A new consensus for the post-Covid19 world: Building a democratic information space through innovative multilateralism

At the Paris Peace Forum on November 12 last year, French President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders launched a global discussion on forging a new consensus for the post-Covid-19 world. This discussion is continuing through an ongoing debate, with contributions from leaders and experts from around the world. Below, explore the contribution of Christophe Deloire, Chair of the Board of the Forum on Information & Democracy and Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Building a democratic information space through innovative multilateralism

Democracies worldwide are suffering from an invisible threat.

The threat of digital shadow play and virtual conflict. The threat of internal disintegration and external weakening.

The digital space (Internet, and within it, the Web) represents a promise of worldwide connections and discussions on the scale of humankind, from which future generations might draw wonderful benefits. However, in the context of information warfare, its current structure gives dictatorships and authoritarian regimes a competitive advantage over democracies due to the imbalance between closed (and controlled) and open (and free) digital spaces.

While authoritarian regimes use technological means to monitor and punish their populations, as well as censor and control content, democracies allow unobstructed communication. The problem is that democracies no longer require civic space to be organized in compliance with the principles necessary for and inherent to democratic public deliberation. Digital globalization has led democracies to lose their sovereignty over the civic space.

To understand the current situation, we should start by looking back. It turns out Marshall McLuhan’s global village was not that global at all. For the most part, civic spaces remained national prerogatives, particularly regarding regulation and operation, and each democratic country secured its civic space in its manner. Their constitutions guaranteed freedom of opinion and expression (to varying degrees). Within states, media regulation and journalist self-regulation encouraged pluralism and balance in public debate, as well as the independence and reliability of information (to varying degrees).

Democracies were able to maintain civil peace by accepting conflicts; they gave free rein to all ideas and opinions by fostering fact-based public debate. Like democracy itself, this system was fragile and imperfect. Still, processes were implemented to prevent (or limit) individuals from monopolizing discussions, content from being influenced by censorship, confusion between advertising and journalism, the generalization of mob justice and bullshit, and foreign disinformation.

This system has been turned upside down. Civic space no longer has anything to do with the one theorized by philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Deliberation is now organized by private companies and despotic powers, which do not hesitate to impose norms. Democratic parliaments are lost: they are too late, they either do not dare or know how to proceed, they are subject to intense lobbying, and above all the infrastructure for the circulation of ideas, opinions and information is now global and no longer covered by regulation.

We are left with national legal frameworks to regulate a global civic space: governance and law are no longer in line with reality and are becoming ineffective. The first option for democratic states is to remain open, with no accountability scheme for different actors. In other words, accept the obsolescence of democratic standards. The second option is to close their civic space and impose their laws. While this is technically possible (Beijing achieves this behind its technological Great Wall), it is neither sustainable nor desirable.

To help democracies extricate themselves from this fatal dilemma, we launched the Initiative on Information & Democracy to build a system of democratic guarantees adapted to the digital age on an international scale. In 2018, the Commission bearing the same name issued general principles for the global information and communication space. In 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Alliance for Multilateralism launched the International Partnership on Information & Democracy, which is currently endorsed by 43 states.

The Summit on Information & Democracy, scheduled for September 2021 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, will be an opportunity to broaden the coalition of states, strengthen the Partnership, and work on the recommendations made by its implementation body, the Forum on Information & Democracy, which was created by eleven civil society organizations. The Forum puts forward doctrine, principles, and rules to regulate the digital space. In November 2020, it submitted 250 specific recommendations on “How to end infodemics” and in June 2021 it published its second report “New Deal for journalism”.

The Initiative aims to initiate a “multilateralism of democracies”, which structures the work of civil society and democratic states in an original manner, allowing them to play their role fully without abusing it. In essence, the construction and the securing of an open information space, “the democratic information space”, jointly governed by democratic institutions according to democratic principles. A space organized internally by democratic decisions rather than by private companies driven by their interests.

The Partnership on Information & Democracy coalition has the framework and tools to work together to build this “democratic information space”. This space could be protected from the unfair competition of dictatorships via a “reciprocity mechanism based on universal principles”, as suggested by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). This mechanism will put an end to the imbalance between closed and open spaces. This newly established reciprocal opening will be created under democratic conditions.

Signatory states will be able to entrust the Forum on Information & Democracy with assessing the operation and evolution of the information space in light of democratic principles, much like the IPCC does for climate change. Information chaos and global warming share several similarities; rather than each country trying to treat the symptoms separately, we need to work together on the causes. The only difference is that democracies and dictatorships do not have the same interests when it comes to the information space, a situation from which we should draw the necessary conclusions before it is too late.

Christophe Deloire, Chair of the Board of the Forum on Information & Democracy and Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Christophe Deloire became the Secretary General and Executive Director of the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in 2012. From 2008 to 2012, he was the director of the French leading journalism school CFJ. Before, he worked for the French weekly newsmagazine Le Point from 1998 to 2007, as an investigative reporter at the Society and Politics departments. He previously also worked for the TV channels ARTE and TF1.

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