Eric Newton: World Press Freedom Day, 2011 – Knight Foundation

Eric Newton: World Press Freedom Day, 2011

Eric Newton
World Press Freedom Day
Washington, D.C.
May 2

Congratulations to the organizers of these World Press Freedom Day events, here in the United States for the first time, and for their theme of: “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers.”

Knight Foundation has invested $100 million this past decade to advance freedom of expression. Many of our partners are here. The World Press Freedom map is produced by one, Freedom House, and shown to millions by another, the Newseum.

Over time that map has come to reflect the mess of humanity at its messiest. After the Cold War ends, it shows press freedom growing. But after the terrorism wars begin, it shows press freedom shrinking.

War ends, freedom grows; war begins, freedom shrinks.

So which way is it headed now?

Looking at the past, you’d have to say it would be forward — and backward.

In many ways, we are still racing down parallel paths.

Some of the possible futures are horrible. Imagine, for example, World War 3.0. I call it 3.0 because it would start in cyberspace, where 120 countries are currently considering cyber armies. Once it branches out with modern firepower, we can easily wreck the planet and kill billions. Not a very “free” scenario.

Or imagine lots of small wars. A Return of the Tribes. Our cyberspace cloud like a giant virtual brain at war with itself. Digital cocoons focus us on what we already believe. Social media breaks the news. Flash mobs rule. Attention deficit disorder thrives. We are “sort of free” but going nowhere.

Or maybe it will be the Rise of Authoritarian Capitalism. China wins. The corporation is the state. Dictators run our lives. They sterilize us to manage things. And we entertain ourselves to forget a world that is only “partly free.”

Or, hopefully, we create a Crowd-Sourced Planet. Personal expression explodes. Education is universal. We throw out the crooks and innovate to solve our problems. And in a peaceful and sustainable world, we are free.

A lot of arguments are about variations of these futures. So what will happen? We can’t say. And that’s what I want to talk about today: our cloudy crystal ball.

I know some of these futures sound like science fiction. But science is pushing us there. Our radar is fuzzy because in a new digital age of communication we haven’t changed enough the ways we measure and describe concepts like world press freedom.

We see violence and instability driving our traditional press freedom indicators downward, and digital revolution and popular uprisings pushing our hopes upward. If we can’t tell where freedom really stands, how can we help it grow?

Let’s start with violence. The 20th Century was a century of war, they said, and the 21st Century will be one of peace. That isn’t happening. Dozens of national wars, civil wars, drug wars: The World Bank labels 1.5 billion as prisoners of poverty and violence. As uprisings spread, so do attacks on journalists. A violent world is not a free world.

For centuries, freedom has crept forward during the lulls in the stops and starts of a very long war between open and closed societies. The real war is not so much of nations as of ideas, increasingly happening on battlefields without boundaries, a fluid and confusing fight in which leaders attack their own people and in which people, corporations and nations can abruptly change sides.

Cyberspace was built for a fight like this. And there it sits. Our militaries defend against cyber attacks every day. We may already be in World War 3.0, and just don’t know it.

Open and closed societies don’t even agree on what cyber war is. We say a cyber attack could be shutting down an electrical grid. They say it could be bringing in any kind of disruptive information, like a news story that they don’t like.

We call Google a digital miracle. They call it a cyber attack. David Drummond, Google’s Chief Legal Officer, reports that in 2002 only four governments censored the internet but 40 do it today.

Voice and facial recognition software, global positioning systems, all these things can be used by tyrants to track you down. They once tortured you to get your friends; now they want your password.

During these violent times, can America be at its generous best when making the case for freedom? It’s not an easy test. But we have to try: we need the moral high ground to show how freedom of expression underpins all human rights. We need to operate in a framework of freedom, exceptions strictly limited.

Our record is not what it could be. Student journalists, for example, are not well legally protected, nor are the increasing number of freelance and volunteer journalists, nor even all the full-time professionals.

Our own Secretary of State speaks eloquently on the “freedom to connect.” But then our Pentagon says military employees should not look at the Wikileaks web site. Or Apple goes after the blogger who leaked the iPhone stuff. Or teachers won’t let students use cells. Or the Rev. Jerry Falwell blocks a local news web site from his students.

Can you hear Stalin out there somewhere, applauding? He said ideas were more powerful than guns. He would not allow his enemies to have guns. Why would he leave them free to know and share ideas?

Stalin would face difficulty today in a world in which we can instantly share ideas. Like the sun, water and air, news today flows where it flows. But that doesn’t stop threatened nations from fighting back. They fight and traditional press freedom indicators fall.

Yet freedom may be growing even if our world press freedom map says it isn’t. Why? Because we tend to track human rights tragedies — journalists killed in Pakistan, Mexico and Iraq; jailings in Eritria, Burma, China and Iran. We track institutions. We watch former Soviet Union states recreate repression.

We track negatives. What about positives? There are now 5 billion cell phones on a planet of 7 billion. Where is that on our maps? You can hold a printing press in your hand, say what you want to whomever you want, times five billion. That’s some free expression.

Look at Egypt: as many as 82 million cell phones, depending on the source, for a nation of 80 million people. Suddenly, the whole digital media ecosystem is different. (Remember, news does not care how it flows. Like water, it takes the easiest path.) Someone might post a note on Facebook about a rally in the square, or tweet it, or call a friend, or text it, or blog it. Or people in the square might talk to each other (yes, that can be news). And people might watch it on satellite TV and share that on the Internet.

Our usual indicators show little freedom in traditional Egyptian media. But those measurements didn’t matter. The story was digital. Facebook mattered. The journalism on Al Jazeera mattered. Even Twitter mattered. People communicated. Theirs was a Digital Revolution, born of the new capacities of the digital age.

So we need a new calculation. Track the exploding capacity of the digital media ecosystem. Subtract the censorship and see where we are.

To do this, we need a real-time picture of where digital media is on the planet. Regulators should require global companies to tell us generally where the technology sits. Internet providers should tell us right away when service is blocked. Governments must tell us far more about cyber attacks.

We need a better radar to know exactly how best to help. If one-to-many media is causing a new era of freedom in spite of institutions, not because of them, we need to deal with that.

But we know enough already to call for a much bigger effort.

We must support good work, such as the Committee to Project Journalists and the Inter American Press Association’s fight impunity against those who would kill journalists.

And we must expand.

I’m pleased to say here today that Knight Foundation is supporting a legal defense fund created by the Open Society Foundations. Our part of the project is to specifically help defend bloggers and web site proprietors unfairly jailed around the world.

On the digital front we support other work: The World Wide Web Foundation, founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and dedicated toward universal use of the web. The Aspen Institute’s IDEA project, pushing for increasing Internet freedom through free trade. And our biggest journalism grantee, the International Center for Journalists, whose fellowships create lasting, visible change using increasingly digital approaches.

Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of the Washington Post, says press freedom is increasingly shaped in the “unsettled territory” of cyberspace. He urges support for “the journalistic standards of emerging media.”

These new digital media tools open the door for the creation of new rules. This wholesale reinvention of communications should cause western governments, the largest providers of media development aid, to increase support exponentially. Like the century of peace, that’s not happening, either.

Media development money is a pimple on the nose of global aid. Globally, estimates put it at $500 million a year — the price of four F22 Raptors. This makes no sense. Media development aid creates the independent journalism that tells you whether all the other aid is being stolen. Just as freedom of expression supports all other freedom, media aid supports all other aid.

Yet a report by CIMA shows the U.S. spends only .003 percent of all its aid on media development. That means 99.99 percent of our aid is not media aid. And this is before the budget cuts. How can we say the current  formula works, when we spent all that money keeping the ruler of Egypt in power all those years, and then the digital age helped its people sweep all that so easily away?

Our global challenges don’t give us too many more chances to get this right. We owe it to the brave people who gave life or liberty for the cause of freedom to try to do better. We know free countries prosper. That honest governments are more stable. That people must be free to act in their own true interests.

Today the organizers of this event have asked your help. If the pen is mightier than the sword, just think of what these cell phones can do. Let’s use social media to let freedom ring. Tweet or text or blog or post a simple message about freedom of expression. Ask your friends to pass it on. Use what we have as we work for more.

Thank you.