HRW: Media freedom in "dangerous situation" under new administration

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Sarah Leah Whitson told DCMF that President Trump's attacks on the media have created a dangerous precedent for leaders around the world

The current war between the American president and the media in his country could have an extremely negative impact on journalists and media freedom worldwide according to a human rights expert, who described the present situation as “extremely dangerous.”

Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) spoke to executive director of the Middle East and North Africa desk at Human Rights Watch (HRW), Sarah Leah Whitson, about the relationship between media freedom and other essential human rights, leading to her expressing grave concerns over a deterioration in press freedom and its potential impact on citizens across the world.

“Media freedom is critical – it’s essential,” she said, “It is the most important tool for communication and it is the primary means through which truth and knowledge of information about current events reach the public.”

“Without media freedom, without the media’s ability to report on what is happening throughout the world, people simply won’t know, and don’t know,” she argued.

Social media enhancing communication

Whitson explained that social media have helped her organisation reach citizens in crisis areas, allowing them access to information about human rights violations which has not been filtered or censored by authorities.

“Social media has greatly expanded our ability to reach people, unfiltered by traditional means which selectively deliver our information.

“When someone is following us on twitter they are going to get all of our news and information, not just the pieces that they might already agree with,” she added.

Similarly, social media platforms enable easier two-way communication, and as a result, citizens are contacting HRW to express their own views on the political and conflict situations through which they are currently suffering.

“People are reaching us much more easily, so we have a much broader direct line of communication with the public,” she said, adding “so it has been a great democratizing tool of communication and every citizen feels empowered to share their views.”

However, social media is also regularly used to exacerbate divisions and incite hatred, with users feeling similarly empowered to express themselves in negative ways, without being held to account.

“We have also seen a lot of hate speech being propagated - a lot of undesirable and unproductive viewpoints gaining support, so there is also a danger that social media draws on and exploits people’s fears and worst instincts as opposed to bringing out the best,” Whitson noted.

She added that social media can lead to people being manipulated easily by the material they read online.

“Simple answers are conveyed simply, because they are probably wrong, but issues that take nuance and detail are much harder to communicate and might get lost.”

Importance of quality journalism

In a region where media partisanship continues to contribute to ongoing conflicts and fan the flames of hatred, Whitson pointed out the importance of journalists working accurately and independently to inform citizens so they can engage critically and effectively on relevant issues.

“It’s almost funny if it wasn’t so sad the way in which if you watch certain media stations you would think that all the abuses being committed in Yemen are being committed by the Houthis, yet if you watch another station you would think that all the abuses are being committed by the Saudis,” she said.

“It is terrible disinformation because incomplete information is also a violation of a basic norm in journalism which means that you have to provide a complete and accurate narrative - and omissions can also be culpable.”

“People are misled into believing one thing when they are in fact missing a huge part of the story,” she explained.

This leads to the creation of further divisions throughout society as a whole, and this sort of irresponsible journalism can cause serious damage.

“We can try and bridge this gap by promoting fair and even-handed coverage of conflicts around the world, and encouraging people to rely on impartial accurate sources for their information, and not just rely on ones that are partisan,” noted Whitson.

To this end, education and awareness-raising become more important than ever before, and Whitson explained that HRW publishes reports and information in a number of different languages for the countries in the region, dependent on the issues they address.

Despite issues related to verifying sources reporting on social media, Whitson was keen to point out that HRW’s work does not depend on second hand information, and instead relies only on investigations carried out on the ground.

“It’s critically important that we have sources that are trusted because they are known for their impartial, independent investigations on the ground, and I think part of the reason HRW has the trust of so many people around the world is because they know our information is accurate and verifiable,” she said.

However she pointed out that it is important not to become too wary of all forms of media, for fear of disbelieving everything: “The danger of course is that no one believes anything, and believe that everything is fake news.”

“Dangerous” Trump administration

Fake news is fast become a global phenomenon - regularly highlighted by President Donald Trump - leaving journalists and media freedom advocates around the world have been alarmed at the ongoing war of words their colleagues in the US are facing on a seemingly daily basis.

Whitson pointed out that the deterioration of press freedom under Trump sends a worrying message to journalists at home and the rest of the world.

“It’s so dangerous for the media in the US.  The language of Trump describing the media as enemies of the people is shocking language and is likely to incite violence against journalists,” she said, adding “I wouldn’t be surprised or shocked if there is violence against journalists because of this kind of incitement from the person who is not only meant to be the political leader, also the moral leader of the States.  So it is very dangerous domestically.”

“But it’s also extremely dangerous outside the US as it reinforces and validates the worst violations against journalists, and you can have other leaders known for jailing journalists, saying: ‘Well you see Trump agrees with me – these people are enemies and should be jailed.’”

Cultural differences

Whitson explained that during the course of her work in the region, it is often claimed that human rights as a universal and comprehensive concept are somehow in conflict with cultural norms.

“I think that when people pull out the culture excuse I try and challenge them on it,” she said, adding “I would say that in nearly every single case culture is used as an excuse to justify oppression or repression by those in power.”

“You will never see a victim of torture say: ‘It’s OK – it’s part of my culture.’  It is only ever cited by the oppressors who are trying to justify their violence,” she argued.

This idea of cultural incompatibility is regularly used by states and non-state actors to attempt to control journalists, writers and other opposition voices.

“So we often see governments that will jail people for supposedly insulting religion - which is used as an excuse - when really it is about maintaining control over what their citizens think and speak, and I think it’s very important to expose that,” agued Whitson.

“Culture should be defined and strengthened by the people of the culture, who can choose to live their lives in a particular way - it is not the role of the government to impose a certain culture or excuse for culture on threat of killing or on threat of jailing, and that is what they are doing.”

One of the most pressing issues in terms of international human rights currently involves the region; namely the refugee crisis resulting from years of conflict across the Arab world.

Whitson suggested that Syrian refugees could find gainful employment in the Gulf, and called on governments in the region to welcome refugees into their countries in the future, to ease some of the burden that has been placed on other nations closer to Syria.

And the human rights expert noted that governments’ behaviour can often be reflected by non-state actors and citizens, meaning that it is essential for the adoption of a culture of human rights and other democratic principles, that they embrace the importance of media freedom and disseminating accurate information to contribute towards securing sustainable and lasting peace in their societies.

All rights reserved, Doha Centre for Media Freedom 2013

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