By Noémie Krack & Marie Beudels

Freedom of expression is in crisis. The recent Pegasus disclosures, the latest press freedom index, the spread of disinformation and hate speech online and recent attempts to media pluralism and independence in some EU Member States showed that the media landscape needs some positive changes and solutions. MediaFutures aims, at its scale, to bring enhancements to the concerning situation by supporting positive narratives and innovative solutions aiming to reshape the media value chain. 

Freedom of expression is of tremendous importance for our media landscape and our democratic societies. It is not only an individual freedom enabling to freely communicate, receive, impart information and contribute to enabling human autonomy and self-fulfilment. It has also become a collective freedom permitting the propagation and fostering of knowledge, the discovery of “truth”, educating people, promoting democracy via a well-informed debate. It is therefore a key enabler for democracy. In addition, the right to freedom of expression enjoys a broad scope regarding the substance and the form of the ideas and information expressed. As repeatedly stressed by the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union, it extends ‘not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no “democratic society”’.

When it comes to freedom of expression, press holds an essential role and was often described as a public watchdog of the democratic society through imparting information and ideas on all-matters  of  public  interest. This role has notably been recognized by the ECtHR case law in Satakunnan  Markkinapörssi  Oy and  Satamedia  Oy  v.  Finland and Animal  Defenders  International  v.  the  United  Kingdom

Yet, freedom of expression is in crisis. It is a fact. Countries which had made progress over the past years and decades are now regressing. The latest World Press Freedom Index 2021 showed how press freedom in the EU is getting more heterogeneous. The following EU countries are closing the ranking with bad scores: Poland 64, Greece 70, Malta 81, Hungary 92 and Bulgaria 112. But countries better ranked, such as the Netherlands (6), can also suffer from shocking aggression to press representatives, as demonstrated by the recent deathly attack against a famous Dutch investigative journalist and crime reporter.

In addition to this climate, mid-July a peer-reviewed investigation with shocking revelations for press freedom, journalists safety, freedom of expression and privacy rights was released. It divulged that the Pegasus spyware was used by a list of States to hack smartphones of journalists, human rights activists, academics, lawyers, State officials, businessmen and women. Pegasus is a military-grade spyware created by NSO, an Israeli firm and initially intended to track terrorists by the military, intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials. 

Despite high precautions to secure the devices and to communicate only via encrypted messaging, journalist’s devices were infected.This means that the spyware has been tracking these journalists’ movements, phone and messaging conversations, and more for months and during key period of journalistic investigations. The chilling effect of such tracking is tremendous as these communication interferences could lead to self-censorship by considerably dissuading sources from getting in touch with journalists and journalists to investigate and publish independent and free pieces of information. There were also more direct interferences, once spied on, the targets received legal threats, were arrested or were subject to harassment, intimidation, threats or persecution. Surveillance is indeed also used as a means to fuel SLAPPS (Strategic lawsuit against public participation). In rare cases, journalists were killed after being put on the list.

MediaFutures stands as a European project dedicated to improve freedom of expression in Europe by selecting and supporting innovative projects reshaping the media value chain and proposing original solutions to modern challenges such as the spread of disinformation or hate speech. All along their stay with us, participants had or will have the chance to benefit from training and coaching which raised awareness on their freedom of expression rights but also obligations when developing media products and services. The list of the current MediaFutures projects is available here.

If you are an artist or a startup, preserving freedom of expression is of interest to you and you have projects in media that you would like to develop and take to the next level, MediaFutures is there to support you. Make sure not to miss the second call of application which will start in Autumn this year.  

Part of this online publication is an abstract of a previous Center for IP and IT law blogspot accessible here.