How to ensure media freedom

The fear was palpable. One journalist from Ghana spoke with his face under a veil of beads. Many others whispered their worry, fear and frustration on the sidelines of the Global Conference on Media Freedom 2019, held jointly by the British and Canadian governments in London last week. Lawyers, politicians, ministers, ambassadors and lots of journalists among others were saying the same thing — the world has become a more hostile place for journalists.

Reporters Without Borders called 2018 the deadliest year on record for journalists. UNESCO confirms that at least 99 journalists were killed, a further 348 imprisoned and 60 held hostage, according to a UK government website. 

The reasons range from totalitarian regimes to lack of institutional backups. Even in democratic countries with a strong institutional back up, like the US, journalists are now routinely abused and threatened. India with its proclivity to abuse female journalists found a mention. There was talk of WhatsApp fuelled lynchings and the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2017. The role of social media in amplifying hate, spreading fake news and in polarising countries was discussed too. 

But it was not all hand-wringing. The idea behind the conference was to come up with ways to defend media freedom. One significant one was the formation of global legal panel. “Stemming the tide of violence against journalists requires political will, diplomatic pressure and a legal framework to support countries to improve. The independent high level panel of experts consists of the best legal minds from across the globe. Together they will develop and promote legal mechanisms to help prevent and reverse media abuses,” said the UK’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt. 

On the media sustainability side, one of the discussions I took part in came up with interesting insights. Rasmus Klies Nielsen, director, research, at the Oxford-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, spoke emphatically about the business conundrum. He reckons tackling the demand and supply of quality news is critical. 

He is right. Good quality journalism costs a lot of money to produce and readers don’t always pay for it. The rare exceptions are The Financial Times or The Economist

While newspapers in India do a reasonably good job editorially and are profitable, their abject dependence on advertising means they fall apart at the first sign of advertiser pressure. Roughly half of India’s 400 news channels are owned by people who want a tool of influence, extortion or favour. Their idea of reportage is lots of shrill, argumentative anchors sitting in a studio and screaming out their opinions on the irrelevant issues. 

Note that globally ownership structures play a huge role in creating a robust news ecosystem — The Economist and The Guardian are owned partially by trusts. The BBC is funded through licence fee TV owners in the UK pay. Some of the best media brands around the world have ownership structures that make them financially independent. 

Till we incentivise good ownership structures and disincentivise bad ones the problem will persist. For instance, frowning on certain types of owners — politicians, state bodies, religious organisations or government — might help. So would insisting on transparency through details on revenues, costs, ownership, and shareholding pattern. Make it easier for newspapers, websites and news channels to invest in hard-on-the-ground reportage — whether this is through tax breaks or through grants for high quality journalism schools. There could be special incentives for schools and institutes that offer media literacy courses for everyone. And in my book, a really special incentive for advertiser literacy courses. If advertisers could separate real news from fake news and withdraw money from the latter, it should reduce if not die. Some of these recommendation have been made by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in a 2014 paper. 

None of these, however, can be brought about by any government. A parliament-backed independent-of-the government regulatory body, a la Ofcom is what could work in India. (A point this column has made often). To foster media freedom and good journalism,  media owners must accept that self-regulation has failed. They must start considering the alternatives, quickly.  

If physical infrastructure has a multiplier effect on economic growth of a country then the information and news infrastructure has a similar effect on its intellectual capital — people. If the quality of our democracy is being messed up by weaponised misinformation then media needs to fight it by weaponising good journalism. 

Twitter: @vanitakohlik