A healthy news media is more critical than ever

April 30, 2021

This year’s World Press Freedom Day is focused on the theme of information as a public good.  It is an opportune occasion to reflect on the centrality of a sustainable media sector and a healthy information ecosystem in the accountable, inclusive and effective governance systems that we need for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The communications firm Edelman recently described 2021 as the year of Information Bankruptcy. Others have warned that, due to deep preexisting fragilities, COVID-19 may turn into a media extinction event. These verdicts on the state of the global information ecosystem are alarming, but hardly surprising.  While much of the global analysis focuses on developed countries, the impact in developing countries, often with weaker institutions and fewer capacities, is often more serious.  

At a time when public demand for information has been relentless, the news media are increasingly curtailed by adverse factors, from declining advertising revenue to restrictive and repressive legislation and regulation. This impairs not only their ability to provide high quality information, but also their role in promoting accountable governance, balanced public debate and constructive national dialogue. 

Unfortunately, public trust in traditional news sources has hit record lows. Sixty-one percent of respondents interviewed by Edelman Trust Barometer (a survey covering both developed and developing countries) believe that the media is failing to be objective and non-partisan.

These issues are contributing to a significant deterioration of information ecosystems, threatening information as a public good. Many people have turned to largely unregulated online sources which treat information as a commodity to be used for economic or political gain. As a result, the public is increasingly exposed to unverified, inaccurate and misleading information, which hinders their ability to exercise their rights, make informed decisions, and contribute to the peaceful development of their societies. 

Information is a public good and needs public support. Governments have a responsibility to nurture free and independent media and public access to information in keeping with international human rights standards. This includes reducing legal and other obstacles to impartial news media and protecting citizens from false and malicious information. But maintaining healthy information ecosystems is a shared responsibility, not only of public institutions. The media itself, private sector, including internet platforms, civil society, and international development actors have a role to play, too.

The challenges faced by information systems globally are having a significant impact in the countries where UNDP is actively engaged, creating a range of governance and peacebuilding vulnerabilities. A first condition to ensure a sustainable, independent and pluralistic media as well as the protection of journalists is an enabling regulatory environment. This is why UNDP is working with government partners, UN agencies, media coalitions and other stakeholders to support legal reform as well as raising awareness of the importance of impartial and independent media. In Sierra Leone, for instance, UNDP has been collaborating with the Media Reform Coordinating Group to strengthen the national normative framework on freedom of expression. In Bangladesh, it supported the development of regulatory and operational infrastructure to make information about the public administration more transparent and accessible, including through close engagement with journalists.

It is also important that the media have the capacity to contribute to conflict prevention and accountable and inclusive governance. In Lebanon, UNDP partnered with Thomson Reuters to support national media in countering social and political polarization through initiatives such as the Journalists’ Pact for Strengthening Peace and the roll-out of a toolbox on professional standards. In Bolivia, support is being provided to the establishment of a “Network of Journalists for Democracy”.

Judging information pollution a potent risk to long term prospects for democratic principles and social cohesion, UNDP works with a range of stakeholders, including traditional and online media, to reduce disinformation and counter divisive and violent discourse online. In Chile and Uruguay, UNDP launched public campaigns to warn of the dangers of disinformation and promote critical internet literacy skills. In Ukraine, UNDP’s monitoring of disinformation narratives online is helping the government to respond more effectively and proactively to COVID 19 disinformation.

As underlined by the UN Secretary-General, while appealing for support for the International Fund for Public Interest Media, it is essential to recognize the “critical role of reliable, verified and universally accessible information in saving lives and building strong, resilient societies.” UNDP sees the promotion of media sustainability and the fight against information pollution as critical to achieving the vision of peaceful, just and inclusive societies, articulated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We will continue to engage with our country partners, UN agencies, and all relevant actors to develop innovative, holistic solutions which promote free, independent, and sustainable media as a democratic necessity and information as a public good.