Originally published in El Litoral on 10 October 2023.
We think anyone can pick up a phone and read a news article or post what they want on social media. We take for granted that we all know how to differentiate a reputable news source from a web publication serving some malicious purpose by an internet user with their own domain. We are used to countless social organisations that act as intermediaries between the general public and political leaders. The list is long. But it is not always the case that everyone enjoys these freedoms of knowledge and expression.
El Litoral recently spoke with Gabriela Hadid about Luminate's work in addressing these challenges in Latin America.
Freedom of the press and freedom of expression, far from being guaranteed, seem to be under attack in several parts of the world. What are your experiences in these areas?
In general, we know that these freedoms face various challenges and threats. This is a problem because both rights are fundamental pillars of democracy, which is the primary issue we work on, and without freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it is very difficult to guarantee transparency and accountability.
Challenges are obviously different depending on the political context. What happens in Argentina, for example, is not the same as what happens in Mexico, although both are countries where violence against journalists are among the highest in the world. But in broad terms, we can identify some worrying trends in this area.
On the one hand, we tackle censorship and government restrictions, because there are governments that implement policies and laws that curtail freedom of expression. This can range from penalising information about individuals or politicians to censoring the distribution of certain pieces of news. We even know of cases where critical media sources are silenced. As I was saying, Argentina obviously does not compare with other countries in the region as it is relatively well positioned in terms of the freedom to express opinions without retribution.
Where does the greatest difficulty lie for journalists? What are the greatest challenges?
Threats and violence against journalists are a matter of great concern. Mexico and Colombia are two countries where we work within an ecosystem – that is, practicing journalism is a kind of death sentence, especially in economically challenged areas of these countries, where what we call silent zones are created. Silent zones are essentially places where there is no local news because it is very risky to work in this role.
There are other challenges as well, such as the issue of media ownership. The concentration of media often leads to a lack of diversity of voices and of editorial independence. State control over the media can sometimes result in outlets that essentially spread government propaganda and create challenges in the distribution of information. Online censorship is a problem we focus on, because some governments intend to block content on websites or social networks, hindering online activities by individuals. This also limits the free discussion of information and critical opinions.
And lastly, another dimension that greatly affects the ability of journalism to fulfill its role is the economic crisis in the media and the difficulties they face in being financially viable and sustainable. Often, this makes it challenging for media outlets, especially independent ones—which provide alternatives viewpoints on certain topics and play a significant role in some countries where the media is more concentrated—to operate and maintain their services.
The notorious fake news: is it a phenomena resulting from an “excess" of freedom of expression, or what is it?
We understand that freedom of expression is a right that, in general, allows us to discuss matters of public life without fear of facing reprisals. Freedom of expression is very important for public debate. What we do see happening is that, obviously, as technology permeates this debate, a certain circulation of information begins to become visible, which may lead people, perhaps, to believe in an idea that is not verified or true. So, we work a lot on strengthening public debate through different strategies.
One strategy is digital literacy education with the public, which helps people to distinguish verifiable information from false information. Needless to say, it’s not always so black and white. Often, we encounter information that falls into a gray area, but we know critical thinking skills and assessing their impact can provide an effective defense against misinformation.
Also, as you were saying before, the ethical and quality standards of the media and of journalists are essential, so that we know that the information presented is accurate and can be verified. Finally, we also believe it is crucial that in cases where there are regulatory authorities, these authorities should be independent from the government, should include experts, and should strive to mitigate undue political influence over the media.
When we talk about minorities or underprivileged groups who have been historically discriminated against or marginalised, what have you observed in terms of integrating these groups with respect to the rest of society, in the time that you have been working in our region? Is there greater integration, for example, of the LGBT+ community or of women, or are we moving in the opposite direction?
Yes, and this is an area where we have hope, although sometimes there are more debates than we would like. For example, in two countries in which we work, Argentina and Mexico, we see that there are parity policies for women in political spaces, known as quotas. Also, we know through our recent survey that 59% of the electorate in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico are in favor of greater political representation of LGBT+ people. And this is very encouraging to us because it is not only what politics enables, but also what people are willing to choose.
Among youth, a demographic we work with, we observe that although they have a traditionally different relationship with politics, young people have an interest in political issues and are mobilised for certain causes. I believe we have an obligation to youth in terms of how to better integrate young people into political discussions. That’s still a challenge.
If we look at other countries in the region, such as Colombia, we see that they have, for the first time, a vice president of African descent. In Mexico, the 2024 presidential race has two women running for the first time – and it is highly likely that the election will be decided between them, which is also a novelty. In Brazil, they have a minister of justice from the indigenous community and a black woman as their minister of racial equality, which is also unprecedented and something we have not seen for some years.
Do you welcome the fact that there are more and even mandatory political debates? Are there similar examples in other countries? Do you notice a real positive effect on the population? Does it end up being a show?
Without a doubt, in our role as a philanthropy that promotes strong democracies, we believe that political debates are an important component of democratic discussions in the countries where we work. In this sense Argentina has been a pioneer in the region, and although a lot of progress has been made, it is undeniable that there are still things needing improvement. But a positive aspect is that debates allow voters to see and compare the different candidates. In the best case scenario, it is also possible to evaluate the proposals, understand the opinions, and evaluate the suitability of the representative for elected office. Live fact-checking of debates can help complement this critical perspective we were talking about.
There are also challenges. Sometimes the format and moderation may not be ideal for debate and can hinder dynamics. I think that in Argentina, we have been improving in this respect over time, although there are still some cases where debates focus too much on rhetoric or on personal attacks, instead of on the substantive discussion on real policies and issues.
You also work in Africa, what is the situation there? Are there comparisons?
In Africa, we work specifically in three countries, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, with quite different realities. I believe, broadly speaking, there are some common issues and challenges, but the context is different, so it is a bit difficult to make a direct comparison.
There are many more groups excluded from civic and political spheres, from women to ethnic and religious minorities. Technology has also grown immensely and we find a lot of polarised content, as we see in Latin America, both in terms of traditional media and digital platforms, which puts a strain on democracy. We see many more cases of government repression and excesses against civil society and the media. There may be places in Latin America, especially in Central America, where this is very common, but in contexts like Argentina, direct repression is fortunately not something we are used to.
In a world where everything pushes you to focus on your own problems, your organisation seeks to help others solve theirs. How do you personally feel about being part of Luminate?
We see that in Latin America, most people want to participate in politics in order to solve problems but feel that it demands a lot of time and effort. So I would say that, personally, I have the privilege and the pleasure of being able to make that my job, to do something that many people would like to do. And I believe that with privilege comes a great responsibility to do it with professionalism.
Even though I occupy this position today, there can be many more voices included in the solutions we design with the organisations we partner with. This is something that is very important for Luminate. I would even say it’s the mantra or guiding principle with which we structure all our work. So, I hope that this leads to good results in building societies that are genuinely inclusive and positively impact the lives of all people in the region.