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Media freedom, diversity discussed at UN Alliance of Civilizations forum

(IPI/IFEX) - So what do we do about citizen journalists? That question remained unresolved as a panel of distinguished speakers, including International Press Institute (IPI) Executive Board Chair Galina Sidorova, gathered on Wednesday 27 February 2013 during the 5th Global Forum of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) in Vienna to discuss media freedom.

The panellists - who also included Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression; Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE's representative on Freedom of the Media; Hadi Adanali, senior advisor to Turkey's prime minister; Azerbaijani journalist Gulya Akhundova; and Martine Ostrovsky, former head of Agence France Press' legal department - agreed on most issues.

In a session moderated by Sylvie Coudray, chief of section for Freedom of Expression at UNESCO, they concurred that those who exercise freedom of expression have a moral obligation to do so responsibly, that education and a diversity of voices are important in doing so, and that impunity for attacks on journalists cannot be allowed to thrive.

Accepting, generally, but with some reservations, that neither government nor business interests should be allowed to regulate the content of expression, they also agreed that freedom of expression belongs to everyone, not just professional journalists, and that it includes the right to freely share, receive and use information to make decisions.

As Sidorova - who also chairs the Foundation for Investigative Journalism - Foundation 19/29, in Russia - noted, "citizen journalists" have been key to uncovering and sharing important information that might otherwise go unreported in her country where, she said, "we have press freedom, but without the freedom", and where the Internet remains the only comparatively free platform to distribute information. "The problem is," she added, "that citizen journalists are generally not professional."

However, at the end of the session, there was neither consensus on what protections and responsibilities traditionally extended to professional journalists should also be afforded to citizen journalists, nor on whether there should even be such a divide, much less where to draw the line.

In an era where media conglomerates continue to grow, seemingly drawing ever-greater shares of the market, are citizen journalists an answer to charges that governments, corporations and oligarchs exploit their power over the airwaves, the printed page and the online sphere to manipulate information fed to the public?

Or does the rise of so many new conduits of information - often untrained in journalistic practices and ethics; unrestrained by "bottom line" economic concerns that can serve as a check on the traditional media; and, in some instances, motivated more by personal agendas than a desire to share the unvarnished truth - pose yet one more threat to the struggle to provide accurate information and accountability?

The answer to both questions may well be "yes".

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Wednesday's discussion saw one other area of acute disagreement among panellists: whether it is acceptable to restrict content causing "offence". Adanali said that he thought it perfectly appropriate for governments to restrict not only content wrongfully harming someone's reputation, but also content "harming the dignity and integrity of a person".

That was a position with which Canada's Supreme Court came close to agreeing on Wednesday in a decision upholding restrictions on hate speech against particular groups. However, the court tossed restrictions on speech that "ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of" groups because the restrictions didn't strike the right balance between limiting harm and respecting free expression.

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The UNAOC forum also saw a panel discussion on Wednesday on diversity in the media, in which International Press Service Director General Mario Lubetkin moderated a conversation bringing together Malu Viana Batista, executive director of Television America Latina; Milica Pesic, head of the Media Diversity Institute; Patagaw Talimalaw, secretary general of the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network; Galina Petriashvili, president of Gender-Media Caucasus; and Pascale Thumerelle, vice president of Sustainable Development with Vivendi.

Like the discussion on media freedom, the panellists were in consensus on most issues, including the need to promote greater diversity as a recipe for economic success of a media company and the need to ensure greater diversity in newsrooms and among media staff. They also agreed that media should quote representatives of marginalised groups in reports on all issues, not only on issues directly and solely related to that group, and that media literacy among audiences should be promoted.

However, unaddressed was the question of whether moves ostensibly intended to increase diversity are ultimately a positive step when they have the practical effect of limiting media freedom.

Such a conflict currently exists in Argentina, where the government, which has feuded with media outlet Grupo Clarín over the outlet's critical stance in recent years, threatened last December to implement legal provisions allowing it to seize all but 24 of the outlet's cable television licenses and all but 10 of its open frequency radio or television licenses.

The government has justified this action as a necessary step to limit concentration of media ownership and ensure greater diversity. Critics, however, believe the move is retaliation for Grupo Clarín's criticism of government policies and violates the outlet's fundamental ownership rights.

Grupo Clarín - which owns 240 cable television broadcasters, 10 radio stations, four television channels and the newspaper Clarín - is challenging the move in court in a case that has divided free expression proponents.

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