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Media Role in Promoting Healthy Societies Discussed at Democracy Summit  

Officials and journalists, including USAGM head Amanda Bennett, right, discuss media freedom during a Summit for Democracy panel at The Hague, March 30, 2023. (USAGM screenshot)

Global leaders gathered Thursday in The Hague to discuss the state of global media freedom, including challenges from disinformation, attacks from authoritarian governments and the economy.

Hosted by the Netherlands, a series of panels featured officials, journalists and newsroom leaders from around the world.

The event took place as news came that Russia had detained an American journalist for The Wall Street Journal.

Among the speakers Thursday was Amanda Bennett, the head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Congress-funded independent news networks including VOA.

Bennett told the panel that the best way to preserve free expression and combat disinformation is to “flood the zone with good journalism, good information.”

Ricardo Gutierrez, the general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, agreed. “The best antidote to disinformation is quality information, is ethical journalism,” he said at the event.

The panels are part of the second Summit for Democracy, a virtual summit that the United States first hosted in 2021 to advance rights around the world.

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In 2022, global freedoms declined for the 17th consecutive year, according to a March report by Freedom House.

Attacks on free expression have been a leading driver of democratic decline over the period, the report said, with media freedoms under pressure in more than 150 countries in 2022.

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A global trend of democratic backsliding is what makes the promotion of press freedom especially important, several leaders said at the event.

"Media freedom is really a prerequisite, if you like, for a flourishing democracy,” said Nisha Pillai, a former BBC World News reporter and the event’s moderator.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power appeared virtually to speak at the event.

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power speaks at the Summit for Democracy, March 30, 2023, at the Convention Center in Washington.
U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power speaks at the Summit for Democracy, March 30, 2023, at the Convention Center in Washington.

"Autocrats target independent media because information empowers us. This is not, as they say, a bug. This is a design feature of repressive rule,” Power said. “Independent media is facing existential challenges at the moment.”

"One way to think about the importance of independent media is to reflect on moments where people are forced to live without it,” Power said.

Russia has moved to block access to several news websites, including parts of VOA and the BBC, since the war in Ukraine began. Other governments also seek to cut access to the internet at times of unrest, digital rights groups say.

With authoritarian governments focusing on restricting access to independent media, USAGM’s Bennett said it’s crucial to find ways to circumvent bans.

“What we have to do is find new ways of getting this information out,” she said, adding that providing access to virtual private networks, or VPNs, is one way to do that.

Surveillance was another issue raised at the summit.

"One issue that we are seeing is that the target — which is the media and other human rights defenders — do not have tools to counter Pegasus,” Catherine Anite, a member of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, said on Thursday.

Developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, Pegasus is a powerful piece of spyware that has been used to target reporters.

President Joe Biden issued an executive order Monday restricting the U.S. government’s use of commercial spyware tools that have been used to surveil journalists and activists around the world.

Press freedom groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, applauded the move.

Ahead of the U.S. Summit on Democracy, the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom — an independent body that advises governments on press freedom — hosted an event Tuesday at Georgetown University’s law school in Washington.

The role surveillance plays in threats against media was among the issues discussed.

“Journalists are increasingly at risk, not simply from killings, but all the threats that precede killings,” CPJ President Jodie Ginsberg said at the Georgetown event.

Fatal violence, she said, “is generally preceded by all sorts of other threats,” including legal action and surveillance.

Others warned of the risk from disinformation.

“While media freedom has been declining, misinformation, disinformation, hate speech, online abuse are all being allowed to spread, virus-like, amplified by social media. No democracy is free from this threat,” Can Yeginsu, a British barrister and deputy chair of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, added.

At Thursday’s democracy summit event, Wopke Hoekstra, minister of foreign affairs in the Netherlands, said that some journalists had expressed skepticism about what the summit could actually solve.

But, he said, having press freedom on the agenda is a step toward getting governments to do more.

“Attention, focus, making sure that people know that this is a problem is actually at the heart of the solution,” Hoekstra said.