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{May 3, 2011}   “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers”

If the issue of new media has neither caught your attention nor your interest then I hope the Egypt revolution of 2011 has or at least did while it unfolded. That was the revolution that produced such catch phrases as ‘the revolution has been tweeted/ facebooked’ (inspired by ‘the revolution will not be televised’), ‘facebook revolution’, ‘young people’s revolution’ and so on. See, this revolution was enabled by cell phones, the internet, computers, and so on. These new media technologies enabled interactivity and consensus formation among citizens away from the scrutiny of Mubarak’s administration; they did for Egypt what traditional media had no capacity to do.

So why am I going on about something we already know or to borrow a more vivid expression, why am I stating that the Pope is Catholic? Well, today we are commemorating World Press Freedom Day under the theme ‘21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers’. Some of the talking points around this theme are the increasing role of the internet, the emergence of new media and the striking rise in social networking. Having done my MA thesis in 2010 in the area of new media, I naturally find all these issues very significant, plain irresistible and well worth breaking my blogging hiatus over! Well…., ‘hiatus’ being the better sounding term for inexcusable procrastination but look I’m not here to raise arms against myself so hiatus it shall remain! 🙂 In my thesis I looked at interactive media and user feedback (with a focus on online commentary on news sites), media freedom and responsibility, online gatekeeping/moderation policy and practice of User Generated Content (specifically readers’ comments), and xenophobia. Of the very many issues that came up, one of the most recurrent was the fine nature of the line between free speech and hate speech, and the headaches for the people (moderators) tasked to navigate the inherent grey areas in order to draw that line. Where does one’s freedom of expression end and where does one’s constitutionally guaranteed rights to equality, dignity, freedom from incitement to harm etc begin? Which right gets priority over the others and why? What is the context in which the contestation between rights is playing out? What are the issues? Who suffers the bigger loss if their right is sidelined; the person seeking their right to free speech (which can at times be hate speech) or the person seeking protection from being a victim of hate speech, of incitement to discrimination, harm or hatred? The questions sure go on!

Coming to today’s theme, an important place to begin is to define interactivity which is simply the ability of readers to give feedback on websites via their comments. These interactive opportunities, of course enabled by new media technologies, have a proven potential to promote citizen participation and enhance diverse public deliberation. Egypt is an example of the democratising potential of new media; an example of the extent of the new frontiers that have been attained in communication. These new frontiers have reshaped the way news is delivered and consumed by changing journalism from a lecture (one way) to a conversation (interactive).

They have also affected how politics are conducted, and made available new ways of being a citizen (Egypt is an example again). This, therefore, makes them crucial to and in a democracy. It also makes them an important enabler of a people-focused journalism that not only empowers the public by disseminating information but also facilitates public debate. The converged and easily accessible nature of the new media environment also means restructured power relations: the traditional gatekeeper is no longer able to limit public discourse by preferring certain voices over others. The traditionally marginalised voices can now, more than ever before, take their voices online and be heard. In Africa, social media (facebook, twitter, myspace etc) have significantly restructured these power relations by elevating anyone with access (cell phones have greatly enhanced this) and capacity (e.g. internet literacy) to online content producers, essentially making the traditional gatekeeper redundant.

Evidently, new media has advanced the quest for freedom of expression to unprecedented levels. There is, however, a real threat on this freedom because measures to limit internet freedom are ongoing. Countries with gigantic intranets such as China, Algeria and Burma typify the unprogressive rise of cyberboundaries. Reports have also shown that there are governments world over who are moving in and trying to regulate the internet by asking Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block some sites. These are some of the issues that motivated this year’s WPFD theme. I choose, however, to shift slightly from this and get you thinking about another key issue within the area: how new media amplifies the inherent tensions between free speech and hate speech vis-a-vis user feedback, and how these are negotiated by news sites.

Have you ever considered, for example, the dilemmas that attend the moderation of interactive user feedback with regard to drawing a line between free speech and hate speech? Or the enhanced potential for loss of other freedoms due to increased freedom of expression online? Should the limits on speech that qualifies as hate speech applied offline be extended to speech online? Is it even practicable to apply speech restrictions online given the nature of the medium? Why, you may ask, am I even talking about limiting free speech on such a day?!

Well, freedom of expression is globally recognised as a fundamental human right and a cornerstone of democracy. This understanding, however, acknowledges that democracy entails balancing free speech and limits on free speech; that free speech cannot be enjoyed at the expense of other rights and neither can it be curtailed without justification. Is it justifiable for example for South African personality Kuli Roberts to write a racially excluding blog that denigrates Coloured women in the name of free speech? Should Julius Malema keep singing ‘kill a farmer, kill a boer’ in a country where race based violence has produced so many casualties, where the nightmares of the atrocities of its recent apartheid past are yet to be laid to complete rest? Did Rwandan media, in enjoying their free speech, contribute to the genocide? What should be done about speech that harms others? You would think that these are pretty straight forward issues but they are not.

The fact is limiting speech (this is well within the provisions of international human rights standards if it is done to protect other rights) creates the risk of the right (free speech) being so restrained that it becomes threatened. Bear in mind at this point that freedom of expression is under continual attack by governments, legislative frameworks etc and that any opportunity to legally restrict it can be conveniently utilised to muzzle legitimate opposition and dissenting voices.

And so we get back to new media which so far provides a largely unrestricted platform for those voices that have been silenced offline; a platform to challenge the dominant political, social and moral discourse being promoted by the powers that monopolise traditional media. But that again raises the issue of control for purposes of accuracy, fairness, truth and general adherence to media ethics. Who is in charge of quality control online? Who will ensure that the content generated on twitter and facebook, for example, is not racist, xenophobic, alarmist or indeed propaganda for war? Is control (for purposes of quality and sticking within legal limits) in the new media environment desirable or even possible? Mind you, this is not traditional media where a few people had/have a monopoly on content and could easily exclude objectionable voices and where content could and still can be centrally policed. This is the new media era, an environment where user generated content (e.g. readers’ comments, facebook and twitter updates etc) literally pours in. The intensified volume and velocity of audience/user participation in public discourse is occurring in torrents, at totally unprecedented levels! It is safe to say as far as these new frontiers go, debates on freedom of expression and what ought to be its limits are far from over.

This blog merely serves to lay down some broad issues for us all to digest and further discuss. I will soon be putting up a blog or more where some of these and other issues will be more nuanced. This promise (of more blogs) I have just made is not just about keeping you informed about upcoming matters but also an attempt at curing my procrastination because with this kind of word already out, I have no choice but to write…at least within this lifetime!

Happy World Press Freedom Day! Aluta Continua!


Lombe says:

Thanks Lwanga for sharing, we acknowledge the power of new media in advancing causes and freedoms. As usual, there still remains a large sector of our society who are excluded from these platforms due to limited access to the infrastructure and access tools and gadgets, skills and connectivity. Worth thinking about also is campaigns for access to internet as a human right.

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