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Media Literacy and Human Rights

Media Literacy and Human Rights

The issues related to media literacy* are inextricably linked to respect for human and citizen rights in several aspects. Let us briefly analyze the main ones and see how the problems associated with the interaction of these two terms (concepts) are being resolved in different countries today, and how this interaction and interpenetration is regulated by law.

To begin with, it makes sense to give attention to a document that has priority in international law, namely the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and single out the provisions directly related to media literacy. 

Thus, according to Article 12, no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his or her correspondence. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. According to Article 18, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. According to Article 19, everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. 

According to Article 26, everyone has the right to education. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups. 

According to Article 27, everyone has the right to participate freely in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. 

According to Article 29, in the exercise of his or her rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. 

First, let us give insights on the privacy of correspondence. Media literacy is about cyber security. In particular, media educators teach the basic principles and methods of protecting personal data, including maintaining the privacy of correspondence, which has almost completely gone online — through email, social networks and instant messengers. That implies the importance of creating strong passwords and keeping them in a safe place, using two-factor authentication, and also using ways of protection against online fraud related to spam and phishing emails. One could argue in this case that by these implications we are “entering” the area of “digital literacy”. However, many experts believe that these two types of literacy cannot be separated. Thus, for example, in Ottawa, there has been operating Canada’s Center for Digital and Media Literacy since 1996. The diagram below shows how the competencies of both “literacies” intertwine with each other.


Hobbs, Renee (2010). “Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action”. The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program 2010

Media literacy is directly related to issues of individual freedom, conscience and religion and helps people exercise their rights in this area. A media-literate person knows how to find the necessary information, books and artworks in the media space, as well as join various formal and informal communities of people that share the same views, interests or beliefs. 

In today’s world of highly developed and overwhelming digitalization, education can no longer be imagined without media literacy. In many countries, the full development of personality and learning to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms are ensured, among others, by compulsory and optional courses in schools, colleges and universities. Just recently, they have been provided in Russian universities as well. And thanks to our project, now Russian students have gained a possibility to have such a course, even if in a reduced form for now. 

Respect for individual rights and freedoms and an understanding of the boundaries of one’s own freedom are developed by a section of media literacy related to network communication, combating cyberbullying, network bullying, trolling and the use of hostile language in online communication. 

In order to share the benefits of the cultural life of society in the modern world, as well as create such benefits, enjoy art and participate in scientific progress, it is also necessary to be a media-literate person. Search and tracking of cultural events, access to libraries, virtual tours of museums, video and music libraries — all this is already available 24/7 in the digital space. 

The main modern obstacle is a certain contradiction between Articles 19 and 29 of the Declaration. That is, the contradiction between the right to freedom of expression, including freedom to freely seek, receive and share information, on the one hand, and laws restricting these rights that individual states adopt in order to ensure due recognition and respect for rights and freedoms, as well as maintaining public order, on the other hand. 

The formulation of the goals of such restrictive laws is so vague that their provisions can be interpreted and applied in any way to the advantage of certain wishes. Many governments, quite possibly, sincerely want to protect the citizens of their countries from knowingly false information or misinformation on the part of any individuals or entities, but they are clearly struggling while trying to clearly define the criteria for what may and what may not be done so as not to unduly limit human rights and freedoms. And these attempts cause a flurry of fair criticism from human rights and journalists’ organizations (for example, Reporters Without Borders). 

Such laws try to provide regulations for both the field of journalism and social media. However, since it is easier to regulate the first one, although the main stream of fake news comes from the latter, the field of journalism was the first at the frontier of restrictions. “New and stringent laws are scapegoating news institutions as if they were the originators, or lumping them into broad new regulations which restrict all communications platforms and activities indiscriminately. Such regulations also often have insufficient alignment to the international principles requiring that limitations on expression should be demonstrably necessary, proportional and for legitimate purpose,” as stated by the authors of the textbook on Journalism, Fake News and Disinformation, published in 2018 under the auspices of UNESCO. 

Not so long ago, the European Commission issued a report based on a study of apprehensions that misinformation and incorrect information are harmful to the whole society. Germany was the first to draft a law applicable in cases where digital platforms do not remove “illegal content”, including “fake news” and hate speech, within 24 hours after receiving the corresponding claim. Furthermore, the Malaysian Parliament passed the Fake News Act in April 2018, but it was repealed in August of that year. The Poynter Institute in Florida has made a constantly updated list of governments’ responsive measures. 

Advocates of freedom of speech, however, fear that such laws would harm human rights in the part of exchanging information and opinions, limiting the opportunities offered by new technologies.

In Russia, in March 2019, there were adopted two laws relating to fake news. Firstly, there was published the law on the out-of-court blocking of fake news on the Internet, according to which, after the discovery of fake news, the Russian regulator Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) should immediately block the sites sharing them. Online publications are allowed to “immediately” remove such news in order to avoid liability. Moreover, these laws are not applied to news aggregators, and the ban is not imposed on traditional media either. 

The second to be adopted was a law banning the sharing of unreliable socially significant information, that is, fake news again. Depending on the severity of violation, there are set out fines for individuals and legal entities in the amount of RUB 30,000 and rising up to one and a half million roubles. In addition, since about the same time, there are applied severe penalties in Russia that may be imposed on publications demonstrating “overt contempt” of the state on the Internet. 

By “fake news” the law refers to false information that is presented as truth and that “poses a threat to the life and/or health of citizens, property, the threat of massive disruption of public order and/or public safety, or the threat of obstructing the functioning or termination of functioning of vital infrastructure, transport or social infrastructure, credit organizations, energy facilities, industry or communications.” 

This law was first applied in April 2019, when in Arkhangelsk, there was drawn up an administrative offence report for sharing fake news against an activist Elena Kalinina, who opposed the construction of a landfill. The reason for drawing up the report was a post in VKontakte with an announcement of an unauthorized protest event. The police considered that if the protest was not authorized and was not to take place, the information on the time and place of its holding should be considered fake. Such enforcement can be considered hypocritical and as a mockery of law, since the ban on the protest was unconstitutional, and the protest event actually took place. 

In July 2019, the first penalty was imposed on a journalist for sharing fake news. Yakutsk City Court found Mikhail Romanov, a journalist from the Yakutsk Vecherny newspaper, guilty of sharing knowingly inaccurate socially significant information that could pose a threat of massive disturbances to public order. The case is related to an article by Romanov on a robotics teacher, Anton Ammosov, who told the journalist how he was kidnapped, beaten and tortured by the Federal Security Service officers. The article was recognized as a fake, and the journalist himself was fined for 30,000 roubles. 

In October 2019, the first fine for fake news was imposed on a media source. The publishing house the Moment Istiny (the Moment of Truth) was fined for 200 thousand roubles. The court also awarded a fine of 60 thousand roubles to the editor-in-chief of the publication, Yevgeny Gneushev. The reason for the trial was related to the videos released by the publishing house and hyperlinks to those videos on its website. According to the videos, there was to be scheduled a revolution in Russia on August 31, 2019, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets.

*Media literacy — according to the current consensus among UNESCO media educators, we shall refer to “media and information literacy” (MIL). In order to avoid any theoretical debate, it should be mentioned that by “media literacy” we actually mean MIL.

The author of the article is Ilya Ber, the project expert trainer, a lecturer at Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), an editor of television games, a television presenter, publicist, and historian. In 2009-2010, he was the coordinator of the BBC Russian Service programs; in 2012, he was a columnist for RIA Novosti. Head of Quizdom Content Agency.

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