Rachel Pollack Ichou (Ed.)
Publication Date
October 30, 2015

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

"The trends identified in this report shed light on the shifting landscape of opportunities and challenges for freedom and expression and media development, particularly those brought about by digital technologies. Through such sharing of knowledge and good practices, UNESCO works to advance human rights in the digital era..."

Bringing together contributions from researchers in different parts of the world, this report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) explores emerging opportunities and challenges for press freedom in the digital age. With a focus on online hate speech, protection of journalism sources, the role of internet intermediaries in fostering freedom online, and the safety of journalists, the report highlights the importance of new actors in promoting and protecting freedom of expression online and off-line. In a media environment transformed by digital technologies, this special volume in the World Trends series (see Related Summaries, below, to access the first volume) is a reference for governments, journalists, media workers, civil society, the private sector, academics, and students.

In 2013, UNESCO's General Conference of 195 Member States adopted Resolution 52, which recalled Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/RES/20/8, "The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet", affirming that the same rights that people have off-line must also be protected online. The tracking of trends by UNESCO in regard to these rights, and especially concerning the right to freedom of expression, has been called for by Member States. In the chapter UNESCO: Fostering Freedom of Expression and Media Development, the reader learns that, at the programme level, UNESCO works worldwide to promote freedom of expression on all platforms, both online and off-line and the inter-relations between the two. The focus on two dimensions, the first of which is the right to impart information and opinion. This is the foundation for the right to press freedom, which refers to the freedom to publish to a wider audience. In the digital age, this right is especially relevant to anyone who uses traditional or social media. For UNESCO, effective press freedom is based on media freedom, pluralism, independence, and safety. The second dimension of freedom of expression is the right to seek and receive information, which is the foundation of the right to information. In turn, this is one of the foundations of transparency, which is recognised as essential for development and democracy. Advances in transparency are enabled by digital technologies, as regards both public and private institutions, allowing for "unprecedented accountability and citizen empowerment". Much of the work of UNESCO provides insight into how the two rights can each be respected, online as well as off-line - and where these interface - as well as how they can be balanced harmoniously in the public interest where necessary. The paper gives several examples of how UNESCO has engaged in research and contributions to multi-stakeholder dialogue with the intention of strengthening the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and privacy in the digital age.

In that context, the publication then includes 4 thematic chapters:

  1. Countering Online Hate Speech provides a global overview of the dynamics characterising hate speech online and some of the measures that have been adopted to counteract and mitigate it, highlighting trends in good practices that have emerged at the local and global levels. There is a comprehensive analysis of the international, regional, and national normative frameworks developed to address hate speech online, and their repercussions for freedom of expression, and there is particular emphasis on social and non-regulatory mechanisms that may be considered to help to counter the production, dissemination, and impact of hateful messages online. (This chapter and the one on role of intermediaries (see below) have also been published as longer, stand-alone publications in UNESCO's flagship Series on Internet Freedom, as detailed in Related Summaries, below.)
  2. Protecting Journalism Sources in the Digital Age draws on research covering 121 UNESCO Member States, which updates an earlier study of these countries by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Privacy International in 2007. The chapter shows how legal frameworks that support protection of journalistic sources at international, regional, and country levels are increasingly at risk of erosion, restriction, and compromise. According to UNESCO, this is a trend that signifies a direct challenge to the established universal human rights of freedom of expression and privacy, and one that constitutes a particular threat to the sustainability of investigative journalism. One recommendation from this research is the proposal of an 11-point research tool for assessing the effectiveness of legal source protection frameworks in the digital age.
  3. Fostering Freedom Online: The Role of Internet Intermediaries sheds light on the services that mediate online communication and enable various forms of online expression. It shows how they both foster and restrict freedom of expression across a range of jurisdictions, circumstances, technologies, and business models. According to the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, while states have the primary duty to protect human rights, businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, and both should play a role in providing remedy to those whose rights have been violated. This chapter applies the "protect, respect, and remedy" framework to the policies and practices of companies representing 3 intermediary types (internet service providers, search engines, and social networking platforms) across 10 countries. The 3 case studies highlight challenges and opportunities for different types of intermediaries within the trend of their increasing importance.
  4. Safety of Journalists takes stock of the voluntary response rate of Member States to the request by the Director-General of UNESCO for information about actions taken to prevent the impunity of those responsible for the killing of journalists and media workers. In 2014, 13 out of 59 countries in which journalists had been killed responded to the formal request for information on action taken. That number rose to 24 out of 57 countries as of August 2015, demonstrating the possible start of an upward trend. At the same time, the responses received indicated the continuation of very high impunity rates. Analysis of the responses from States where journalists have been killed shows that fewer than one in ten cases since 2006 had led to a conviction by the end of 2014. In addition, the chapter examines the trend of the strengthening of normative international standards, as well as new developments in practical mechanisms, improvement in UN inter-agency cooperation, greater collaboration with the judiciary system and security forces, and research interest in the subject.

Particular consideration is given throughout this study to gender equality, one of UNESCO's two global priorities. As in the first World Trends report, gender is primarily conceptualised here as referring to women journalists' experiences and the effect of policies and practices on women.

Click here for the 198-page report in English in PDF format.
Click here for the 209-page report in French in PDF format.


UNESCO website and October 27 2015 UNESCO press release, both accessed on January 11 2017. Image credit: UNESCO