NEWS published on 29 Apr 2015

Legal & Public Affairs Assembly: EBU Member experts debate upholding freedom of expression in an era of terrorism and cyber-attacks

Legal and public affairs experts from EBU member organisations have shared their experiences of upholding freedom of expression in the face of the increasing threat from terrorism and cyber-attacks.

The discussion, introduced by Anne-Catherine Berg (EBU senior legal adviser) and moderated by the EBU’s Director of Public Affairs and Communications Guillaume Klossa, came at the opening of the EBU’s 9th Legal and Public Affairs Assembly held on 28th and 29th April in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Before and after Charlie Hebdo – news now in France”

The Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January were “unprecedented” said the Director of France Info, Laurent Guimier, adding that his teams were on-air for 132 hours non-stop. This led to two firsts, he said, “it was the first time the media has had to deal with so much unverified information coming in and also consequently the first time broadcasters went on air and admitted they could not confirm the information they had.” 

The experience in a real-time and highly sensitive breaking news environment, Mr Guimier continued, has sharpened industry attitudes in France on how information is tracked and verified. In the wake of the biggest story to run on social media in the country, there may be a case for a fresh debate on how to manage the challenges of news production in an era where unverified information is widely available on the Internet and rapidly shared on social networks. The method by which information is sourced from both public and, for the first time, official agency sources should also be scrutinised.

Concerns for freedom of expression and information

Despite its extensive coverage and rigorous fact-checking, France Info has been held to account on one point regarding its coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks by the national media regulator, prompting concern that the decision sets a bad precedent for the right to freedom of expression and information.

The call by the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA) to summon France Info to a hearing, along with many other French media organisations, raises questions regarding the conditions under which the national regulatory authority, the CSA, can adopt a unilateral administrative decision that may entail a sanction against major media organisations. The circumstances surrounding the adoption of the decision in particular are cause for serious concern: France Info was not given the possibility to defend itself during the proceedings and the broadcaster’s request for an appeal was turned down. Moreover, the responsibility to safeguard public order was shifted onto the media which is not their role.

'Facts, facts, facts'

Charlotte Harder, the Director-in-Chief of Danish broadcaster DR, said valuable lessons had been learned from the 2011 attacks in Norway. There must be ongoing emphasis on the importance of applying journalistic ethics to everything we do, she said. “Waiting for an emergency is too late” and information should always be checked against more than one source. There is a fine balance, she cautioned, between reporting the facts and showing too much “glamour”. Broadcasters should adopt a critical approach to social media content and must always ask themselves if they are encouraging extremism by showing any given footage.

Cyber attacks: 'None of us is safe'

The second part of the discussion dealt with the threat from cyber-attacks. 12 channels were taken off air during the cyber-attack on TV5 on 8th of April 2015 confirmed Director Yves Bigot, costing the organization an estimated ten million euros: “We must all think about how much we spend on cyber security, despite the fact that our financial resources are increasingly limited. It also raises the question of freedom of expression. We must refer to institutions like the EBU and the European Union for protection.” Yves Bigot also highlighted the “delicate” situation for transnational broadcasters in particular. 50% of his channel’s viewers are non-French speakers, he said, and editorial decisions must always balance journalistic ethics with giving voice to sometimes sharply opposing views.

The question then turned fully to protection. Finding a secure way to share information is vital said the EBU’s Director of Technology and Innovation, Simon Fell, but “we must strike the balance between securing our systems and continuing to work effectively,” warned Ms Harder.

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