Ondari: Why digital innovations on information exchange should support freedom of expression for media to thrive


The benefits of technology and innovation must always be juxtaposed against their effects on other aspects of life.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

The world is going digital; so is the media.

One of the lessons learnt during the Covid-19 pandemic era is that the media should have embraced digitisation earlier. Even for those platforms that had already started using digital tools in journalism, such steps were being taken as an alternative and not as the standard mode of operation.

If asked, such platforms would have cited the high cost of investments in technology and the much feared effects of “digital disruption” as the reason for the slow pace of tech adoption in the media sector.

This therefore explains the apparent rush by many media enterprises to embrace various digital tools, re-tooling their staff when the pandemic hit, as most institutions and professionals were not ready for the disruption caused by the pandemic, yet the industry needed to stay viable as a business.

The benefits of technology and innovation must always be juxtaposed against their effects on other aspects of life. For the media for instance, one has to balance between the use emerging technological tool against various values that underpin its operation. Key among these is freedom of express.

On May 3rd annually, the media and its stakeholders across the world commemorate the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration. It is a day to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world; to defend the media from attacks on their independence; and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession. The theme for this year is “Shaping a Future of Rights-Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights”

As a public good the media is a frontline beneficiary of freedom of expression which guarantees its right to access information and impart knowledge and ideas, hence freedom of the media. With the current theme it is an opportune moment to reflect on how emerging innovations are enhancing (or not), freedom of expression as an enabler for all other human rights not only for the media but everyone in general.

This year’s commemoration of the world press Freedom day comes on the heels of the publication of the draft guidelines for regulating digital platforms by the United Nations Environment, Cultural and scientific organization (UNESCO) which call on digital   platforms   to ensure   that   human   rights   and   due   process considerations are integrated into all stages of the design process, as well as content moderation and curation policies and practices.

“The content moderation and curation policies of digital platforms should be consistent with the obligations of corporations to respect and promote human rights, as set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other established international human rights standard. Digital platforms should respect human rights and adhere to international human rights standards in accordance with relevant UN conventions and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” the guidelines state.

It is already demonstrable that technological tools are capable and indeed already supporting freedom of expression. For instance, tools like blockchain technology have been used to create decentralized platforms for media distribution, which can help to protect against censorship and promote freedom of expression. These platforms can allow media creators to publish their work directly to audiences without the need for intermediaries, such as publishers or broadcasting networks, thereby reducing the risk of content being censored or manipulated.

Artificial Intelligence can be used to help identify and flag fake news or manipulated media, and to ensure that content is fact-checked and verified before it is published thus protecting audiences against disinformation campaigns and promote accurate reporting.

Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) on the other hand be used to create immersive media experiences that can enhance the quality and impact of news reporting. For example, VR can be used to create virtual tours of news events or to provide a more immersive experience of a location or environment.

Additionally, Social Media Platforms can provide a platform for media creators to distribute their work and reach a wider audience. In terms of media freedom, the platforms provide alternative channels for media distribution that are not controlled by traditional media outlets. So are open source technologies can be used to create new media platforms that are transparent and community-driven which can help to promote media diversity and enable a more decentralized media ecosystem.

On the flipside, undesirable practices like censorship can thrive with the use of technology with the effect of limiting access to information and preventing people from expressing their opinions freely. This is closely related with surveillance and monitoring where the work of those with dissenting views can be tracked. This can discourage people from expressing their opinions freely and can lead to self-censorship.

Needless to say, cyberattacks and other activities by malicious actors are enabled by technology while the latter can at the same time be used to spread disinformation and misinformation online, which can undermine trust in news sources and limit access to accurate information. Additionally, algorithms used in social media and other online platforms can amplify certain voices or viewpoints, while suppressing others. This can lead to echo chambers and limit the diversity of opinions and viewpoints that are available online.

Digitisation does not have to happen at the expense of freedom of expression; the latter remains the bedrock of all other rights, it is therefore incumbent upon innovators to take up the challenge to address the gaps in the foregoing for freedom of expression and media to thrive even with changing times. 

Ms Ondar is the Manager, Press Freedom, Safety and Advocacy-Media Council of Kenya