Technology Salon

San Francisco

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

What We Can Do About Free Press Crackdowns and Online Censorship

At the SF Bay Area Technology Salon on “What Can We Do About Press Crackdowns and Online Censorship?” two questions were at the center of the discussion:

  • Who care about press freedom?
  • What are tactics and strategies that inspire more people to take action to defend free speech, information access, and truth online?

The carefully selected group met at Vodafone Americas Foundation, in a Jeffersonian style discussion with social enterprise, foundation, technology, and international nonprofit representatives.

Free Press is a Global Rarity

For eight consecutive years online censorship has risen around the world, says Freedom House. Only 13% of the world enjoys a free press, a decline in many places around the world. Without a free press, citizens can’t hold powerful authorities to account without fear of retribution. So building public support for a free press becomes a critical issue.

Participants said they want to end the trend of people who are passionate about press freedom talking in an echo chamber with others who are passionate about press freedom. We want to build the movement!

The Free Press Challenge in Ghana

Hostility to the press can transcend borders. For example, when the US president describes journalism as “fake news”, it can lessen the trust and respect that people in a developing country have in local journalists.

Discussion lead Sulemana Braimah, president of the Media Foundation for West Africa, shared the local context from Ghana, where journalism has a crisis of identity and relevance. Polarization of the radio station owners and a lack of financial support for journalism, leads to a dearth of reporters earning a living salary and limited citizen trust in the news media.

And in Ghana, where the media outlets are largely owned by politicians, the polarization of news media outlets can further damage the confidence people have in the media. Participants discussed the age old question of whether journalists, their publishers, and editors can ever be truly objective when they decide what is published.

What Solutions Strengthen Free Press?

Participants explored a solutions-focused approach, celebrating the Solutions Journalism Network motto, “Problems scream, solutions whisper”.  But that can be quite a challenge, moderator and Solutions Journalism Network ambassador Catherine Cheney noted.

Cheney published a piece showing optimism based on her recent interviews, roundtables and discussions in Devex on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, Growing Donor Concern Could Boost Press Freedom Funding, featuring an interview with Braimah.

Discussion lead and anti-censorship innovator James Marshall shared about how citizen journalists and the news media can protect their online activity by downloading secure messaging tools such as Signal and others, as well as anti-censorship tools, available online in EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense guide.

Marshall is the creator of the world’s longest-running anti-censorship tool, CGIProxy, used by journalists and human rights defenders in censoring countries. His organization Berkeley Institute for Free Speech Online launched a crowdfunding campaign Stand Up for Press Freedom with Free Speech Online a week after the Tech Salon.

Building Financial Support for Media Literacy

Several participants urged for more financial support for education in media literacy, a tried and true method of teaching critical thinking about how to evaluate and compare the news one consumes.

Media literacy is partly encouraging readers to understand “does that seem real?” And journalists need training and professional development too. Participants encouraged journalists to ask: “Is this [fact] adding value?”

For example, if reporters repeat the same problem again and again (e.g. homelessness is a problem in San Francisco), instead of reinforcing the importance, they may instead contribute to people tuning the issue out.

With the discussion taking place in the heart of Silicon Valley, a participant mentioned that the leading and most lucrative industry is the acquisition of information “against your will.”  One solution raised for media consumers is taking ownership of what you dedicate your attention to, while recognizing that you may have limited “cognitive” load for serious content vs. entertainment.

Discussion lead John Pettus, president of fact-checking platform company Fiskkit, expressed the idea that rather than getting the public to care about the free press, we should start with asking if they care about truth. Participants debated the public’s belief in absolute truth.

Participants said that many people forget that the press is an agent of the public.

Vodafone Americas Foundation provided the support that made this Technology Salon possible, and the international nonprofit Inveneo produced it. Technology Salons help break down silos among the technology industry and international social, philanthropy, and investing sectors and inspire participants to take action and collaborate toward advancing solutions. 

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