International Media Policy in a Rapidly Changing World: My Reflection on the Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute

In this post, Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute alumnus Mariam F. Alkazemi, a Visiting Fellow at the Middle East Centre, London School for Economics and Assistant Professor of Mass Communication, at Gulf University for Science & Technology, reflects on her experience at the 2016 Summer Institute.

At the 18th annual Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute, activists, academics, government regulators and industry professionals joined together to further their understanding of global  media laws, media reform, hate speech and internet governance among other topics.  As the Institute is in its 18th year, Monroe Price, the Director of the Program, described to me how the program has evolved over the years: “At the beginning, [the Summer Institute] mainly involved media law and media policy.  A lot of it was not internet policy focused, which has certainly expanded and become more prominent in the program…. To some extent the program has always reflected and analyzed the topics that are being debated internationally during each year. During the 90s and early 2000s there was an emphasis on child pornography and the shifting of the European Union (EU) and its effect on media policy.  All kinds of questions had to be developed in the EU on satellite policy, and that was a very interesting perspective. When there were wars in the Balkans, a lot of [the program discussion] was about the media in post-Yugoslavian states.”

Attended by individuals from many nations including Canada, China, Germany, Great Britain, India, Iran, Myanmar, Nigeria, Nepal, South Sudan, and the United States, conversations at the Institute took on a complex, comparative, and globalized form. The 2016 program highlighted issues such as hate speech; propaganda and strategic communication; media policy institutions; media development; countering violet extremism; internet policy; and censorship and surveillance. The following are my reflections on key topics discussed throughout the two week program.

As part of the program, participants learn policy analysis and methodological tools and are offered the opportunity to practice these skills by working in interdisciplinary teams. According to University of Virginia assistant professor Christopher Ali, stakeholder analysis can be a useful tool to understand and assess the achievement of policy goals, as well as to develop an understanding of the rationales for particular media regulations, including public education and economic concerns among others.  Thus, defining the stakeholders is an important step in understanding the goal of media policy.  However, there can be a distinction between stakeholders and policymaking actors; sometimes they overlap and sometimes they are independent.

In Latin America, for example, the actors involved in media policymaking include media professionals, civil society servants, church officials, and union representatives, according to the Dominican Republic’s former President Leonel Fernández, a speaker at the Institute. As a result of the move from authoritarian regimes in the region to more democratic states with free markets, political parties sometimes have vested interests in breaking the concentrations of media ownership. In many ways, censorship in Latin America is derived not from governments but from the large media oligopolies.

In addition to examining the regional contexts of various media regulations, it is important to examine the historical context in which media laws were drafted. Senior researcher/lecturer from the University of Amsterdam, Tarlach McGonagle touched upon this during his talk on hate speech laws. When hate speech laws were drafted in Recommendation (97) 20 on “Hate Speech” by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, they were not written to protect many disadvantaged groups, including sexual minorities, the elderly and people with disabilities. Therefore, as policymakers, implementers, and media lawyers interpret these laws, they must construe the original intent of the law as well as incorporate contemporary considerations.

Regulation can be difficult to implement depending on the ability of both regulators and citizens to utilize technology effectively, according to Ali Nikouei, an Annenberg-Oxford participant and the director of the Dutch computer security nonprofit organization Baroo. From Nikouei’s perspective, activists do not know how the Deep Web is regulated although it offers human rights defenders, as well as criminal groups, some anonymity.  Thus, Keith McManamen, a participant from Psiphon, a circumvention software company, describes how activists and others tend to use circumvention tools to ensure their safety, considering the lack of transparent regulation of the Deep Web. According to McManamen, Psiphon in particular has “always operated on trust because our software is open-sourced, peer-reviewed, [and] security-audited. We have what I think is a just privacy policy in that we don’t collect any personally identifying information. A lot of VPN companies [have] business models collect all kinds of personal data and selling it.”

Yet, censorship can sometimes be a protective policy put in place to (at least partially) protect a nation’s technology industry. For example, China has their own social media platforms like Weibo. “These companies would be undermined, I think, if filtering wasn’t putting up as a wall to keep foreigner providers out. On the side of the government it is, maybe not in the long-run, profitable—in the sense that it is protectionism,” said McManamen. “But then again, maintaining a censorship regime is also really expensive. It’s getting more expensive all the time. As more people are online, there are more methods of circumvention or more circumvention providers.”

“As more people join the internet, more people inevitably join the censored internet. What people really want fundamentally is to conduct normal activities, such as go on Facebook, go on YouTube, search on Google,” he continued.  “Really, it’s regular internet users that are harmed by censorship policies.”

Beyond theorizing and analyzing current events, the Annenberg-Oxford Institute is rooted in the practical. As the program not only brings together academics and researchers, but also practitioners from the governmental and intergovernmental sides, there are a lot of discussions about policymaking and advocacy. “You can immediately see how the points that are raised can in very short [time span] be transformed into concrete actions, and this is inspiring,” said participant Vera Djemelinskaia.

Attending the Summer Institute, referred to as #AnOx16 on social media, was extremely illuminating and provided me with the opportunity to see the multifold issues and contexts that encompass “media policy.”  In addition to understanding the role of stakeholders, the Summer Institute gave me the opportunity to conceptualize how stakeholders play different roles at international, national, and local levels as well as in different socio-technical contexts. For example, media policy can range from setting the technical requirements for censorship and its circumventions (by governments, intergovernmental organizations, or private companies) to developing an understanding of the legal and cultural norms for media content.  I am grateful for my experience in Oxford, especially because it provided context for appreciating the challenges that advocacy and intergovernmental organizations, such as Freedom House or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) may have had to face when developing policy recommendations for internet and media freedom around the world. The program helped me realize the vastness of the potential research areas and questions within media policy, and exposed me to a diversity of perspectives, and concerns, about media policy from various professions around the globe.

 

 

Mariam Alkazemi is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at the Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST) in Kuwait. She completed her Ph.D. in Mass Communication at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communication, where she focused on media effects research.  She is interested in media effects as applied to religion, and is also interested in examining routine factors impacting the media industry.  Her research appears in Journal of Media and Religion, Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture, Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, and Health Environments Research & Design Journal.  Most recently, Mariam signed a contract to write a co-authored book on Kuwaiti media law. She has received several awards for teaching and research, and is currently serving as newsletter editor for the Religion and Media Interest Group of the Association for Education of Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).

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