UNESCO Releases Summary of Research Addressing “Media and Elections in Digital Times”

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General, UNESCO
Audrey Azoulay, Director-General, UNESCO

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has released a five-page summary of a forthcoming research on untangling the issues of “media and elections in digital times”.

The summary emphasised that increasing digitization of societies has led to unprecedented opportunities to enjoy the right to freedom of expression: seek, receive and impart political information and ideas, which are the lifeblood of elections. It added that “the internet has made it easier for politicians, political parties and the electorate to communicate with each other more directly and more quickly than at any point in history,” and that the accuracy of information can be checked and corrected faster, more thoroughly and by a greater number of actors than ever before.

It however pointed out the growing concerns about the effects on public debate arising from misuse of digital technologies and fragmentation in the communications environment in spite of this development.

It cited “political micro-targeting of individual voters is driven by aggregated personal data, which is not always obtained in lawful ways” as one of such concerns adding that little effort is required to generate disinformation and to make it to go viral.

It identified three trends.

The report noted the convergence of three critical trends: journalists under fire; information under attack; and election integrity at risk.

It goes further to state that new developments highlight the need to safeguard the integrity of electoral processes, as well as the role of the media during election periods as well as addressing disinformation and misinformation.

It cited two Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 21 which guarantees the right to election and Article 19 which guarantees the right to freedom of expression, saying these two rights come together during elections.

The report identified the challenges in the three trends that have converged and proffered some solutions.

To the challenges that were identified with distortion of democracy as a result of disinformation, it recommended strengthening the range of responses from multiple actors: States, media, internet intermediaries, civil society and ensuring that any measures or initiatives taken are fully in compliance with the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by international human rights law.

On the challenges of increasing threats and violence against journalists, it called for revival of initiatives such as the “South African Media Code of Conduct for Politicians”.

It also recommended the development of regional platforms similar to the Council of Europe’s Platform to promote the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists as well as promoting campaigns such as by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media to protect female journalists online (#SOFJO).

To the challenges of elections facing disruption, it recommended continuous development of the media and information literacy skills of citizens, and involvement of electoral management bodies; ensuring that international legal standards on privacy, data protection and freedom of expression are strictly adhered to in political advertising; developing policies such as the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa, adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; developing and implementing forward-looking standards for transparency in political advertising online; and ensuring the protection of journalists so that they can carry out their public watchdog role effectively during elections.

To download the summary, please click on Media and Elections in Digital Times.