Syndicate content

World Press Freedom Day

Information is power: Silvio Waisbord on how digital technology changes the public sphere and notions of privacy

Roxanne Bauer's picture
How do digital media affect traditional theories of the “public sphere” and power? Are we living in a modern-day panopticon?

The notion of the “public sphere” is useful worldwide to consider how citizens can and do articulate demands to the market or to states. The public sphere is generally conceived as a place (figurative or literal) in which citizens can share information, debate issues and opinions, and restrain the interests of the powerful elite. This space is critical to the formation of public will and the transmission of it to official authorities.

In contrast, the Panopticon is a design for a prison or jail which allows watchmen to observe all inmates at all times without the inmates knowing whether they are being observed or not.  The idea has been used to discuss online privacy, as individuals are often unaware of how governments and companies collect and use the information they gather about them online.  Moreover, the revelation that governments and companies work together to “spy” on citizens, as revealed by Edward Snowden revived the concern that a modern-day panopticon might be possible.   

But these concepts raise another important question: How can the public sphere, which aims to limit excess power, continue to function if the state is monitoring citizen activity?  Much of the information that is collected and tracked online is willingly shared by individuals as they search the internet, use mobile apps, and contact friends and family. This activity is vital to the future of a public sphere around the world, but it also allows governments and companies to intrude in our private lives.

Silvio Waisbord explores these two evergreen, yet very immediate concerns. He argues that while digital technologies have improved the capacities of states and companies to track human activity, digital media can also be used for democratic purposes. 
The modern public sphere vs. The online panopticon

New Frontiers, New Barriers . . .and the Start of New Conversations?

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

World Press Freedom Day is being celebrated today and throughout this week with events around the world. Here in Washington, a veritable who’s who of journalists, free speech advocates, government officials and NGOs have gathered to network and learn from each other at the World Press Freedom Day 2011 conference, hosted at the Newseum by UNESCO and the U.S. Department of State.

This year’s theme is “Twenty-First Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers.” Listening to some of the speeches, you can hear a distillation of several points that many of us who support voice and accountability repeatedly stress: the Internet and digital platforms, as well as traditional journalism, have tremendous potential to contribute to freedom of expression, democratic governance, and sustainable development. At the same time, that potential is prevented from its full realization by a host of factors, including governmental and other forms of censorship, surveillance, intimidation, and other means.

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Johanna Martinsson's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Africa Can...End Poverty
Two ways of overcoming government failure

"Everyone seems to agree that most, if not all, policy problems have their roots in politics. That is why you often hear that a particular policy will not be implemented because there is no “political will.”  Seemingly anti-poor policies and outcomes—untargeted and costly fertilizer vouchers in Tanzania, 99 percent leakage of public health funds in Chad, 20 percent teacher absenteeism in Uganda, 25 percent unemployment in South Africa—persist.  Yet these are countries where the median voter is poor.  A majority doesn’t vote in favor of policies that will benefit the majority.  Why?" READ MORE

The Struggle for Middle East Democracy
Shadi Hamid

"It always seemed as if Arab countries were ‘on the brink.’ It turns out that they were. And those who assured us that Arab autocracies would last for decades, if not longer, were wrong. In the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, academics, analysts and certainly Western policymakers must reassess their understanding of a region entering its democratic moment. What has happened since January disproves longstanding assumptions about how democracies can—and should—emerge in the Arab world. Even the neoconservatives, who seemed passionately attached to the notion of democratic revolution, told us this would be a generational struggle. Arabs were asked to be patient, and to wait. In order to move toward democracy, they would first have to build a secular middle class, reach a certain level of economic growth, and, somehow, foster a democratic culture. It was never quite explained how a democratic culture could emerge under dictatorship." READ MORE

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

NDI Tech
Practice Makes Perfect, or How We Fail Early and Succeed Late

“Ahead of the intense effort and coordination involved with PVT-type data collection on an Election Day, organizations choose to simulate the reporting and data management processes which will be required in a tense political environment.

In massive data collection exercises, “stress” or “load” tests can assess the training and commitment of the observers, the effectiveness of the communications system and the training (video!) of staff in the center.”

Quote of the Week: Joseph Stiglitz

Antonio Lambino's picture

 In celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2010:


"Free speech and a free press not only make abuses of governmental powers less likely, they also enhance the likelihood that people’s basic social needs will be met."


- Joseph Stiglitz (2002). "Transparency in Government." In The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development, ed. Roumeen Islam, 27. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank