The citizen journalists that have emerged in the internet age can make vital contributions to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. But in many countries, they face serious risks to their safety. This column emphasizes the importance of working towards the improvement of domestic legal frameworks to ensure that citizen journalists’ rights to life and to freedom of expression are guaranteed. Their role and the need for their protection should also be more explicitly recognized in the global agenda for sustainable development.
Because development is not only about economic resources but also about improving people’s lives, we need to make it sustainable. Yet we keep coming back to the question of how. Even though there’s no single answer, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides us with a route – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which helps us to identify key areas on which we should work to improve people’s lives.
SDG 16 not only recognizes the importance of obtaining information for achieving sustainable development, but it also promotes the protection of those producing it and calls for actions to consider the challenges they are facing. Media personnel, especially journalists and citizen journalists, are constantly looking for information, analyzing and distributing it. Thanks to their efforts, we can have the information needed to oversee achievement of the SDGs.
But every time they are attacked, society is impeded from obtaining that information. For that reason, in this column, I want to consider the media’s role in sustainable development and suggest some opportunities to create adequate policies to protect media personnel, especially citizen journalists.
The role of citizen journalists in monitoring and evaluating sustainable development
Before the internet age, our communication system followed the structure of ‘one-to-many’, in which one producer communicated with many people. In this scheme, it was easy to identify who was the producer and who were the consumers – and that explains why journalists became information gatekeepers.
Within that model, a handful of companies controlled the production and distribution of information. But in the twenty-first century, information and communications technologies that can be accessed by almost everyone have transformed the media landscape. We have become an information-driven society and our communication system is now ‘many-to-many’.
User-generated content is more common today, and lines between producers and audiences are blurred. Thanks to the internet, audiences act as citizen journalists. In fact, these active users have websites, blogs and social media accounts that are followed by millions and they are the main source of information for many people.
Citizen journalists’ success is partially due to them bringing information to public attention that is relevant for social discussions. They tend to publish hyper-local information that is usually not in the mainstream of traditional media. Citizen journalists also use daily life situations to produce information, and when they encounter problems they gather information, analyze and publish it.
In fact, in countries as diverse as Israel, Slovenia, Turkey and Venezuela, they have become important players in achieving the SDGs. Citizen journalists present and discuss situations that have a direct impact on people’s lives. They continue to report crimes, xenophobia, social protest, etc. In some cases, they even influence conversations and policy-making processes, and they challenge information presented by the state based on their real-life experiences.
At the same time, they often face serious risks. In countries like Mexico and Venezuela, they have been persecuted, harassed, attacked, tortured, and even killed. This situation presents a serious problem but also an opportunity to put people at the center of the 2030 Agenda.
One of the main goals of the 2030 Agenda is to promote peaceful and inclusive societies (SDG 16). This goal recognizes the importance of information and acknowledges the fact that attacks on media personnel impede the achievement of this goal.
Indeed, SDG indicator 16.10.1 requires states to keep updated data on the number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists and associated media personnel. The problem with this indicator is that it does not expressly include attacks on citizen journalists.
This gives an opportunity to improve the indicator and influence policy-making processes. Some of the actions that we can take to guarantee that everybody’s rights are protected and to help with the transformation of our societies include:
1. Working towards the improvement of domestic legal frameworks to ensure that citizen journalists’ rights to life and to freedom of expression are guaranteed.
2. Contributing with the strengthening of the judicial system, the fight against impunity, and the protection of citizen journalists by initiating the corresponding legal procedures.
3. Creating data-gathering systems that allow us to keep updated records and which provide disaggregated data that can contribute to the creation of national plans
Dr. Mariateresa Garrido (Venezuela) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Law at UPEACE and the Coordinator of the UPEACE Doctoral Committee.