World Press Freedom Day 2011: The Promise and Challenge of New Technologies
Over 800 journalists, bloggers, freedom of expression advocates, and new media pioneers gathered in Washington, D.C., May 1-3 to celebrate World Press Freedom Day 2011. This year's event, 21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers, marked the first time the United States has hosted the event. The role of new media and citizen journalism in the ongoing events in the Middle East provided an interesting backdrop and relevant case studies for the three days of debate and discussion. IREX, together with the Center for International Media Assistance at NED, the UN Foundation, and the US Department of State served as members of the Executive Committee that planned and organized the event.
With representatives of international media players such as Google, MTV, the Associated Press, Al Jazeera, and NPR sitting down with new media pioneers and free speech advocates from countries such as Malaysia, Egypt, Tunisia, Belarus, and Zimbabwe, the discussions and presentations showed that everyone, regardless of the wealth of their country or the openness of their political system, struggles to define how changing technologies will reshape journalism. Technology now allows nearly every mobile phone or Internet user to be a reporter – they can rapidly gather and report news and information to their community, country, and the entire world. Egyptian and Tunisian bloggers, such as panelists Wael Abbas and Sami Ben Gharbia, have demonstrated this while redefining the role of citizens in providing reliable and accurate news and information on their society. They and their fellow bloggers played a vital role in engaging their citizens in a demand for transparent and participatory governments.
At the same time, the conference showed that new technologies are not limited to the democratically inclined. As citizens gain the power to shine a light on closed societies, repressive regimes also gain the power to ban, track, harass, and harm these citizen reporters and activists. While not as drastic as Egypt cutting the country's internet access in the midst of the demonstrations, too many governments around the world are jailing, harassing, and attacking bloggers, tracking mobile phone users, intercepting emails and phone calls, and using various methods to block access to sites that provide alternative news and views to the official line. Panelists discussed approaches to online and mobile security to ensure that journalists and bloggers can distribute their stories and citizens can continue to access the news, whether it is in Belarus, Zimbabwe, or Iran.
While exciting new technologies and courageous citizen journalists receive much of the attention, equally important is the future of the professional news media and the sustainability of new media approaches in this new environment. All media, from the BCC to the New York Times to local stations in Serbia, struggle to adapt to the age of multimedia content, citizen journalists, and the proliferation of choices available to consumers. Panelists addressed the new legal, professional, commercial, and technical challenges facing "traditional" media and new media today as the world moves towards a new era of news.
The conference was capped by the awarding of the Cano World Press Freedom Prize to imprisoned Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi for his courage in reporting on the fallout from the 2009 disputed election and protests in Iran. He is currently serving a six year prison sentence, and the prize was awarded in absentia. The conference also noted the number of both professional and citizen journalists killed or jailed for their work. In 2010, according to CPJ, nearly half of those journalists in jail were on-line journalists/bloggers.