I’ve previously written about Leveson’s online elephant (as had Index on Censorship’s Marta Cooper before me). As the debate intensifies over the shape of ‘press’ regulation (the key question is whether or not a new regulator should be underpinned by statute), it seems worth returning to this point. In August’s post, I said:
It is not simply a question of regulation, it is also one of protection, for citizens using this media in an uncertain legal and regulatory landscape.
I was reminded of the issue by Index on Censorship this week. The organisation has produced a policy note ahead of the Internet Governance Forum in Baku, ‘Standing up to threats to digital freedom’ [PDF], which addresses issues around online freedom of expression and in particular, online and independent media (including ‘citizen’ journalists). Its authors (Marta Cooper, Kirsty Hughes, Rohan Jayasekera and Padraig Reidy) argue:
Today more than ever, blogs and other social media publications allow the public to share and receive information, actively participate in government and get their voices heard. And as the mainstream media sheds reporting staff in a declining market, the historic role of the press in observing, reporting and calling authority to account increasingly falls to these citizen journalists.
But without the protection and legal resources of mainstream media institutions, citizen media can be easy targets for defamation actions and physical intimidation. This year Reporters without Borders recorded 123 cases where “netizens” were jailed for their online opinions in 12 countries. Nearly 70 are held in China alone. Nearly 40 Syrian citizen reporters have been killed covering the fighting in their country. Even in the US, historic First Amendment free speech rights for bloggers are under threat by federal court rulings that say they are not entitled to the same legal protection that other members of the press enjoy.
As surveillance, filtering, cyber-attacks, website blocking and filtering, content manipulation and imprisonment of bloggers increase, human rights defenders need direct support in helping them better manage their physical and digital security risks in ways that are practical, effective and relevant to their local political environment.
Online and citizen journalists must be given the same protection as mainstream and offline media organisations [pages 8-9].
This extract raises interesting questions: what kind of protection and “direct support”? How could legal resources be made available outside the mainstream media? Does media content labelled ‘journalism’ or ‘journalist’ warrant special protection (citizen, or otherwise)?
I looked at the issue of legal protection for bloggers in 2010 but the landscape has changed fast in the United Kingdom since then, with new types of prosecutions under s127 of the Communications Act 2003, for example. The issue may well fall outside the remit of the Leveson report, but it merits serious attention.