Preventing information warfare: RSF proposes a system for the protection of democratic information spaces
On the occasion of the third Global Conference for Media Freedom held in Estonia on February 9 and 10, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is proposing an innovative reciprocity mechanism based on universal principles for protecting journalism and democracies.
As the Media Freedom Coalition (MFC) meets in Tallinn, Estonia on February 9-10 for the third Global Conference for Media Freedom, RSF presents an innovative solution to protect democracy, a reciprocity mechanism based on universal principles and adapted to the new technological and legal reality. The Secretary General of RSF will introduce this proposal at the event organized as part of this campaign initiated in 2019 by the United Kingdom and Canada, which currently brings together 50 states. The coalition is currently chaired by Canada and the Netherlands.
The globalisation of news and information has led to an imbalance in which “closed” countries control their information space while the information space in democratic countries remains open. This asymmetry allows dictatorial and authoritarian regimes to export their propaganda while they close themselves off to news and information produced under conditions of freedom, and it gives them a competitive advantage that weakens journalism and, more broadly, democracy.
How can we protect freedom of expression and support journalism while preventing democracies from being undermined by the disinformation operations of despotic and authoritarian regimes? That is the question.
In its paper, entitled Protecting the democratic information space against authoritarian regimes, RSF recommends creating a protection system to reduce the asymmetries, one that encourages freedom of expression and press freedom at the global level. A detailed legal framework is proposed, developing a concept outlined on 27 April.
The system proposed to democratic governments consists of two measures: on the one hand, equal treatment for all audiovisual media outlets broadcasting in democratic spaces and, on the other hand, a reciprocity mechanism conditioning the opening of democratic public spaces on a reciprocal openness.
Firstly, under the existing system of broadcast media regulation, media based in the European Union are subject to a range of requirements that those based elsewhere, which use satellite and digital operators to broadcast in Europe, are largely able to avoid. This results in a two-tier media market in which foreign media broadcasting propaganda or manipulative content are able to flout the democratic principles that European media must follow. The broadcast permit issued to Chinese state TV broadcaster CGTN is a recent example.
Under the principle of equal treatment, the same demands would be made on all broadcast media regardless of their country of origin and regardless of how their content was delivered, whether over the air, by satellite or via digital operators. These requirements would include respect for journalistic pluralism, honesty and independence, and respect for human dignity. Media that did not satisfy these requirements would not be allowed to broadcast by any of these channels.
The proposal’s second component, the reciprocity mechanism based on universal principles, would establish safeguards for access to the news and information space in democratic countries. Its goal would be to reduce the asymmetries between authoritarian and democratic spaces in order to encourage as much openness as possible and to promote freedom, independance, pluralism and trustworthiness of information.
On the basis of full fledged fair proceedings, content producers and broadcasters in “source countries” could be subject to specific measures if the public space in these countries is closed and the level of respect for freedom of opinion and expression and press freedom is not satisfactory, and if they intentionally produce or distribute manipulative or false information.
The degree of openness of source countries and their level of respect for freedom of opinion and expression would be evaluated by an independent body on the basis of a methodology defined by democratic institutions. It could be based on the methodologies used by organisations such as RSF, IDEA, Freedom House and Transparency that evaluate the level of democracy in different polities.
A permanent dialogue would be sought with the competent authorities in the source countries with the aim of promoting international standards and, ultimately, getting these closed countries to open up. The competent democratic authorities, especially parliaments, would be given regular progress reports on this dialogue.
When reciprocity is not respected, proportionate measures could be applied to the actors concerned in accordance with the degree of their submission to the authorities in their country and their manipulatory practices. Implementation of the protective measures would be entrusted to an independent administrative authority whose decisions could be appealed as per ordinary law. Measures restricting or blocking access would be taken only as a last resort.
The mechanism proposed by RSF conforms to international human rights standards, to European (broadcasting and digital) law and to WTO law. It is inspired by the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), the EU’s proposed regulation for protecting against economic coercion by third countries and the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
“Democracies must not accept an asymmetry that gives dictatorial and authoritarian regimes the advantage,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “It’s time for them to establish an effective and legitimate system of protection so that the globalised information space does not favour disinformation at the expense of news and information that is freely reported, independent and pluralist.”