The text below is a slightly edited version of the author’s remarks to the M20 Media Freedom Summit held online in Delhi on September 6, 2023 by the M20 Organising Committee, which comprises 11 editors from India and a former judge of the Supreme Court.
It is with great pleasure that I welcome all of you to this historic meeting of the M20 – a group that we have collectively birthed today in order to jointly deal with the challenges that the media faces in our countries and regions.
It is in the nature of international politics that multilateral associations are born, or die, or linger on despite losing relevance, or survive and flourish by imbuing new meaning and purpose to their agenda. The G20 was born in the aftermath of the 2008 world financial crisis and its rather arbitrarily chosen members have since sought to widen the arc of their cooperation to the social sphere, gender, the environment and so on.
The Indian presidency of the G20 reflects this positive desire to broaden the group’s agenda and more clearly articulate the standpoint of the Global South, but is also negatively stamped by the government’s desire to manage or even control the kind of discussions and debates that such a broadening necessarily entails.
So while there have been meetings of the W20 for women, C20 for civil society, B20 for business, C20 for climate change and so on, these have tended to be government driven, dominated by statist perspectives and subsumed under the overall goal of making the G20 summit a spectacle – a political statement of some sort – rather than an occasion for serious introspection and debate on the common challenges we all face.
Despite the media in the G20 countries and beyond facing many common problems and threats, none of the G20 governments – and certainly not the current rotating president – appears particularly interested in the question of media freedom being debated. And perhaps that’s just as well, because in the current scenario of polarised politics and polarised media, it might not have been difficult for someone to put together an M20 of media groups that do not quite believe in the importance of defending press freedom for media they do not like.
Either way, it occurred to some of us here in the media in India that we should take the lead ourselves, and bring together colleagues from around the G20 so we could both have a conversation among ourselves on the problems we face, and send a clear message to the leaders of the G20 who will soon gather for their summit that none of the problems they hope to solve can be handled if the media in their countries are not free.
So what are the common challenges we face?
There is first of all the problem of repression and the misuse of law to criminalise journalism. Examples of this were seen recently from Kashmir – where a news portal, the Kashmir Wallah, whose editor has been in jail for more than a year now, was arbitrarily shut down – to Kansas, where the Marion County Record was raided by a local police party for a story it was doing and had its computers and devices seized.
It is today next to impossible for independent news organisations to work in key G20 countries like Russia and China.
In may countries across the G20, journalists have been subjected to intrusive surveillance via spyware. States are also growing increasingly intolerant of whistleblower-driven investigations, as can be seen by the pursuit of Julian Assange by the United States or the recent conviction of an editor at the Helsingin Sanomat in Finland in the European Union.
Then, there is the problem of a media business model under severe strain. Linked to this is the growing power of Big Tech platforms and intermediaries like Google, Meta and Twitter, or X.
There is also the epidemic of fake news and disinformation.
On the technology front there is the challenge and opportunity presented by AI.
These are the sort of issues we think the M20 needs to consider, and I hope that today’s discussions will help equip us with greater insight into how to surmount the obstacles before us, both individually and collectively.
I must apologise for the virtual format. We had initially hoped we would be able to hold a one day physical event in India just before the G20 summit. However, financial constraints and India’s restrictive visa policy for journalists and international conferences – which mandates government ‘clearance’ for events with foreign participants – made it difficult for us to host the meeting here. So intolerant has the government been towards G20-themed meetings that it does not control or bless that a recent ‘We20’ initiative by peoples’ movements and civil society groups was forcibly stopped by the Delhi Police.
Even online events can be disrupted, which is why we kept the news about our M20 initiative tightly under wraps until the last day.
We hope that the M20 process will continue after today, and that our colleagues in Brazil, which has the rotating presidency for the G20 in 2024, will work towards organising an M20 meeting next year.
But for now, let the discussions begin.
(Siddharth Varadarajan, a Founding Editor of The Wire, is convener of the M20 Organising Committee in India)
The editors who spoke at the M20 Media Freedom Summit on September 6, 2023 were:
1. Maurizio Molinari, Editor, La Repubblica (Italy) [Link to transcript; video]
2. Swe Win, Editor, Myanmar Now (Myanmar) [Link to transcript; video]
3. Paula Miraglia, Co-Founder and Director General, Nexo Journal & Gama Revista (Brazil) [Link to transcript; video]
4. Woosuk ‘Ken’ Choi, Editor, Chosun Ilbo (South Korea) [Link to transcript; video]
5. Nelson de Sa, Asia Correspondent and Media Columnist, Folha de Sao Paulo (Brazil) [Link to transcript; video]
6. Hiroki Sugita, Columnist, Kyodo News (Japan) [Link to transcript; video]
7. N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu (India) [Link to transcript; video]
8. Wahyu Dhyatmika, Editor, Tempo (Indonesia) [Link to transcript; video]
9. Rochelle de Kock, Editor, The Herald and Weekend Post (South Africa) [Link to transcript; video]
10. Makhudu Sefara, Chair, South Africa Newspaper Editors Forum Media Freedom Committee (South Africa) [Link to transcript; video]
11. Ipek Yezdani, journalist and former Foreign Editor, Hürriyet (Turkey) [Link to transcript; video]
12. Chris Warren, Media Correspondent, Crikey and former president of the International Federation of Journalists (Australia) [Link to transcript; video]
13. Edwy Plenel, Editor, Mediapart (France) [Link to transcript; video]
14. James Lamont, Board Member and former Managing Editor, Financial Times (UK) [Link to transcript; video]
15. Alan Rusbridger, Editor, Prospect magazine and Chair, Reuters Institute for Study of Journalism, Oxford and former Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian (UK) [Link to transcript; video]
16. Kareem Sakka, Editor, Raseef22 (Lebanon) [Link to transcript; video]
17. David Walmsley, Editor-in-Chief, Globe and Mail (Canada) [Link to transcript; video]