Experts say regulation of legacy, digital media needed to advance women’s communication rights

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Regulation of legacy media and digital platforms is crucial to ensure accountability for human rights for all and specifically for the right to freedom of expression for women and girls, experts stressed on 3 March at the 52nd Session on the Human Rights Council (HRC52) in Geneva.

The HRC52 side event “Gender equality and freedom of expression: Mainstream Media | Digital platforms” brought together representatives from civil society, news organizations, and social media platforms.

Co-organized by WACC with the Global Alliance on Media and Gender (GAMAG) and the Fojo Media Institute, the panel underlined the centrality of communication as a human right and explored ways to address current challenges to women’s communication rights, with a focus on the new human rights frontier of Big Tech digital platforms.

Communication rights bring together the right to freedom of expression and opinion — a cornerstone of democracy and good governance — with related rights such as language, privacy, and press freedom, stated Aimée Vega Montiel, GAMAG chair and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Communication rights are vital to full participation in society and belong to every woman, man, and child.”

Media both reflects and plays a critical role in shaping society, stressed Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. She said that legacy media and digital platforms as well governments were responsibility for ensuring that media promote gender equality.

“Regulation should be careful in how it intervenes, but we know from experience that when it comes to gender equality, this principle must be enforced by law. No industry can escape scrutiny on [this] issue,” she stated.

Gender equality through media

WACC’s Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) has found “persistent gaps” in women and other minorities having full enjoyment of their right to freedom of opinion and expression outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — including their right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media,” said Sarah Macharia, who coordinates the GMMP at the global level.

In 2021, Macharia and international media law expert Joan Barata Mir, with the support of Fojo Linnaeus University, undertook an analysis of gender regulatory frameworks worldwide at the supranational, State, and industry levels to identify how progress towards gender equality in the media could be accomplished through regulation.

The resulting Global Study: Gender Equality and Media Regulation found “inadequacies that create room for neglect of the principle of gender equality in the right to freedom of expression in and through the media,” said Macharia, who is also general secretary of GAMAG.

Macharia reported that regulations at the State level address gender equality, but the extent to which media sector–specific policies integrate gender concerns varies widely from nation to nation. A third of such frameworks have no provision on gender equality, she noted, and half of those that do include a single clause referring to the right to non-discrimination based on various factors including gender or sex.

The “greatest promise of progress towards gender-just media structures, practices, processes, and output” is found in global-level regulatory frameworks — such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action with its Section J “Women and the media” — whose adoption has been driven by advocacy by civil society groups, in particular feminist organizations, Macharia said.

Legislative options

Fellow researcher Barata Mir highlighted that the right to gender equality and the right to freedom of expression are “mutually reinforcing.” States are responsible to create regulations and policies that secure these rights while avoiding discriminatory practices or putting limits on freedom of expression, which includes the right to “shock, disturb, and offend,” he said. The latter consideration is better addressed via mechanisms such as self-regulation.

The senior legal fellow with Justitia’s Future of Free Speech Project noted that regulation is “not only about changing the legal framework but changing how the existing legal framework is actually applied.” He pointed out that countries may have laws on gender equality and media but interpret these in separate spaces by separate regulators.

Multistakeholder input for new gender deal

Montiel said a challenge to developing gender-just regulation of media is that feminist voices have been pushed out of global decision-making in this area and media platforms have failed at self-regulation.

“Experience shows that when the States leave self-regulation in the hands of communications industries, [these] tend to be both judge and jury, and there is a lack of transparency as a result” she stated.

Media and human rights expert Albana Shala stressed the need for robust frameworks. She observed that the digital sphere is being led by profit, with shareholders determining whether States and civil society are involved in shaping a new world order in which there is more often internet addiction than engagement.

“We need regulation with teeth, laws that obligate digital platforms to take responsibility, to empower users, to have contexts that are basically in line with human rights practices,” she said.

Shala called for a new gender deal for digital platforms — in the same vein as the New Gender Deal for Media proposed by GAMAG in 2022 — that addresses impunity and advances an internet led by public values, with accountability for tech companies and users controlling their own data.

Partnerships for accountability

Cindy Southworth, head of women’s safety at Meta, underlined the need to involve tech companies in building regulatory frameworks and to ensure that regulation is highly responsive given the rapidly changing nature of digital technology.

“Regulations are needed so that private companies are not making so many important decisions alone,” she said and named the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) as a regulatory best practice.

According to the Meta safety expert, accountability and transparency need to be “baked into all regulation.” This includes auditing tech companies to see if they are enforcing community standards.

Contrary to certain public perception, tech companies such as Meta are onboard when it comes to regulation, Southworth stressed. “We support well-built regulation, period, full stop.” Meta is working concurrently to government processes, which can be slow and complicated, to ensure users’ safety. “We need to continue our partnership because cultural change is needed.”

Global consultation on regulation

Multistakeholder consultations are important in the process to develop regulation of digital platforms, confirmed moderator Agneta Söderberg Jacobson, senior gender advisor at Fojo Media Institute.

Jacobson urged involvement in current global consultation around regulation of digital platforms to ensure that the human rights perspective of women and girls is a key part of regulatory frameworks.

“The UNESCO Internet for Trust initiative is still going on, and input [on the draft guidelines] can be sent until 8 March,” she said. She also pointed to the UN Global Digital Compact as an opportunity to have an impact in advancing women’s communication rights.