Photo credit: UN - Photo: 2018

Experts Debate Digital Media’s Role in Tackling Global Inequalities

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BONN (IDN) – ‘Global Inequalities’ was the theme of this year’s Global Media Forum (GMF) hosted by the German public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, and much discussion focused on whether the digital media tools are a panacea or a hindrance to achieving a more equitable world.

In an opening address, Germany’s Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, Michelle Muentefering said that inequalities exist not only in the economic sphere, but also in the information field where balance and participation is lacking. “In the 1990s great expectations were placed on digital media (but) last few years have been sobering, the expected equality did not happen.”

“We are now talking about digital platforms that commercialise data. We talk about who deliberately manipulate information and spread falsehood,” she added, highlighting three factors that worry policy makers such as blurring of facts in the social media through targeted messages; algorithms manipulating news feeds; and paid trolls adding to this problem. “Not every citizen could be an investigative journalist,” noted Muentefering. “We need guidance … that is why we need journalists as the fourth pillar of democracy.”

While multiple sources that made available through digital media tools could give the citizen a voice, algorithms creates a problem because the news choices are not visible warned Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for the Digital Economy at the European Commission. “Our challenge is to convince the people that the news could be trusted,” she argued. “We need to leave our comfort zone and build a platform to come to a common vision.” While the media need to play a crucial role in it, “algorithms create many challenges for our common vision in Europe,” added Gabriel.

Europe had many good models in public service broadcasting (PSB) that created the public sphere for information that is trusted by the citizens. But Tom Buhrow, Director General of Cologne-based Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), laments that these models are facing “all sorts of pressures” across the continent. “Digital media platforms create an environment not of broadcasting but narrowcasting,” he argues.

“In the old system most people consumed a common base of knowledge now it has become smaller,” he says. “Strategy adopted by media companies has changed, now they are looking for niches.” Typical example of such ‘narrowcasting’, he pointed out, is the Facebook, which uses algorithms for news feeds based on “what the user thinks he needs (and) longer he’s on the platform more money they make.”

Thomas Lansner, Director of the Social Accountability Media Initiative (SAMI), a project of the Aga Khan University in Nairobi, which conducted a workshop on participatory communications, argues that the voices of the poor and repressed are too rarely seen in most media. In many countries, people suffering from the practical impact of inequalities are society’s least powerful – those lacking economic and political clout to make their voices heard.

“They are also often in the countryside, or in urban areas that might be dangerous to access. Resources for journalists to cover these issues are sometimes lacking (and) the poor are also not a prime market for advertisers. Coverage of issues of concern to wealthier urban groups draws the audiences advertisers desire,” notes Lansner.

Based on the premise that offering voice to people suffering most from problems and policies related to inequality should be standard practice for full and fair coverage, the SAMI seeks to build collaborations to help raise the voices of people directly affected by inequalities.

In a panel discussion on reporting terrorism, there was animated discussion on subjectivity and lack of diversity in the global media controlled by the West. Afrah Nasser, an independent reporter and blogger from Yemen said that the conflict in her homeland is a collaboration between the West and rich countries in her neighbourhood that is involved in war crimes in the poorest nation in the Middle East. But, she pointed out that this is not the way the conflict is reported, and reporters like her never gets a chance to report the reality there to a global audience.

“When Saudis are bombing her country, who is saying that Saudis are committing terrorism?” she asked. A guy going with an explosive belt into a shopping mall is a terrorist, but not someone who sends a missile to a village in Yemen, she pointed out and lamented the fact that when thousands of people are killed in Yemen by bombs made in the West, no journalist is reporting it.

When a German journalist said that it is because Western journalists are not allowed into the country, she responded by pointing out that there are many Yemeni journalists who fled their war-ravaged country and are living in Europe (Nasser lives in Sweden) who can tell the stories with information drawn from reliable sources. “I need to see my story matter equally as any other international reporter’s story.”

In another panel titled ‘How much inequality we can have?’ Indian lawyer Colin Gonsalves, who has been conferred the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’, argued that the globalisation push since the 1990s has worsened global inequalities. Digital technologies also came into play in the information arena at this time. “Subsidies are bad under globalisation (and) the State has no responsibility for health, schooling, housing (and other social welfare needs of the people). Abandonment of the poor by the State is globalisation,” he argued.

During a workshop on Internet governance, there was much discussion about moves even in the European Parliament to control the Internet. “In Europe there are politicians who want control back on the Internet,” noted Thomas Lohninger of Epicenter Works. “They are afraid after Brexit and French elections.”

He warned that a copyright protection law that comes up for a vote in the European parliament on June 20 is a disguised attempt to control political discussion in cyberspace. He said that it would require Wikipedia for example to put up upload filters. “Only country that has asked Wikipedia to do that is China,” he pointed out. “It can be used (in Europe) for political purposes disguised as fighting terrorism.”

Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative in Nigeria argued that it is difficult to convince the people that issues of Internet control is important for them when 70 percent of his people worry about how they can get their next meal. “We need to show them the connection between getting the next meal and digital rights,” he said.

“They are not aware that when they use the mobile phone to get their meal coupon it is dependent on a free and accessible Internet,” Lohninger said, and agreed that to fight these moves to control digital communication tools, even in Europe “you need to connect participatory communication with their interests.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 June 2018]

Photo credit: UN

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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