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Media’s existential crisis and the consequences for peace

James Deane

Director of Policy and Research

Independent media are vital to enabling peaceful and effective development. But that role has rarely been so endangered, with the consequences for governance and democracy so great. The international response to the threat is poorly prioritised and poorly organised.

The crisis confronting independent media around the world is a crisis of democracy, freedom and human rights. It is also a crisis with profound implications for development and peace.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of the classic work, Development as Freedom by Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen. “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” he wrote, arguing elsewhere that the question of food and starvation could not be divorced from “the issue of liberties, of newspapers and ultimately of democracy.” This analysis holds remarkably true, but depends upon media being capable of playing its assumed role – able to expose wrongdoing, mismanagement or emerging crises, and to have public legitimacy sufficient that government feels impelled to respond.

Those assumptions are being challenged. Media institutions around the world, especially in resource-poor settings, are increasingly co-opted by those in, or close to, power. There is growing evidence that the public is losing trust and confidence in information and news, as online misinformation and disinformation flourishes. The business models capable of supporting public interest media are disappearing as advertising moves online. Many countries are losing the essential safety valve that Sen argued was vital if calamitous mistakes were not to be made.

An increasing risk of famine is just one probable consequence. Vaccination boycotts and attacks on health outreach workers prompted by misinformation campaigns are becoming increasingly common and are proving a major obstacle to the elimination of polio and a central factor in the resurgence of formerly manageable diseases such as measles.

The evidence that a free media acts as one of, if not the most, effective check on corruption is venerable and long standing. Fear of journalistic scrutiny helps explain the tragic escalation in killings and attacks on journalists documented by media freedom monitors in recent years. As free and independent media declines, incidences of corruption can be expected to increase, with concerning knock-on effects for development and social cohesion. Corruption is a principal driver of violent extremism and social unrest. Without media as a principal check on corruption, there are broader, deeply concerning consequences for governance.

Elections are becoming ever less democratic. Evidence is emerging of the manipulation of electoral processes principally through subverting information and communication spaces and controlling independent media. Elections are increasingly susceptible to manipulation by those adept at exploiting big data (and those who pay for such manipulation). Hate speech is on the rise and social cohesion, already often weak in fragile states, increasingly undermined. Misinformation and disinformation have become endemic, contributing to social tension and conflict, and access to trusted and trustworthy information from domestic media has declined.

The increasing fragmentation and fracturing of media has accompanied a decline in independent media capable of engaging people across societal divides, undermining society’s capacity to negotiate differences. The decline in channels for public debate, shared public spaces and trusted reference points for national public conversations is contributing to a rise in suspicion, blame and stigmatisation of the “other” in society.

There is a long and growing list of consequences of the loss of independent media, yet effective responses to the challenge have been scant. International response needs to be better prioritised, better organised and better resourced. Important new initiatives have emerged in recent months including the Information and Democracy Commission launched by Reporters without Borders and the July 2019 Defend Media Freedom conference organised by the UK and Canadian governments.

Another initiative, proposed by BBC Media Action, is the creation of a new, ambitious International Fund for Public Interest Media. Loosely modelled on the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria, it focuses on supporting independent media in settings where market failure is especially acute or media freedom especially under threat. With the support of Luminate, we have recently completed a consultation document outlining how such a Fund might be governed, structured and operated. Such a Fund would serve to galvanise international donor support, essential in protecting not only independent media, but the gains in peacebuilding and good governance to which they are essential.

The consultation document is available on request from the author.