Threats to press freedom, old and new

Energize, Polarize, Mobilize! Human Rights, Participation, Activism, Internet is the title of an international conference taking place in Berlin today, followed by two days of workshops tomorrow and on Sunday. The idea behind it:

The spread of digital technologies has given new opportunities to activists around the world. At the same time they can also be the cause of new threats to activists and people using digital media for political communication or mobilization.

Right on.

I just presented my keynote on old and new threats to press freedom (I was asked because I’m on the board of the German section of Reporters without Borders).

Now I think there’s a danger inherent in talking about press freedom on a global scale: one can barely escape comparing the severity of threats to press freedom. So it would be hard to escape the impression that I’m equating things that are not equal – a threat to press freedom in form of a lawsuit against a journalist is in most cases less severe in its consequences than if the journalist is beaten up, tortured or even killed. Nevertheless, it is still a threat to press freedom; it can have existential results, for example the destruction of the journalist’s economic livelihood, and we need to defend ourselves against it.

So instead of using a normative approach I’d like to follow a more analytical path and will try map out the different threats to press freedom that currently exist.

In order to do this in an organised fashion, I used a mind mapping tool. This is what came of it:

Uh-oh. Pretty complex, isn’t it? Certainly. But the only way to map out where threats to press freedom come from is to acknowledge this complexity. Because it clarifies that there are no states where freedom of the press is absolute ...

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