On one hand, digital technologies have empowered new narratives and yet on the other, they have journalism under siege as surveillance and online harassment batters press freedom. 

This year’s World Press Freedom Day celebrated on May 3 shone a light on the challenges global media face at this time.

African journalists, media trainers, policymakers, and digital security specialists gathered in Arusha, Tanzania to tackle the theme “Journalism under Digital Siege”. 

They focused on the many ways in which state and non-state surveillance as well as big data collection and artificial intelligence (AI), impact journalism and freedom of expression.

According to University of Johannesburg senior research fellow Dr Allen Munoriyarwa, monitoring the misuse of these digital technologies is a constant challenge.

“While journalists are trained in digital hygiene, at some point we might want to come to the realisation that personal defences might not be sufficient because technologies keep mutating and threats are becoming bigger,” he said.

“In addition to these micro strategies of fending off surveillance we need macro strategies that speak at a broader horizon on how we can deal with this.”  

Through AI-powered surveillance and automated attacks, growing levels of cyberbullying serve to discredit journalists and their independence. Continuous digital literacy and the development of digital media ethics are key in order to curbing abuses, says Zanzea Lasilima of UNESCO. 

“AI is becoming a big business and is what is used for surveillance and UNESCO is recommending that we come up with ethics on the use of AI and this will help curb the big tech companies surveilling what we do,” she said.

Publishers need to take action now 

As much as there is a demand on the media to take up the appropriate safeguards, what are we doing to the multinational companies and governments collecting all this data?

Media houses have been pressured to improve protection measures as well as safeguard information but there’s little effort in holding the entities responsible for data breaches. At least that is the opinion of Article 19 programme officer Sarah Wesonga.

“As much as there is a demand on the media to take up the appropriate safeguards, what are we doing to the multinational companies and governments collecting all this data?” she asked. 

Delegates at the conference spoke of the challenge created by the changing digital threats.

“This is still a really new frontier and we should stay alert and open to see how this is evolving and make our input in the process,” said Dr Allen Munoriyarwa.

“Transparent surveillance includes the end of corporate-driven surveillance, some kind of transparency in surveillance…practices and built-in measures that can be implemented when surveillance has taken place,” he said.

Women are more vulnerable to online abuses

According to Aljeezera, more than 85% of the world’s population has seen a decrease in press freedom in their country over the past five years.

“From 2016 to 2021, 455 journalists were killed, according to UNESCO,” highlighted the report.

Online attacks against journalists are rising and women are disproportionately affected.

‘The Chilling’, a UNESCO report surveyed 901 journalists from 125 countries found 73% of women journalists had experienced some form of online violence, while 20% had been attacked or abused offline as well.  

According to Article 19, although digital technologies have created new opportunities for women journalists and activists to communicate and organise, they have also reproduced patterns of harassment and abuse.  

“The growth of online abuse and harassment, which has become both more prevalent but also more coordinated, is intended to threaten, silence and stigmatise women journalists, with the potential to lock them out of public spaces,” the report concluded. 

Munoriyarwa argued that a way to get even with surveillance is by engaging the state and all role players in AI tech involved in surveillance practices. 

“My fear is that journalists and journalism organisations treat surveillance as their own problem, it is a corporate and a state problem being brought to news production. Surveillance is a danger and poison to the news ecosystem,” he said. 

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