The University of Pretoria’s (UP) Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) has established the Media Leadership Think Tank, which it said was aimed at dealing with pressing issues facing the media and audio-visual industries on their impact to democracy.

Veteran media activist and policy expert, Michael Markovitz, has been appointed to head and develop the initiative. Markovitz said the main purpose of the Think Tank was to support democracy by generating research, debate and solutions for business, civil society, and government policy in the broad media space. “We will draw on experts from across Africa and globally and will reach out to key organisations, leaders, and educational institutions,” he added.

Markovitz said the Think Tank’s focus would be broader than the news media and would include research on audio-visual content and what he called “the attention economy”, which would be informed by deeper insights into what audiences and the public need from the media to become active citizens.

“The idea is to create a research-centred Think Tank that focuses on ethics and governance, policy and regulation and business and strategy… In time, we would like to be able to offer post-graduate courses and training. We want to break down the silos between the Business School and Humanities and look at broader issues like the sustainability of journalism and public broadcasting,” Markovitz told the launching event.

“We will be looking for a more ethical understanding of audiences in our increasingly fragmented, multichannel and data-driven world. Re-imagining and creating a new media is inextricably linked to creating societies based on participatory democracy and inclusive economies,” he added.

Speaking at the launch of the Think Tank, UP Prof Tawana Kupe, said: “A pluralistic, diverse media on multiple platforms assists people to exercise their rights and hold the powerful to account. But, it also has the potential to enable the spread of misinformation and wreak havoc on an already disrupted world.”

Prof Kupe argued that there was a need for “sustainable, credible, pluralistic and diverse media that allows people to assess threats and regain their sense of direction. We must reimagine a new media landscape for our new societies and reposition the media as central to society to regain trust”.

Prof Kupe added that media education and training programmes should have a thorough understanding of local and global issues, with critical social debates placed at the centre of their teaching. “We need a new vision, not for a media focused on fighting fake news, but to reinvent an institution vital for the rebirth of society,” he argued.

Speaking at the launch, director of the technology, media and communications specialisation at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Dr Anya Schiffrin, said following the election of President Donald Trump and the unexpected Brexit referendum results in 2016, there was a moment of “global panic” and the realisation that “disinformation online was a real problem”. This, he added, pushed the media sector to look for solutions, which have included an increase in fact-checking and media literacy as well as increased funding for good journalism to provide audiences with quality information.

Countries such as China as well as others in Latin America and Africa decided to deal with problem by enacting laws to punish people for generating or spreading fake news, said Schiffrin . Countries such as Germany, dealt with the problem by introducing measures to impose fines on technology companies that would be found to consistently spreading fake news, added Schiffrin.

Leading South African media lawyer and law media professor, and member of Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression Initiative, Dario Milo, told the event that the United States law was extreme in dealing with the problem, adding that online media giants had legal immunity for the content produced by third parties, with emphasis rather placed on self-regulation.

Digital rights researcher with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Juliet Nanfuka, said some governments had gone so far as to employ network disruptions and internet shutdowns in an attempt to suppress expression, especially during times of public interest such as elections and protests.

“Telecommunications companies often go silent and follow the instructions of the state. However, some are starting to respond to the plight of citizens and take a stand, and we are seeing a shift away from merely protecting the interests of business towards better business practice,” Nanfuka said.

It was also good to see more media institutions taking a position of advocacy against the issue, added Nanfuka.

Another panelist at the launching of the Think Tank, Gambian human rights activist, women’s rights activist, and lawyer, Fatou Jagne Senghore, said her country’s legal foundation for the protection of freedom of expression was contained in Article 19 of the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.