Multi-stakeholder debates are a basic element of national and global policy processes like media reform or Internet regulation. But their success depends on certain factors. Here, media development has a role to play.
In diverse areas of global policy, a lot of hope is placed in discussion formats that include not only governments, but also civil society organizations and the business sector. Such multi-stakeholder processes are seen as key to promoting inclusiveness, accountability, and legitimacy. But do they actually meet expectations?
Vibrant debate on multi-stakeholderism
At this year’s FoME conference entitled "Power Shifts – Media Freedom and the Internet", panelists took a closer look at the issue, sharing their own experiences with multi-stakeholder processes in media reform and Internet governance. Zimbabwean journalist and activist Koliwe Majama from the Media Institute of Southern Africa spoke about Internet policy in her country, where she started an alternative national Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Her initiative was in reaction to a government-backed national IGF that had excluded important voices. The multi-stakeholder format doesn’t make the legislative process quicker or less tedious, she said, because it is rare to reach consensus in such dialogues. “But it is important to bring things to the table and to be aware of what the issues are,” she added.
Promising approach or simply overrated?
A critical perspective was offered by Jeanette Hofmann from the Berlin Social Science Center. She focused on multi-stakeholder formats in Internet governance, such as the UN Internet Governance Forum, and argued that multi-stakeholder processes repeatedly fail to mitigate power imbalances among the participants. She pointed out that voices from the Global South are underrepresented in global Internet governance debates. At the same time, certain discussion formats tend to repeat the same issues again and again without coming to a conclusion.
But important arguments in favor of the multi-stakeholder approaches were made as well. Laura Schneider, project manager at DW Akademie, shared her experiences with a regional consultation process for media reform in Latin America, which had been carried out in cooperation with the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA). Schneider said that multi-stakeholder discussions can help find common ground and foster trust—thereby laying the groundwork for more inclusive decision-making. It was also mentioned that “soft” recommendations agreed on by multi-stakeholder bodies can in fact feed into policy processes and eventually become “hard” law. During the panel, for example, Koliwe Majama pointed out that in Zimbabwe civil society positions on “revenge porn” had been included in the cybercrime bill.
Chinmayi Arun, executive director of the Indian Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi, said that wider stakeholder consultation may lead to better legislation in the fields of cybercrime and cybersecurity—sectors that often exclude broader input. She argued that the Indian government might be able to come up with better cyber security legislation if it also engaged with human rights experts and other critics: “Human rights people should be included in security conversations, because it offers an opportunity to engage with people who challenge you.”
“The goals of people advocating security and people defending privacy are actually in line with each other," she added. "Especially in the computing world, you always need to stress test your systems in order to enhance security."
Cornerstones of success
What factors contribute to the success of multi-stakeholder processes? Obviously, there has to be a certain degree of openness in the set-up of the whole process so no relevant stakeholder feels left behind. In Zimbabwe, participation in the alternative national IGF was offered to every interested group, and it was possible to participate online from more remote locations.
In addition, a more-or-less neutral facilitator is needed in the process. With regard to media reform consultations in Latin America, the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza, has proven to be a good fit for this role. A common objective, such as the drafting of joint recommendations, can also help different stakeholders focus the debate. And finally, expectations have to be managed. Multi-stakeholder processes sometimes don’t fulfil everyone’s hopes of delivering legitimate and effective outcomes.
The role of media development
Daniel O’Maley from CIMA brought in a media development perspective on Internet policy. He sees several ways in which media development organizations can get involved in Internet governance debates and contribute to the success of multi-stakeholder formats. “Media development organizations can further advance coalitions that aim at keeping fundamental rights in the center of Internet policy debates,” he said.
It is also possible to support media outlets eager to get involved in the discussions, as Internet policy issues become more and more important for the sector’s regulation. "The media gives people a voice", said Helani Galpaya from Sri Lankan think tank LIRNEasia. “So it has to participate in debates on issues such as platform liability or privacy."
For media development organizations, there is ample room to advance inclusive decision-making in media reform or Internet regulation. Strategies include advocating for openness in multi-stakeholder processes, facilitating common perceptions, and supporting less powerful voices that should have a say.
The discussions onhow media development organizations can strategically engage in Internet governance processes will continue at the upcoming Internet Governance Forum set for 18-21 December in Geneva, Switzerland.
Author: Alexander Matschke