Reuters’s flagship Trust conference took place in London at the Queen Elizabeth 2 Centre on the 19th and 20th of September.
Leading experts, inventors, and activists from around the world shared their perspectives on these urgent global topics.
The focus this year was on exiled journalists, legal and cyber threats to media freedom, the impact of AI on labor rights, the role of the law in securing climate justice, and how responsible and sustainable practices can deliver social impact.
Antonio Zappulla, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, opened the conference with a poignant speech about the significance of rebuilding trust, which is at the heart of our democracies all around the world.
“Trust in news matters. When independent journalism is mistrusted, discredited, or silenced, as individuals, we are disempowered. As a society, we are divided. That’s because free and independent media empowers citizens to make better decisions for themselves and for their communities. This leads to more inclusive and sustainable societies where opinions are not silenced and where human rights are upheld,” he said.
During the initial morning session, a group of journalists whose persistent efforts to hold power accountable have elevated them to influential status discussed the challenges of reporting in difficult circumstances.
Photographs captured by Reuters journalist Clodagh Kilcoyne depicting the harrowing, intense conflict in Ukraine were projected on the screen. She was covering from Bakhmut on the frontline. She emphasised the need for civilians to tell their stories during wartime. “Civilians are always caught in the crossfire, and it is important to tell their stories because they pay the highest price,” she said.
The topic of fake news inevitably arose. Authoritarian governments often draft laws with broad and ambiguous definitions of “fake news” or “disinformation”, allowing them to interpret and apply these laws as they see fit, targeting journalists and media outlets critical of the regime. These laws can criminalise the dissemination of information deemed false or misleading, making it risky for journalists to report on controversial topics or criticise the government. Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that these abusive lawsuits are becoming increasingly common in the West. The audience gasped in astonishment when Carolina Henriquez Schmitz, Director of Trust Law at Thomson Reuters, mentioned in her speech that in 2020 the Foreign Policy Centre found that the UK was the leading international threat against journalists working to uncover financial crime and corruption around the world. She believes that the ultimate goal is to prevent scrutiny, conceal truth, and undermine trust in journalism.
Every year, the danger of harassment, incarceration, violence, and even death drives a large number of journalists into exile. So much so that assisting journalists in exile has become an extremely crucial area of media development.
As press freedoms around the world worsen, journalists are establishing networks outside of their own nations in order to continue reporting. For example, one of the panellists, Roman Anin, an investigative journalist from Russia who exposed Russia’s endemic corruption, was forced to leave his native country in 2021. His team eventually followed him. He explained to the attentive audience the psychological challenges facing those forced to flee.
Lauren Seyfried of USAID offered a ray of hope. She believes that collaboration between NGOs, funders, and governments may assist the media in fighting back. She emphasised the necessity of thinking ahead of time to introduce protections and incorporate risk mitigation into their programmes so that when they are assisting journalists and lawyers, they are not caught off guard when threats to journalists occur.
Also covered at the conference was the thorny subject of content moderation. South African former Facebook content moderator Daniel Mautaung was among the panellists. He’s seen as a stalwart among whistleblowers. He sued Facebook’s parent company Meta and its regional outsourcing contractor Sarma last year, citing inconsistent pay and poor mental health assistance that resulted in trauma. He told the audience that becoming a whistleblower changed his life forever, but he is determined to fight for African content moderators. To this end, in May 2023 he played a pivotal role in the establishment of a union aimed at holding Big Tech corporations accountable.
If Daniel’s lawsuit is successful, it will set a precedent for the rest of the world by forcing Facebook to clean up its act and disrupt a business model centred on compromising the mental health of content moderators for financial gain.
On the last day, the conference also included a discussion on what the future holds for climate litigation. The law plays a crucial role in addressing climate justice issues. Legal mechanisms and frameworks are increasingly used to hold individuals, corporations, and governments accountable for their contribution to climate change and its impact. “The number of cases has tripled over the last couple of years. People see the law as a lever of change.” Andy Raine confirms. Based in Kenya since 2018, he is the Head of Frontiers in Environmental Law at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
It’s important to note that Judges and legal systems are gradually adapting to the increasing number of climate litigation cases. The extent of adaptation varies from one country to another. “Most judges haven’t been trained to deal with environmental issues. In South Africa we are in the process of retraining ourselves” said Nambitha Dambuza, a South African Judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal. This adaptation is also influenced by international agreements, and the growing urgency of climate change concerns.
Following the conclusion of the last question and answer session, Antonio Zappulla expressed his gratitude to both the delegates and the guests. Buoyed by the success of this year’s conference, he proudly announced that next year’s Conference will take place in October.