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WASHINGTON, DC — Since May 3, 1991, World Press Freedom Day has been celebrated worldwide annually to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect it. Marking the 20th anniversary last Tuesday, an international conference was organized in Washington, DC, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the U.S. State Department to debate the “new frontiers” of the media. You can see the entire agenda here.

Online freedom and the changing media landscape had pride of place and I was given the opportunity to debate online censorship on May 2 as well as discuss the actual situation between “traditional” and “new media,” as a representative of Reporters Without Borders. (Note that Reporters Without Borders also has a special World Day Against Cyber-Censorship focused entirely on online expression.)

In countries where online platforms are tightly controlled — but also are some of the rare places to get uncensored information — the lines between traditional and new media is very vague. It’s possible that non-profit journalism websites (or sites where the news isn’t a profit center) might help safeguard press freedom.

Reports from Malaysia, France

In Malaysia, Premesh Chandran had to adapt to the fact that advertisers were staying away because the info published on Malaysiakini.com was not fitting in with the control imposed on media by the government. Malaysia is ranked 141st out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Without ads, Malaysiakini began to install a pay wall for its English version. The website thought it might take a non-profit business model but according to Chandran, “It became obvious that [they] had to become more professional.” The subscription allows the core of an audience to support the news activities of the website. But Chandran acknowledges that “readers don’t pay.”

In France, OWNI.fr depends on the expertise of reporters and licensed content for their free website, but make money by sell journalism services to online publishers. (You can read more about OWNI in this story by Mark Glaser on MediaShift.)

“In terms of client acquisition, this is very helpful,” according to OWNI’s director of data journalism Nicholas Kayser-Bril. OWNI worked with WikiLeaks on a non-profit basis and organized the crowdsourcing for documents that were released. It is now an expertise that they can sell to other organizations. For this website, the content and features are a non-profit activity, because the income is generated by services instead. “This a way of adapting journalism to the technologies,” said Kayser-Bril.

Open Source Software at AllAfrica.com

Convinced that mobile phones were making a huge impact on the way media are operating in Africa, Amadou Mahtar Ba, co-founder of AllAfrica.com, insisted that “traditional media need to adapt to technology. Many media organization are losing relevance and there is a fundamental growth of mobile phones.”

“Media owners and operators need guidelines and principles, as journalists have theirs,” Ba said.

AllAfrica.com is a news content publisher and relies on the development of systems based on free and open source software, such as XML::Comma, released under the GNU General Public License. It has become the entry point to a global, Africa-interested audience, as well as a pioneering set of technologies. Here again, journalism is a non-profit activity.

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The UNESCO conference took place at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on May 2

According to Richard Tofel, general manager of ProPublica, there is a role for non-profit journalism to take over the economic failures of the “traditional” media by taking the risks the latter could not afford anymore.

“We are going to a new territory based on a technological revolution,” he said. “We need experimentation and a willingness to take risks almost every day to discover these new ways,” said Tofel, when asked about the training journalists should receive to handle these different ways of making the news.

Press freedom is not only about journalists being killed and harassed and newspapers being forced to close by oppressive governments. It is also about guaranteeing independence — independence from advertisers is no less complicated than independence from donors. At the panel discussion, one of the solutions was making money from readers and services. These publications do bring in money and are trying to get their readers to adapt to new technologies. Non-profit journalism, in the sense of news not being the profitable activity, is a way of helping to guarantee more editorial independence. This is one more possible safeguard for press freedom.

Photo of the Newseum by Clothilde le Coz

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the “Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents,” published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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