A wholesome information medium is extra necessary than ever
This year’s World Press Freedom Day focuses on information as a public good. It is an opportunity to reflect on the central role of a sustainable media sector and a healthy information ecosystem in the responsible, inclusive and effective systems of governance we need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Communications company Edelman recently called 2021 the year of information bankruptcy. Others have warned that COVID-19 could become a media extinction event due to the fragility it already has. These judgments about the state of the global information ecosystem are alarming, but hardly surprising. While much of the global analysis focuses on developed countries, the effects in developing countries, often with weaker institutions and fewer capacities, are often more severe.
At a time when public demand for information has been relentless, the news media is increasingly constrained by adverse factors, from declining advertising revenues to restrictive and repressive laws and regulations. This affects not only their ability to provide high quality information, but also their role in promoting good governance, balanced public debate and constructive national dialogue.
Unfortunately, public confidence in traditional news sources has hit record lows. 61 percent of those polled by the Edelman Trust Barometer (a survey of developed and developing countries) believe that the media is not objective and impartial.
These problems significantly deteriorate information ecosystems and threaten information as a public good. Many people have turned to largely unregulated online sources that treat information as a commodity intended to be used for economic or political purposes. As a result, the public is increasingly exposed to unconfirmed, inaccurate and misleading information that affects their ability to exercise their rights, make informed decisions and contribute to the peaceful development of their societies.
Information is a public good and needs public support. Governments are responsible for promoting free and independent media and public access to information in accordance with international human rights standards. This includes removing legal and other barriers to impartial news media and protecting citizens from false and malicious information. However, maintaining healthy information ecosystems is not just a shared responsibility of public institutions. The media themselves, the private sector, including internet platforms, civil society and international development actors also play a role.
The challenges facing information systems around the world have a significant impact on the countries in which UNDP operates and create a number of weaknesses in terms of governance and peacebuilding. A first prerequisite for ensuring sustainable, independent and pluralistic media and for protecting journalists is a favorable regulatory environment. For this reason, UNDP works with government partners, UN agencies, media coalitions and other stakeholders to support legal reforms and raise awareness of the importance of impartial and independent media. In Sierra Leone, for example, UNDP worked with the Media Reform Coordination Group to strengthen the national normative framework for freedom of expression. In Bangladesh, it supported the development of a regulatory and operational infrastructure to make information about public administration more transparent and accessible, including through close collaboration with journalists.
It is also important that the media are able to contribute to conflict prevention and good and inclusive governance. In Lebanon, UNDP has partnered with Thomson Reuters to help national media fight social and political polarization through initiatives such as the Journalists’ Pact to Strengthen Peace and the introduction of a toolbox for professional standards. In Bolivia, the establishment of a “network of journalists for democracy” is being supported.
UNDP assesses information pollution as a strong risk to the long-term prospects for democratic principles and social cohesion, and works with a range of stakeholders, including traditional and online media, to reduce disinformation and counter divisive and violent online discourse. UNDP launched public campaigns in Chile and Uruguay to warn of the dangers of disinformation and to promote critical internet literacy skills. In Ukraine, UNDP’s online monitoring of disinformation reports is helping the government respond more effectively and proactively to COVID 19 disinformation.
As the United Nations Secretary-General emphasized, while seeking public support for the International Fund for Media, it is important to recognize the “critical role of reliable, verified, and accessible information in saving lives and building strong, resilient societies” Interest asks. UNDP sees promoting media sustainability and combating information pollution as critical to realizing the vision of a peaceful, just and inclusive society set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We will continue to work with our country partners, UN organizations and all relevant actors to develop innovative, holistic solutions that promote free, independent and sustainable media as a democratic necessity and information as a public good.