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UNESCO and the Future of Journalism

The final keynote at Future of Journalism 2017 today is by Guy Berger, Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, who asks the perfectly innocent question "Does Journalism Have a Future?" The challenges it now faces include questions about the authority and objectivity of legacy news organisations, social media, 'fake news', political satire, automation, sourcing and expertise, scrutiny and accountability, and journalism education, to name just a few; each one of these is considerable.

Yet another issue for journalists is their personal safety, as journalists are regularly abused and threatened via social media and other channels. There are too many such messages to report and seek retribution for; the social media platforms respond only reluctantly to such reports; and any attempts to stop the trolls only tend to produce more trolling.

Additionally, other problems for journalism include gendered attacks; pronounced attempts to reduce journalists' and sources' privacy; limits being placed on journalism in the name of national security; instrumentalisation and co-option; problems with the diversity and inclusiveness of journalism; the impact of concentrated media ownership; the rise of native content; and problems with changing self- and external regulatory frameworks.

Freedom of the media has been recognised by UNESCO as a key defence for democracy, and survived even beyond the end of the Cold War; the agency has been active in promoting the ideal of a free national media, in part by establishing the World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, and has increasingly also engaged with 'soft' issues such as freedom of expression. Key current agendas include work on building environments for press freedom, a push for the safety of journalists, and initiatives dealing with the challenges of digitisation, for example.

One of the outcomes of this work is the World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, now in its third edition; there is also a great deal of attention to media law reform, especially in transitional countries and linked to a number of media development indicators. Associated with the World Press Freedom Day is also a WPFD Prize for courageous journalists, and this can be used to create pressure authoritarian governments. UNESCO has also pushed for greater guarantees for public access to information.

The agency's work on the safety of journalists has been expressed in a UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, building on ten UN resolutions that support the safety of journalists; some 70% of UN members now report regularly on killings of journalists, even if some still do so reluctantly and incompletely. UNESCO has encouraged the building of coalitions to create more pressure on governments on this issue, and has instituted 2 November as a day to push for an end to the impunity with which journalists are still killed in some nations. Various journalists' safety indicators as well as training programmes for journalists, judges, and security forces are also being developed.

A third element is work on the question of digitisation, addressing questions including Internet universality indicators (enshrining rights, openness, accessibility, and multi-stakeholder governance); privacy and encryption; Internet governance and multi-stakeholder participation; hate speech and online radicalisation; 'fake news' in elections and elsewhere; and self-regulation. All of this work crucially involves academic participants.

But there are a number of paradoxes: first, journalist is under considerable stress just as it is becoming increasingly important how crucial its societal role is. There is a great opportunity for a distinctive contribution that journalism can make to current debates, but it is under great economic and political pressure at this point.

Second, then, there remain significant resourcing problems for journalism even though the costs of news production and distribution have declined considerably: the old revenue model is crumbling; the politics of funding promotes some lines of investigation and coverage over others; resourcing is very unevenly distributed across nations, areas of reporting, and types of outlets.

Third, the power of digita technologies is matched by increasing digital vulnerability: surveillance, hacking, trolling, and blocking are each significant challenges for journalism, too.

Finally, while there are substantial calls for new content areas, a homogeneity in the news agenda remains: elite, national reporting persists, and there is a groupthink in the industry on what stories deserve coverage, while many other matters go unreported.

Will societies find a way to fund journalism, then, or will the digital downsides outweigh the benefits? UNESCO will continue to cover these issues, but wider UN activity also depends on the future emphases set by national governments – and geopolitics is in considerable flux at the moment. Further, the new Internet giants now have powers rivalling or surpassing those of many nation states, and they are not adequately incorporated into UN or any other governance frameworks; much depends on their comparative benevolence at this stage.