Whitewashing the Global South’s challenges

June 25, 2023

Policy debates and solutions by the Global North to address rights challenges in the Global South lack nuance

Whitewashing the Global South’s challenges


f you have worked in any rights space, especially the digital rights and media development, chances are, you’ll be no stranger to the “whitewashing” of global practices, debates and policy solutions to address local challenges. This essentially means that often times, research and debate conducted in the Global North substantially lacks the nuances vis-a-vis challenges and threats unique to countries in the Global South, and as a result, ends up being completely counterproductive and causing more harm than good.

Digital News Report 2023, a research published by Oxford University’s leading journalism institute, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) could be cited as a recent example. According to Maria Ressa — the Nobel peace laureate, journalist and author — it is flawed and could potentially put independent media outlets and journalists in the Global South at risk. According to Ressa, the research study, substantially funded by Google, fails to take into account the weaponisation of disinformation campaigns. Instead, it narrowly studies the “trust in the news” without contextualising it within the framework of disinformation online or massive controls that tech-platforms have over news distribution.

Unfortunately, the tendency to apply a Global North lens, while calling it ‘universal’ or global extends even to multi-lateral bodies, including UN agencies. The UNESCO, for example, is currently working on drafting guidelines for regulating digital platforms. As per the UNESCO, these guidelines “aim to support regulator, governments, legislatures and companies, dealing with content that potentially damages human rights and democracy, while protecting freedom of expression and the availability of accurate and reliable information.” However, neither the mention of freedom of expression nor the consultations have quelled civil society concerns about the lack of human rights considerations in the proposed guidelines. According to a statement released by a group of Asia-Pacific based civil society organisations, these guidelines will “rubber stamp local over regulation,” “embolden authoritarian regulators” and “incentivise platforms to comply with illegitimate government requests.”

Like many of the international principles and standards that have come before this, the guidelines appear to be completely non-cognizant of the realities that the Global South citizens with authoritarian regimes live in. The guidelines do not take into consideration the fact that in most Global South countries, the governments and regulators work hand in hand to exercise control over the citizens. And yet, the threats that seem crystal clear to the forty plus signatories of the statement of concern published by Asian civil society are being largely whitewashed with vague references to human rights considerations.

This tendency to whitewash results in an erasure of the realities experienced by millions of individuals in the Global South, who lack the privileges enjoyed by those in the West. The guidelines by the UNESCO and the research substantially funded by Google and published by Oxford fail to acknowledge the role of authorities in the creation of a misinformation problem. They fail to acknowledge the existing collaboration between governments and regulators in the Global South. The one-size-fits-all approach employed by these initiatives dismisses the intricate complexities and struggles faced by individuals living under authoritarian regimes. To effectively address these issues, it is essential to foster a truly inclusive and diverse approach that genuinely considers the perspectives and challenges of the Global South and does not aim for “universal” approaches to something as complex as expression and information.

Without an approach that incorporates diversity and responsiveness within the solutions instead of using diverse experiences simply as a part of context setting, there remains a risk of perpetuating a cycle of whitewashing, further marginalising the voices and experiences of those who bear the brunt of these policies and practices.

The writer is the director and founder of Media Matters for Democracy. He writes on media and digital freedoms, media sustainability and countering misinformation 

Whitewashing the Global South’s challenges