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Press Freedom

OSCE: Distrust of the news media 'very disturbing'

Julia van Leuven
March 2, 2021

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro talked to DW about the biggest challenges to press freedom in 2021 and the importance of the digital sphere.

Teresa Ribeiro Medienbeauftragte OSZE
Image: OSZE

Ribeiro, the successor of Harlem Désir, was appointed as OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM) in December 2020. The Portuguese, who holds a degree in philosophy, has extensive experience in politics, diplomacy, human rights and the media. Prior to being RFoM, she was Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Portugal, while serving as President of the National Commission for Human Rights.

DW: What do you think are the biggest threats to press freedom in 2021?

Teresa Ribeiro: There are so many threats to media freedom in the world at the moment. To name one, I find the growing distrust of the news media very disturbing. A trend sparked by several factors, including by populist politicians and authorities who want to sow doubt in order to cover up their anti-democratic tendencies and deeds. In the past years, it has become ever more dangerous for journalists to do their work. This touches the heart of our democratic societies. At times, it feels like we are on the cusp of a serious accident about to happen.

The digital sphere has become even more relevant due to the pandemic. According to RSF, the current situation amplifies “the many crises that threaten the right to freely reported, independent, diverse and reliable information.” How do you think disinformation can be countered?

The influence of the digital sphere really has two faces: in times when we need to be wary of social distancing, we rely, and need to rely, on the internet more than ever for our news, including information on our health and the measures that are being taken to fight the pandemic. While at the same time, the internet and social media have proven to be a big platform for, and spreader of, “fake news”. In itself, the issue of disinformation, and perhaps even propaganda, is not a new phenomenon. The speed with which it spreads and its reach are new, that is for sure.

Corona Virus Fake News
Fake News about COVID19 can pose a threat to health and securityImage: imago images/A. Limbach

There has never been, and never will be, one solution for this. But one thing I know for sure is that we will not be successful in countering disinformation in a continuously shrinking space for freedom of expression and media freedom. So, we need to support media pluralism and keep investing in a free and vibrant journalistic scene.

Women journalists are especially vulnerable to online violence. How can the digital safety of women journalists be improved?

The safety of women journalists online is one of our Office’s priorities. Our so-called SOFJO (safety of female journalist online) project has become an important platform for raising awareness on this issue, and I am very proud to say that, just recently, we launched a comprehensive Resource Guide. This Guide assists the States and non-State actors across the OSCE region in taking real actions to tackle the problem that affects us all. It presents practices and examples of ways in which international standards and commitments can be realized, and with 40 concrete actions, it provides a systemic multi-stakeholder approach for actors that are central for creating a safe and enabling media environment. In the coming year, we will continue to advocate for the online safety of female journalists.

Kampagne International Center for Journalists #JournalistsToo
Image: International Center for Journalists (ICFJ)

One of your tasks is to issue early warnings. How do you intend to meet this responsibility at a time when, according to RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, out of 180 countries, only 26 percent have a situation that is ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’?

The task of monitoring media developments in all 57 participating States in the OSCE, and intervene when there are serious problems, is one of my main tasks. For this, I want to work closely with all stakeholders but I also need the co-operation of the authorities of participating States, I cannot do this on my own. In the OSCE region, there are many problems when it comes to media freedom. At the same time, there is also a certain willingness among most of these States to improve the situation. The commitments on media freedom are the ones they made themselves; it is my job to keep reminding them of it.

With regard to new social media regulations in countries such as Russia, Turkey or Hungary, do you see an increase in state influence on the digital sphere?

The discussion on the regulation of social media is really not only about State influence in the digital sphere. The issue is much bigger and is probably one of the most important debates that we will need to have in the coming years. Questions like who should be moderating what, which rules should apply, what the role of Big Tech is and should be, while keeping in mind that is up to our democratic institutions, our laws, our courts to define the rules and supervise their application. I do not have the answers, but I do think it is important always to have at least a possibility to legal recourse. Here, I think, lies one of the challenges: how to make the rules of the game transparent and thus open for legal review?

What is your top goal as OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media?

I would be happy if I could contribute to the restoration of the fundamental idea, both with authorities and with the public, that having free and pluralistic media is the only way our democratic societies can thrive. This is one of the core principles of the OSCE. It would be good if everyone living in our region would be very much aware of this.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

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