At the opening of this year’s Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, Erik Bettermann, Director General of Germany’s international broadcaster, paid tribute to the people in the Arab World struggling for their right to freedom and self-determination. The three-day conference in Bonn is devoted to the topic “Human Rights in a Globalized World – Challenges for the Media”. Addressing around a thousand participants from the realms of politics, business, academia and the media, Bettermann said, “Human rights are indivisible. We must enforce them universally – and we may not play them off against one another”.
At the same time the media must “objectively analyze” the situation in different regions and countries of the world, “applying to each a differentiated view and fair assessment – so that we do justice to those who honestly endeavor to improve the living conditions within their countries, at least in certain sectors. And so that we expose those who are preventing substantial progress in human rights issues, whether openly or subtly.” This, he said, poses a great challenge to the media.
“For me, 2011 is the year of human rights,” Bettermann said, referring to the upheaval in the Middle East. “The media can be a powerful instrument in implementing human rights by serving as a bridge for information and as a tool toward insight. Social media – especially Facebook, Twitter and blogs – have created new impetus. They are the communicative driver and catalyst of civil campaigns and protest movements.”
Governments and societies throughout the world must concern themselves with their potential, he continued, as must those representing traditional forms of media. Bettermann also said that the digitization of communications has multiplied complexity and the possibilities for manipulation. “The Internet and social media are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They harbor as much opportunity as they do danger.” Web 2.0 has opened new windows to the world – with incalculable consequences for oppressors and the oppressed. In some countries, he added, it has “virtually become a job-generating engine for government-issue opinion making”.
Bettermann addressed the question of Facebook’s impact on human rights. “Are we forfeiting hard-won civil rights and liberties in the mid-term by blindly paying homage to the golden calf of social media?” With the help of hundreds of millions of people, Facebook is becoming “a digital Leviathan that spans the globe”.
Almost total transparency through a vast number of players, some of dubious identity, has its flip side, said Bettermann. “When there is information overload, the reliability of information tends to nosedive. That has obvious ramifications in an area as sensitive as human rights. The doors are wide open for slander, disinformation and manipulation.”
Against this backdrop, professional media are more necessary than ever, he said. “Professionalism and reliability – those are the public’s expectations of journalistic scouts in the information jungle.”