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Free media: issues, challenges and proposals

The World Forum of Free Media: history and challenges

, by CAMPELO Erika

In 1948, the right to freedom of expression was entered in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is worth mentioning in the current context, with the rise in authoritarian regimes, and with neo-conservatives in power in various countries around the world. Freedom of expression is strictly linked to democracy. It is one of its major components. Without freedom of expression, the democratic state is threatened.

Many conditions must be fulfilled so that freedom of expression can be respected: plurality of the means of communication, prohibition of monopolies by media groups in any shape or form, legal safeguards to protect the freedom and independence of journalists, strict frameworks for legal action in cases of abuse of freedom of expression (defamation, slander, dissemination of hate speech…)

From the Right to Information to the Right to Communication

Information is a common good which cannot and must not, in any case, remain in the hands of a few international communication groups, often linked to larger industrial interests.

However, the commodification of information, including its production and broadcasting tools, is a major obstacle to the democratization of communication. The goal of large media groups and proprietary software is the same: financial profit. This goes against the idea of the free flow of knowledge and learning. Access to information can provide solutions for the social, economic, and environmental problems that confront our societies. Without information, there is no mobilization, no change, no debate, and no critical building.

The democratization of communication is fundamental, because no democratic project can be credible and lasting without it. The first and necessary step is for each and every person to appropriate the means of information and communication. Free media, including activism on social media, plays an important role in disseminating information that is gathered in the field. It shows the limits and partiality of traditional media discourse.

In this upheaval, free media activists come together to promote citizen emancipation through the implementation of different and critical information vis-à-vis the dominant “system”, and through the development of media (television, newspapers, radio, websites, videos) that are considered vectors of popular education. This is because production of and access to information remain sine qua non conditions for the building and functioning of democratic societies. Thus the need to continue to question the place of media (new ones as well as traditional ones) and information in our societies.

The right to communication is the right of all people to have access to means of production and dissemination of information, technical and material means for their voices to be heard and listened to, and the knowledge necessary to be autonomous and independent in their relationship with media.

The right to communication is thus broader than the right to information and freedom of expression. It is a universal right that is, indissociable from other fundamental rights, one whose importance has grown in the Internet era. Thanks to technology, individuals and social groups can more easily produce and disseminate information about their activities and engagements. They can also have easier access to information issued by other participants who have similar concerns.

However, this evolution of technology also carries the potential for a concentration of power that could be used to reinforce existing powers and non-egalitarian relationships. While the impacts of information and communication technologies (ICT) on social relationships are undeniable, and their potential for the development of humanity is evident, these tools are already being appropriated by major stakeholders in the neoliberal system in order to maximize profits. ICTs, like other economic sectors, are the target of efforts by multinationals to create monopolies, be it to provide content (Google and Apple), social media (Facebook), or online business tools (Amazon, Alibaba...). ICTs are not examples of the type of financial logics found everywhere else. They are vulnerable to the kind of homogenization of information that has long affected mainstream media. ICTs present new technical opportunities in terms of surveillance, control of users, and spying on readers-customers.

Nonetheless, the emergence of cooperative production processes and the creation of new media, free software and protocols highlight the fact that creativity and innovation are partly untouched by economic interests and boost creative imagination as a motor for building the future.

The World Forum of Free Media: A Space to Develop New Common Forms of Engagement

The criminalization of free media, journalists and activists, the absence of diversity and plurality in traditional media, and access to the Internet restricted to those who can pay. Throughout the world, public communications systems are increasingly weakened. In a world where much information is produced, but where access to plural, critical, and diversified information is increasingly difficult, the World Forum of Free Media, (WFFM) was created to explore paths and alternatives that guarantee citizens the right to “communication by all and for all”.

The World Forum of Free Media emerged from World Social Forums through meetings between activists fighting for freedom of expression and searching for another form of communication. The World Forum of Free Media is composed of and supported by media and activists from the engaged civil society.

The first WFFM took place in 2009, at the WSF of Belém, Brazil, with the slogan “Mobilize to communicate, communicate to mobilize”. The second WFFM was held in 2012, during the Rio+20 People’s Summit, at which recommendations were approved, including calling for the regulation of democratic media, and underscoring the central role of technological appropriation and free technology. Finally, the third WFFM, held in Tunis in 2013, initiated a reflection on the need for a common framework of principles and actions to organize the field. This led to a proposal to develop a World Charter of Free Media. In 2015, once again in Tunis, the fourth WFFM focused on the right to communication, the reappropriation of information, debates on freedom of expression, and on the governance of the Internet. The Forum took place in Montreal in 2016. The theme was a question: “What is the political role of free media against the rise of extremism and hate speech?”

After six regional forums between 2008 and 2015, five world forums (Belém 2009, Rio de Janeiro 2012, Tunis 2013 and 2015, and Montreal 2016), the WFFM is a space to develop new common forms of engagement around information and the right to communication. Its aim is to become, for its various stakeholders, a space of mobilization for the international movement aimed at transforming the global communication system.

Developing Alternative Information and a World Charter

In recent years, progress in the field of new information and communication technologies, mainly the Internet, has opened new possibilities to share knowledge, train activist networks and organize demonstrations in various countries. The engaged civil society has, therefore, appropriated these new technologies in order to use them, particularly in independent radio and television on the Internet, blogs, social media, and other platforms for sharing audio and video files, online newspapers and magazines.

Inspired by this momentum, the organizations and activists involved in the WFFM worked for two years on developing a world charter. The proposal and methodology for approval were based on a very democratic, collaborative, and multicultural approach, and produced in 5 languages simultaneously. The Charter was approved in 2015 at the fourth WFFM in Tunis.

The World Charter of Free Media is an advocacy tool in various regions and contexts throughout the world. It is a global document defining concepts, establishing references, and outlining methods for its implementation. The Charter can also serve as a basis for specific thematic and regional documents. Since 2015, it has received 7,114 signatures (individual and collective). Signatures can still be added on the WFFM website: http://www.fmml.net/spip.php?rubrique2

Conclusion

In the multifaceted realities of the information age, communication and free media activists, including the WFFM, are attempting to acquire this universal right to communication and information. They are, in fact, a movement that brings together all movements devoted to the transformation and the democratization of our societies.

The WFFM wishes to stand with the defenders of freedom of expression throughout the world who are attempting to avoid risks, study and propose alternatives to promote diversity by refusing the logics of confinement and homogenization of cultures and societies.

These activists and defenders are conscious of the role that free media must play in confronting conservatism and hate and reactionary speech that are spreading throughout the world. The WFFM is an important space for sharing experiences and for building solidarity between actors of the engaged civil society.

Throughout the world, the existence of pluralistic and independent media is essential because, everywhere where speech is suppressed, where information is truncated, the freedom of individuals (and democracy) is threatened.

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