UNESCO Project Officer
UNESCO has recently given the green light for voluntary implementation of indicators specially designed for assessing national online environments. Among these are timely benchmarks for assessing pluralism and diversity in digital communications in terms of ownership, content and use. This comes against the backdrop of UNESCO tracking media pluralism, online and offline, and worrying conclusions that emerge.
New form of polarised pluralism in the online environment
The 2018 UNESCO World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development demonstrates that recent transformations related to media pluralism have been dramatic in connection with the development of ICTs. Thanks to greatly expanded access to the internet and the digital switchover, access to a plurality of media is overall growing.
These new technologies enable an increased availability of media content, largely through sharing and user-generated content on social media, in addition to the multiplied number of digital channels to which individuals have access across television and radio. Yet, this greater diversity of content is accompanied by a prominent trend, prevalent across the globe, but differently articulated in each region, of a new form of polarized pluralism.
People do not profit in the same way from the added benefits of the Internet, highlighting thereby gaps between developed and underdeveloped countries, between people with higher and lower incomes, between urban and rural areas within countries and between women and men. These gaps are echoed on the way people access information and the choices they have in terms of media consumption.
First, one should not forget the digital gap. Nearly fifty per cent of the world still do not have access to the internet. Second, while many States tend to recognize the commercial benefit that the internet offer, some other mistrust the expanded opportunities for freedom of expression online. Internet shutdowns are therefore increasing in frequency, and there has been a noticeable increase in the using of blocking and filtering since 2012, though it is difficult to find assessments as to how these relate to media content. In many instances, States have argued that such restrictions of online communications are necessary to combat some rising threats such as terrorism, maintaining national security, or protecting some economic interests.
As noted in the UNESCO publication “Freedom of connection, freedom of expression: the changing legal and regulatory ecology shaping the internet”, there are typically three possible ways through which freedom of expression and thereby media pluralism on the internet can be limited:
- Obstacles to access, including restrictions imposed by governmental policy or economic restrictions, such as a lack of infrastructure;
- Limits to content, such as government censorship or self-censorship imposed by the internet industry
- Restriction to the rights of users, such as (un)lawful disconnection.
Nevertheless, other key factors besides the role of authorities in guaranteeing online freedom of expression influence the level of media pluralism online. In regions where the internet penetration and the reliance on online sources for news is the highest, a paradox has emerged with the increasing reliance on social media platforms to access information.
While information is becoming more diverse and easily available, many people are less likely to read information that challenge their pre-existing views. Filters and algorithms based on user’s past choices seem to contribute to silo debates and so-called echo-chambers.
Yet, in spite of the popularisation of the use of the internet, television continues to be the most popular medium even if online media platforms have significantly erode its prominence. The switch from analogue to digital television is steadily increasing the range of channels to which people have access. But this trend is accompanied by a lack of transparent media ownership and an increasing risk of capture by competing political actors.
In this changing media environment, it is essential to assess whether new technologies help foster access to information and media pluralism, and if the abundance of information on social media platforms serves media pluralism or contributes to the normalization of inequalities.
“A critical element of freedom of expression and media development, pluralism means choice for media consumption and production, as distinct from monopolization of offerings and opportunities. (…) To date, most debates on media pluralism have focused on ‘provision’ or ‘supply’ of media content and the impact of information that is available in a society. Evaluations of media pluralism have commonly explored the (i) number of media outlets available, (ii) how comprehensively media outlets represent different groups and interests in society and (iii) who owns or is able to influence the media. Yet, the explosion of access to media through the internet, the increasingly common practice for users to consume information across a variety of platforms, and the rise of algorithmic profiling bring to the fore questions about users and how they access—or are shielded from accessing—a plurality of sources.”
The UNESCO Internet ROAM-X Universality Indicators
The UNESCO Internet Universality Indicators may for this purpose help to come up with evidence-based recommendations to advance media pluralism in the digital age. Over three years, UNESCO has developed a framework of Internet Universality ROAM-X Indicators, using a global, open, inclusive and multistakeholder process, which results is a research instrument of 303 indicators. This unique new tool has already started to generate a significant impact. Welcomed by the UNESCO Member States in UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) in November 2018, it was also highlighted in the July 2018 UN Human Rights Council Resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.
The four principles identified as key to Internet Universality are summarised as the R-O-A-M principles, which are:
R – that the internet is based on human Rights
O – that it is Open
A – that it should be Accessible to all, and
M – that it is nurtured by Multistakeholder participation.
These indicators enable the empirical assessment of Internet Universality in terms of its existence at the level of a national Internet environment. By using these new indicators for research, a collage of evidence can be assembled to help governments and other stakeholders to identify achievements and gaps. The indicator framework is tailored for national use in regard to improving the local Internet environment, thereby, it is not designed or suited to rank countries in comparison with one another.
Among the most relevant UNESCO Internet Universality indicators to measure online media pluralism are the ones under the category Rights. International agreements emphasise that no restrictions may be placed on freedom of expression other than ‘those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, […] public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
In particular, the Human Rights Council has asserted the importance of legal frameworks, proportionality and independent oversight of any such restrictions if they are to be legitimate and to avoid counting as violations of the affected rights’. Some of the first indicators developed by UNESCO are to assess if there is a legal framework which recognises that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online or if there is a legal framework to protect individuals against violations of rights which arise from use or abuse of the Internet. Collecting evidence of when media or bloggers practice online self-censorship should also be arranged.
Other critical UNESCO Internet Universality Indicators to measure online media pluralism are those under the category of Accessibility for all. The principle of Accessibility to All reaches far beyond the question of connectivity to include issues of affordability, content and capability. There is first of all a technical dimension to assess whether there is an availability of adequate infrastructure for connectivity and if devices used by people have the capacities to enable access to the higher-bandwidth services that now make up a high proportion of Internet traffic and services. However, connectivity is insufficient to enable people to access and use the plurality of information shared online. The extent to which they can do so also depends on the affordability of the internet, which needs to be evaluated as well. Zero-rating, the practice of internet providers for allowing users free connectivity to access specific content or applications for free, has for instance offered some opportunities for individuals to surmount economic hurdles, but has also been accused of creating a ‘two-tiered’ internet. The zero-rating illustrates the complexity of measuring media pluralism today. It can, on one hand expand pluralism in terms of access, while on the other, reduce pluralism in terms of choice.
Another key area is whether content and information online are available in languages that are used by local populations. For the time being, for many users, a majority of available content online is in English only. Finally, one should not forget that the effective use of the Internet and Internet-enabled services requires certain capabilities and competencies on the part of users. This is why, UNESCO has developed specific indicators to measure how Media and Information Literate (MIL) the people are within a country.
Finally, indicators under the category of the openness of the internet are also relevant to assess online media pluralism. The Internet should obviously be open for all to develop or take advantage of its resources. Restrictions on which organisations or individuals can establish Internet, or Internet-enabled, services should be assessed. Indicators developed under the question of open content help evaluate whether content of all kinds, including public information and information from other sources within and beyond the country, can be made available online. Legal requirements and licensing restrictions may change the degree of openness of content, place requirements on the use of content or restrict its distribution. Open content approaches seek to maximise the availability of content to end-users, through open licensing arrangements that are consistent with international intellectual property agreements.
To conclude, we should keep in mind that further Internet-enabled innovations and related digital developments, including the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and algorithmic decision-making, will continue to alter the nature of the Internet and its impact on economies and societies, and thereby impact on the level of pluralism online.
AI can for instance disseminate false content deliberately fabricated with a harmful intention and overshadow journalistic content by amplifying such disinformation. However, AI could help identify fraudulent content like “deepfakes” and their producers. Developing the tools to monitor and assess these rising challenges is critical to ensure the good democratic functioning of our societies which rely on a plurality of information sources and exchange of views on matters of public interest.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stress that no one should be left behind. Inclusiveness remains a major concern of international discourse on the Internet, dating back to its early days.  Online pluralism is vitally important for inclusion.
UNESCO Official Publications:
UNESCO’s Internet Universality Indicators: A framework for Assessing Internet Development. 2019, Paris.
UNESCO. 2018. World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: 2017/2018 Global Report, Paris.
UNESCO. Freedom of connection, freedom of expression: the changing legal and regulatory ecology shaping the Internet. 2011, Paris.
International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2017. ‘Key ICT indicators for developed and developing countries and the world (totals and penetration rates)’. World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Database
International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2017b. Status of the transition to Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting: Figures. ITU Telecommunication Development Sector.
Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI). 2015. Models of Mobile data Service in Developing Countries. Research brief. The Impacts of Emerging Mobile Data Services in Developing Countries
 UNESCO. 2018. World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: 2017/2018 Global Report, Paris.
 Idem. See also: Hallin Daniel C and Paolo Mancini.2004. Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics. Cambridge University Press.
 Ibid. supra note 1, Pag. 93. See also: 2018 UNESCO World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Pag 44-45; UNESCO’s Internet Universality Indicators: A framework for Assessing Internet Development. 2019, Paris. Pag. 12, para 1.
 UNESCO. 2018. World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: 2017/2018 Global Report, Paris, Pag. 72, para 2. See also: Annex Figure 2-1”Percentage of people using the internet, 2012-2017”, pag 72; and International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2017. ‘Key ICT indicators for developed and developing countries and the world (totals and penetration rates)’. World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Database.
 Ibid. Pag. 74; See also: Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI). 2015. Models of Mobile data Service in Developing Countries. Research brief. The Impacts of Emerging Mobile Data Services in Developing Countries; Galpaya, Helani. 2017. Zero-Rating in Emerging Economies. London: Chatham House; and Gilward, Alison, Chenai Chair, Ariel Futter, Kweku Kranteng, Fola Odufuwa and John Walubengo. 2016. Much ado about nothing? Zero rating in the African Context. Research ICT Africa Network.
 Ibid. supra note 1, Pag. 50-51.
 UNESCO. Freedom of connection, freedom of expression: the changing legal and regulatory ecology shaping the Internet. 2011, Paris.
 Ibid. Pag. 41-47
 UNESCO World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Global report 2017/2018, Paris. Pag. 90-91. See also: Harlow, Summer, and Thomas J. Johnson.2011. The Arab Spring/Overthrowing the Protest Paradigm? How The New York Times, Global Voices and Twitter Covered the Egyptian Revolution. International Journal of Communication 5:16; Hidman, Matthew. 2008. The Myth of digital democracy. Princeton Press; and van der Meer, Toni G.L.A., Piet Verhoeven, Johannes W.J. Beentjes, and Rens Vliegenthart. 2016. Disrupting gatekeeping practices: Journalists’ sources selection in times of crisis. Journalism 18 (99): 1107-1124.
 UNESCO World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Global report 2017/2018, Paris. Pag. 84-85
 UNESCO World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Global report 2017/2018, Paris. Pag. 75-77. In Western Europe and North America television continues to be the main source of information, even if challenged by the emergence of the Internet. While in Africa, where the radio has been a predominant media platform, televisions has been gaining greater audiences.
 UNESCO World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Global report 2017/2018, Paris. Pag. 75, para 4. See also: Figure 2-4 Status of the transition to Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting; International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2017b. Status of the transition to Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting: Figures. ITU Telecommunication Development Sector.
 Ibid. Pag. 70, para 1 and 2.
 UNESCO’s Internet Universality Indicators: A framework for Assessing Internet Development. 2019, Paris.
 Ibid. supra note 18, Pag. 11
 Ibid. supra note 18, Pag.13
 Ibid. supra note 18, Pag. 41-53.
 Ibid. supra note 18, Pag. 67-78.
 Ibid. supra note 18, Pag 69, para 3.
 UNESCO World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Global report 2017/2018, Paris, Pag. 74, para 2.
 Ibid. Pag. 76
 Ibid. supra note 33, Pag. 56-65.
 Ibid. supra note 33, Pag. 62-64