By Sara Torsner, PhD student at the University of Sheffield who is researching the design of a Journalism Safety Trends tool with CFOM where she is also working with developing the recently established Journalism Safety Research Network.

Understanding the contexts in which journalists attempt to carry out their role of a democratic watchdog requires a good understanding of constitutional frameworks and ‘legislative/judicial flaws and failings’. That was a core message that emerged from the conference on ‘Challenges to media freedom across the Commonwealth’, held by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London on April 4th-5th.

Guy Berger, UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression, underlined the important role of the media at times of elections, suggesting that the Commonwealth should consider giving more attention to the issue of journalists’ safety during elections. Examples were raised from different Commonwealth countries where populist mobilization and the mass targeting of voters with customized messages online meant that journalism ‘struggles to keep its head above water’. In some cases the deliberate fabrication and wide dissemination of information masquerading as news has become commonplace, and such sharing of toxic content can dangerously compromise the integrity of elections. This major distortion of the information environment endangers the process of legitimate contestation by suppressing independent journalism; and ‘political stakeholders need to strongly voice their condemnations of attacks against journalists’, Guy Berger said.

Social media shutdowns during and leading up to elections clearly show that many states are currently unable or unwilling to uphold standards of access to information.  Irene Ovonji Odida, Executive Director at the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers discussed the flawed 2016 elections in Uganda, where access to telephony and the Internet were restricted and wide crackdowns were carried out against pro-opposition information outlets. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that ‘more than 40 journalists had been detained, beaten, or forced out of work while covering that presidential campaigns’ in Uganda. Speakers also reported on election violence and clampdowns on the media in Kenya and Nigeria. CPJ called for the adoption of mechanisms to protect journalists during elections, and for systematic monitoring of the information environment during the build up to elections.

‘We need to consider consequences of network shutdowns where the Internet is no longer accessible’, argued Mark Stephens from the Commonwealth Lawyers Association. He discussed the situation in Malaysia, where a vibrant alternative online media community faces serious challenges due to government actions limiting access to the Internet. In Cameroon media freedom was described as facing similar challenges, with one Internet blockage lasting over 80 days. In Turkey and Egypt the authorities have scaled back the use of countrywide Internet shutdowns, focusing instead on limiting access within certain geographical areas or denying access to certain platforms such as Facebook or YouTube. Such actions also clearly represent an impediment to the right to speak freely and receive opinion, said Mark Stephens.

Victoria Schofield, a historian and commentator on international affairs, described how social media has revolutionized access to information in conflict areas such as Kashmir. She found that social media had provided significant new opportunities for counter narratives to official news sources. But at the same time social media may also be seen as a double edged sword, as it provided a ready platform for a range of actors to promote their own perspective, stage events, manipulate information and sometimes also to spread rumours and hatred. Social media therefore cannot simply be seen as an accurate reflection of public opinion and as constructively contributing to an informed information environment.

A number of speakers called for a more coordinated approach to the range of issues and contexts discussed, not only on the part of international organisations like the UN and the Commonwealth, but also by journalists themselves and by academics and researchers. The conference marked the inauguration of a new Centre for Commonwealth and Media Freedom, hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, which will be holding regular workshops and other events on the themes raised by conference speakers. The conference was also an occasion to share information with media practitioners, researchers and others about the UNESCO-backed Journalism Safety Research Network (JSRN) which CFOM recently established at the University of Sheffield. The JSRN network is designed to enrich the exchange of knowledge and research ideas among policy makers, media practitioners and civil society organisations online.

The JSRN was launched at a research conference on journalism safety during the World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Helsinki, Finland in May 2016. Around 90 researchers from around the world have already joined the network, and CFOM invites scholars as well as other researchers, experts and media workers from all countries to join the network.