It's not enough for the media to simply report on how the digital world is changing – journalists also need to stand up for digital rights, for all of our sakes.
The digitization of everything raises enormous questions about how to continue protecting human rights – rights that include freedom of expression online, access to information and the right to privacy.
How can we ensure that freedom of speech isn't blocked by those who control Internet access and services, that algorithms don't determine everything we see and hear, and that we don't become the targets of political propaganda spread by bots (software programs) on social media? How can we ensure that anti-terror laws aren't misused for curbing freedom of speech, and that the Internet isn't dominated by a few giant corporations which exploit our personal data and violate our right to privacy?
The answers to these questions will determine in the future how we communicate with others, consume information and express ourselves. Without strong digital rights, the future looks bleak.
But the media can play a crucial part in protecting these rights.
The media's role shouldn't be limited to informing people about digitization but should also "communicate the impacts of these developments, to pique interest and draw attention to how they affect our civil and political, as well as social and economic realities and ideals," said Nanjira Sambuli in an email interview with #mediadev. Sambuli is the Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, an international Internet advocacy organization.
Media's very existence depends on digital rights
With the media heavily dependent on digital communications for reaching their audiences (after all, this is how most of them make money), digital rights should be an important topic for journalists Sambuli said.
Digital rights are being limited at an alarming pace. Access Now, an Internet rights organization, recorded 56 Internet shutdowns worldwide in 2016 – more than double the number they recorded in 2015. The Central African country of Cameroon even set a new record this year when it cut the Internet to its English-speaking regions for a staggering 94 days.
When countries shut down the Internet and mobile messaging apps (usually to sever communications during periods of protests or elections), the media suffer alongside the other Internet-reliant businesses. The Digital Rights in Africa report highlights an alarming number of digital rights violations.
In particular, the report singled out new anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws as infringing on rights.
"Cybercrime laws are arguably well intentioned in … that they are aimed at suppressing crime on the Internet," said human rights lawyer, Nani Jansen Reventlow, in an email exchange with #mediadev.
"That sounds like a very noble cause but they are also examples of legislation that are notoriously used for suppressing human rights," she warned.
Journalists are especially endangered by laws like these, said Babatunde Okunoye, a member of the research team at Paradigm Initiative, a Nigerian organization, which published the report. This is why Okunoye believes media professionals have an obligation to "unashamedly and courageously" speak out in defense of freedom of expression.
This belief is shared by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), a US-based media development organization. In arecent report CIMA recommended that the media become more involved in shaping digital rights and Internet governance.
The report, Media Development in the Digital Age, states:
"The digital convergence means that how the Internet develops going forward — both in terms of policy and technology — will shape the very environment in which all other media operate. The policies that guide the functioning of the Internet will undoubtedly impact both the dissemination of news as well as the reporting capabilities of journalists."
Investigative journalists can help battle digital rights infringements
The media can support digital rights in other ways. For instance, investigative journalism into freedom of expression violations can help ensure authorities don't get away with shutting down free speech and information.
"Often, governments would simply deny violations," said 'Gbenga Sesan, the executive director of the Paradigm Initiative and an outspoken African technology activist. "Investigative journalism supports us as activists with facts in our work."
Armed with facts, there's even the possibility of taking states to court, as the Federation of African Journalists did when it challenged the Gambian government's laws on criminal libel, sedition and false news before an international court.
Starting points for the media
The Internet is full of reference material and tools that can help journalists know more about online violations, such as Internet shutdowns and blocked websites, and report on them.
The Key Principles of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, for instance, outline what an Internet respectful of human rights could look like. Brazil's Civil Rights Framework for the Internet (Marco Civil da Internet), which protects Internet privacy, free expression and net neutrality, is also a good reference for journalists.
In order to report effectively on digital rights, journalists also need to know when these rights are being restricted.
Here are two tech tools that help prove that violations are taking place:
The more people know about their digital rights and incidents restricting them, the harder it will be for authorities to abuse them.