a CIPESA-organised  session titled “Keeping It On at Election Times: Navigating the Dilemma, Mapping Good Practices,” which will discuss trends and implications of network disruptions on journalists, activists, and civil society organisations. They will assess current efforts to address the policy gaps that exist and opportunities for expanding the network of advocates against internet shutdowns. Further, the session will explore and best practices of how countries can keep communications on at contentious times such as during elections.
The various sessions will include representatives from the World Web Foundation, Media Foundation for West Africa, Global Network Initiative (GNI), Addis Ababa University, Gobena Street / Addis Zebye, Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), International Media Support (IMS) and Facebook.
In Uganda, CIPESA will speak at a session titled “The impact of internet shutdowns on freedom of expression and the right to information during elections”. The Ugandan event is organised by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) and various partners who include CIPESA, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the American Embassy in Uganda, the Human Rights Network of Journalists, and Freedom House.
CIPESA World Press Freedom Day Sessions
Ethiopia:

  • May 3 (Parallel Session 11): Understanding Electoral Information Flows: Mapping the Impact of Digital Technology from Network Disruptions to Disinformation
    • Time: 14h00 – 15h30
    • Location: Medium Conference room
  • May 3 (Parallel Session 16): Keeping It On at Election Times: Navigating the Dilemma, Mapping Good Practices
    • Time: 16h00 – 17h30
    • Location: Small Conference Room 3

Uganda
 

  • May 3: The impact of internet shutdowns on freedom of expression and the right to information during elections
    • Time: 14.15 – 15.00
    • Venue: Golf Course Hotel, Kampala