Preventing information warfare: RSF proposes a system to protect democratic information spaces

As the Media Freedom Coalition (MFC) gathers in Tallinn, Estonia, on February 9 and 10 for the third World Conference on Media Freedom, RSF presents an innovative solution to protect democracy, a reciprocity mechanism based on universal principles and adapted to new technological developments and legal reality. RSF’s secretary general will present this proposal at the event organized as part of this campaign initiated in 2019 by the United Kingdom and Canada, which currently brings together 50 states. The coalition is currently chaired by Canada and the Netherlands.

The globalization of news and information has led to an imbalance in which “closed” countries control their information space while the information space in democratic countries remains open. This asymmetry allows dictatorial and authoritarian regimes to export their propaganda while closing themselves off to news and information produced under conditions of freedom, and gives them a competitive advantage that weakens journalism and, more broadly, democracy.

How to protect freedom of expression and support journalism while preventing democracies from being undermined by the disinformation operations of despotic and authoritarian regimes? That is the question.

protection system

In his article, titled Protecting the democratic information space against authoritarian regimes, RSF recommends creating a system of protection to reduce asymmetries, which promotes freedom of expression and freedom of the press at the global level. A detailed legal framework is proposed, developing a concept sketched on April 27.

The system proposed to democratic governments consists of two measures: on the one hand, equal treatment for all audiovisual media broadcasting in democratic spaces and, on the other hand, a reciprocity mechanism conditioning the opening of democratic public spaces to reciprocal openness.

Equal treatment

Firstly, under the current audiovisual media regulatory system, media based in the European Union are subject to a series of requirements that those based elsewhere, which use satellite and digital operators to broadcast in Europe, are largely in measure to avoid. The result is a two-speed media market in which foreign media broadcasting propaganda or manipulative content can flout the democratic principles that European media must follow. A recent example is the broadcast license issued to China’s state-owned broadcaster CGTN.

Under the principle of equal treatment, the same requirements would be imposed on all audiovisual media, regardless of their country of origin and regardless of the mode of distribution of their content, whether over the air, by satellite or via digital operators. These requirements would include respect for journalistic pluralism, honesty and independence, as well as respect for human dignity. Media that did not meet these requirements would not be allowed to broadcast through any of these channels.

Reciprocity mechanism

The second element of the proposal, the reciprocity mechanism, establishes the conditions for access to the news and information space in democratic countries. Producers and broadcasters of content from “source countries” could be subject to specific measures if the public space in these countries is closed and if the level of respect for freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of the press is not satisfactory.

The degree of openness of source countries and their level of respect for freedom of opinion and expression would be assessed by an independent body on the basis of a methodology defined by democratic institutions. It could be based on the methodologies used by organizations such as RSF, IDEA, Freedom House and Transparency which assess the level of democracy in different policies.

A permanent dialogue would be sought with the competent authorities of the source countries in order to promote international standards and, ultimately, to open up these closed countries. The competent democratic authorities, in particular parliaments, would receive regular reports on the progress of this dialogue.

When reciprocity is not respected, proportionate measures could be applied to the content producers and broadcasters concerned according to their degree of submission to the authorities of their country and their manipulative practices. The implementation of protection measures would be entrusted to an independent administrative authority whose decisions could be subject to appeal in accordance with ordinary law. Measures restricting or blocking access would only be taken as a last resort.

The mechanism proposed by RSF complies with international human rights standards, European law (audiovisual and digital) and WTO law. It is inspired by the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), the proposed EU Regulation to protect against economic coercion from third countries and the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions.

Democracies must not accept an asymmetry that gives advantage to dictatorial and authoritarian regimessaid RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire. “It is time for them to put in place an effective and legitimate protection system so that the globalized information space does not promote disinformation to the detriment of freely reported, independent and pluralistic news and information..”

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