Media Freedom and African Democracy in the Age of Tech Platforms

On May 2 – the eve of World Press Freedom Day – the Special Rapporteur of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights on Freedom of Expression co-signed a Joint Declaration on Media Freedom and Democracy. This Declaration was made by Special Rapporteurs from the United Nations and the Organisation of American States. The Declaration provides a status check for media’s link to democracy across the world. It highlights the real phenomenon of democratic backsliding and its impact on restrictions over freedom of expression in many places and on many fronts.

In this blog post we focus on how the Declaration describes the relationship of media freedom and democracy, and the forces affecting them, and their relevance for Africa. The Declaration covers the role of media freedom in states, markets, and publics, with the Rapporteurs providing specific actionable recommendations for each of these parts of society in the last third of the document.

For the Rapporteurs, media freedom is not simply downstream from the democratic process. Nor do they see it as a by-product of democratic values. Instead freedom in this domain is in  “interrelationship and interdependency” with primary commitments to other kinds of freedoms. Put differently, media freedom is connected to gender freedom, freedom of movement, political freedoms, and fair and due process rights. While human rights best practice has long recognised the interdependence of rights, these relationships take on new dimensions within the digital era, affecting the enjoyment of both online and offline rights. While international human rights insists on the interdependency of rights, public conversations about media platforms have tended to focus on freedom of expression without paying much attention to how freedoms in each domain of life reinforce each other. 

Like other areas of freedom, democratic regress affects the media space. With freedoms being co-constitutive, current media possibilities and practices are related to “the decline of public trust in governance and institutions”, in the Rapporteurs’ analysis. The media have played a role in how perceptions of governing institutions are formed, and under conditions of backsliding, too much of the sector has been shaped to undermine key attributes of democratic public life.

However, putting all the blame on coerced, complicit or captured media outlets for contemporary issues would be a mistake. One of the factors has been disruption from digital technologies which have introduced almost overwhelming competition to news institutions in terms of audiences and advertising. Over the past two decades, the accumulation of new products from Big Tech companies have introduced new economic incentives and reconfigured business models for media circulation and consumption. Consider how outsized rewards accruing to a small set of actors in the wider communication space have heightened inequalities, exclusions and marginalisation of vulnerable groups. The Rapporteurs explain how this development is to the detriment of collective decision-making that equally considers all members of society. 

As a specific example of the social change in the media space, the Rapporteurs note how Big Tech companies have captured revenues from the press, in turn using recommendation algorithms to rank content for an attention economy. A number of important players in the commercial press have responded by gamifying their content for the prevailing algorithmic culture, through click-bait and sensationalistic stories. Concurrently, the concentration in the commercial media sector has an effect on the public sphere by shaping the terms and topics of deliberation. This ranges from how issues are presented to the public to how social conflict and political debate are channeled. 

Research ICT Africa has been conducting a broad programme of work in this area. During the course of research supported by the IDRC-funded Resisting Information Disorder in the Global South project, RIA has been analysing the sources and drivers of media manipulation on the African continent, giving specific attention to matters involving voice and representation in the wider democratic process. RIA is also studying the related area of AI as we recognise how these technologies will influence policy and governance. These are all critical areas that require the attention of African civil society and policymakers. 

The Declaration addresses the new generation of challenges arising from the dominance of tech-enabled platforms while acknowledging that historical challenges to media freedom have not disappeared. The Declaration calls on states to ensure that media sources are protected and avoid the abuse of criminal law to silence journalists. The Declaration warns of attacks on journalism ranging from the weakening of legal protections, judicial harassment, and physical intimidation to ward off the full exercise of the fourth estate’s accountability. The Declaration is clear-eyed about how authoritarians have used the attributes of media freedom to undermine that same media freedom. The Declaration condemns an unfortunately persistent behaviour, including by some African states of shutting the Internet down during national crises, thus depriving people of independent information about what is taking place. It also addresses issues that are becoming more prevalent globally, including in some African countries, like the increasing use of SLAPP suits, a form of vexatious litigation intended to silence journalists and civil society. 

The Rapporteurs address governments, urging them to pay attention to the way that the structure of markets affects the diversity of media essential to public debate. They also are writing for the owners and operators of platforms and commercial media, insisting that they institute transparent governance that grants agency to users and audience. Despite a critique of “the excessive market power of very large platforms”, the Declaration seems arguably optimistic. At the moment, many platforms do not enforce their own content moderation policies, let alone welcome state regulation. This is one reason why it is important to keep making these kinds of demands because platform self-regulation has proven to be woefully inadequate, as RIA’s research shows. Media self-regulation is uneven, but at least aligns to norms of journalistic ethics for verified content in the public interest, whereas platforms have no such ambitions.

The Declaration represents a significant advance in international human rights discourse. Human rights advocates have long argued that human rights bear on economic and social systems that perpetuate injustice. They have been resisted by efforts to confine human rights thinking to responses to the most egregiously oppressive conduct of states but which instead are just as relevant for regulation of commercial actors. Until recently official international human rights bodies have tended to be rather tentative about the implications of rights for commerce. But the Declaration makes clear that human rights applies as much to competition law, procurement and regulation of new technologies as it does to state censorship.  

The ultimate vision of the Rapporteurs is a media system with “multiple actors, spanning public, private and community media, as well as diverse and inclusive content in and through the media”. This is a good target. However, there are some key issues that require reflection on the part of the Rapporteurs. The Declaration covers how commercial imperatives can disrupt the goals of a free press, yet at the same time the document defines “journalism” and “the media” in a way that “disseminating information” to inform societies is framed as inherently in the “public interest”. But commercial ownership structures require that private returns have priority over the public interest whenever they conflict. The Declaration does not articulate how the enclosure of data and untouchability of inscrutable proprietary algorithms undermines democracy. It also gives little attention to the interface of sustainable development with media and democracy, which is a key concern in Africa especially.

Still, the Declaration demonstrates that a human rights framework has the conceptual resources to respond to platform dominance, authoritarian tendencies and a distorted media landscape. What the Rapporteurs need are active counterparts in civil society that can help create and mobilise the corresponding political will to make the recommendations a reality.

One concrete example is giving force to a recommendation that is key for African media: Public advertising. Against the instrumentalisation of public adverts for political purposes, the Declaration calls for public advertising to be subject to clear and non-discriminatory requirements, and based on objective criteria and be managed by independent bodies.

A further example is the recommendation that states should incentivise large online platforms to contribute to media sustainability and a vibrant media landscape – such as by taxation, subsidies, competition and anti-trust regulation, as well as licensing, and intellectual property. Again, this will require the mobilisation of media and civil society stakeholders, if it is to happen.

  • The authors are grateful for review and comments by Guy Berger.