Media freedom at risk: Western journalism is threatened with collapse politics

The author is director of the Cologne Institute for Media and Communication Policy (IfM) and a member of the advisory board of the annual M100 media meeting in Potsdam, which this year was entitled “NEUSTART – Shaping the Post-COVID media order”.

As if in a magnifying glass, the corona crisis shows us the seemingly irreconcilable simultaneity of two developments that have always shaped digitization. First, despite all the ‘massive self-communication’ (Manuel Castells) on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Co., the hunger for journalistic information has not abated. Second, the existential crisis of the institutions they create.

Neither their record reach, nor the confidence in the news media, which has increased again in recent months, can hide the fact that the problems of monetizing journalism have worsened dramatically with Covid-19.

Like other industries, the media around the world is suffering the consequences of what is expected to be the greatest recession in a hundred years. Short-time working, layoffs, funds are becoming scarce for complex segments such as foreign and science journalism, and local newspapers are facing extinction in many places. The European media order is at a crossroads.

With the involuntary delay caused by the lockdown, many people are broadening their view of the value of the things that really matter. Free journalism is part of it. The suppression of Nazi rule and the end of the Cold War are inseparable from this ideal. The state of emergency has shown that not only medical personnel or supermarket employees are systemically important, but also journalists.

Independent journalism can no longer be taken for granted

But what we have long considered ‘normal’ when it comes to independent journalism cannot be taken for granted. You don’t have to look in the history books for that. A look at Hungary, the homeland of the former editor-in-chief of Szabosz Dull, who has just received the M100 Media Award for his fight against non-editorial interference.

The editor-in-chief of the Hungarian news platform, Szabolcs Dull (left), met with the … Photo: Hannibal Hanschke / REUTERS a few days ago in Potsdam

Hungary is not an isolated case. Media freedom, pluralism and journalism in the service of democracy are exposed to greater threats in Europe than has been the case in decades. Autocrats and populists are attacking “unpatriotic” coverage in central Europe and using emergency measures to silence independent journalists.

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All the issues associated with the rise of the Internet haven’t gone away, just because ‘social media’ lived up to its name at a time when the distance with Angela Merkel was becoming an ‘expression of concern’. rails. Even in a crisis where reliable information can make the difference between life and death, large sections of society prefer conspiracy theories and fake news to facts. Meanwhile, the profits of digital platforms, whose business models are optimized for emotion and not education, are skyrocketing.

If current developments continue, a horror scenario threatens

The ongoing US election campaign shows what it means when societies lose their common knowledge base – and the ability to negotiate on it. Where “news deserts”, fake news, hate speech and democracy hacking could lead to this side of the Atlantic by 2030, that’s the stuff for a horror movie that could become reality.

This is the result of a scenario for “Europe’s media landscape in 2030” that a group of young journalists from all over Europe went through in the run-up to the conference. It shows a multifaceted picture that is clearly interrelated: if current developments continue, our information ecosystems are in danger of collapsing.

Rescue packages and crisis assistance are available to media companies – just like other industries. European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová has announced a “historic” Commission rescue plan for the end of the year. But it is not finished yet. It requires a reboot.

Act today so that the fourth pillar of democracy does not collapse

This assumes that we break away from the here and now and current crisis descriptions and instead address the question of what media landscape and information architecture we could live in in the future, taking into account technological, economic and social changes; and with what we can do today to make it positive.

In other words, what must we do today to not wake up in 2030 and discover that our democracies have lost the fourth pillar.

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After all, it is already becoming clear under which technical signals the public will play in 2030: with artificial intelligence and learning algorithms, increasing transmission speeds, increasing automation and the merging of the physical and virtual world will also fundamentally change media and journalism.

You become part of a world in which our lives are accompanied by an ubiquitous digital identity, consisting not only of communication data, as in the 1990s, but of the enormous amounts of behavioral and sensor data that we produce every day.

These questions must be answered

How and for what purpose do media companies, but also the state, use these technologies? Who belongs to the information elite and who is left behind because they lack media skills – or because they don’t even deserve a “free culture” in the sense of the data economy of Silicon Valley capitalism? And is the segmentation increasing towards different information and communication worlds that essentially have little to say with each other?

These are just some of the crucial questions about the future that are essentially no longer there today. It’s about the whole. “We are all in this together,” said American activist Cory Doctorow. There is just as little time for cultural pessimism (“The Internet is to blame for everything!”) Than for Silicon Valley’s naive messianicism.

And “All Together” also describes the positive scenarios, the opportunities that exist in view of the democratic public in 2030. An inclusive, more diverse, more resilient audience in which independent journalistic offers – technologically up-to-date and equipped with resilient business models – enabling information, dialogue and debate on local, national and European issues, in which media literacy and news literacy are widespread, artificial intelligence and algorithms serve the common good. From today’s perspective, that may seem unlikely. There are no easy solutions, there are no patent remedies that can be used in all countries and industries.

Which journalism do societies want to afford?

It’s all the more important that citizens, as well as societies, think about the media landscape they actually want to live with, including ‘how much’ and what kind of journalism they want to afford – and how it can be funded.

This can be done from – keyword Spotify for journalism – new, innovative offers from companies, but also through state instruments such as VAT or the recognition of journalism as a non-profit, which in turn creates room for more funding from civil society.

What is needed above all, though, is openness, a willingness to leave well-trodden paths, ritualized trench warfare between individual industries and vanities, and the will to cooperate. Europe, too, can only shape its digital future together. Our future added value and the fate of our democracies also depend on whether we succeed in developing digital sovereignty.

A lot of fake has recently been built around this inflationary term. But it is not simply about establishing a European Google by Brussels directive, and certainly not about self-sufficiency or isolation. It is simply about the digital capacity to act – and the preconditions that give journalism air to breathe and give European values ​​such as freedom of information and media freedom under new auspices.

What is “normal” actually? What media landscape do we want to live in? Ultimately, this question can only be answered normatively. And it is too important to be left to the narrow circles of media politics, science and business. “Services of general interest to the democratic public” should also be discussed in the public, societal as a whole.

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