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Challenges and opportunities for freedom of expression in the networked environment

Freedom of Expression at the Ford Foundation: History and Renewal

info: Submitted by Lisa Horner on Thu, 2007-12-06 16:37.

Report by Joe Karaganis and Waad El-Hadidy
October 2007


Ford grantmaking has emphasized the interdependence of expressive freedoms and human dignity since the inaugural Foundation mission statements of the 1950s. Support for freedom of expression, both as a set of concrete rights and as a broader commitment to a rich, diverse, and participatory public sphere, has been among the Foundation’s most central and enduring commitments. Because freedom of expression is fundamentally an enabler of other rights—political, economic, and cultural—it is likely to remain so. This report is conceived as both an introduction to the contemporary ‘freedom of expression’ (FOE) landscape and as an account of recent Ford grantmaking within it. This discussion falls into three sections.

  • Part I provides an introduction to traditional and emerging challenges for FOE, including brief accounts of the major concepts and instruments of traditional rights discourse, the converging policy venues that increasingly shape expression, the challenges of media policy and intellectual property rights, and the diverse donor and civil society participants in this sector.
  • Part II documents Ford grantmaking history in this area, with a focus on three distinct types of intervention into the public sphere:
    Media Institutions, Civil Society, and Democratic Participation and Inclusion. This section also identifies a fourth, cross-cutting set of concerns with digital technologies.
  • Part III provides a brief set of conclusions and possible avenues for the further development and consolidation of FOE work at Ford.

The central contention of this report is that the forces shaping expressive freedoms have changed in ways that are no longer defined primarily by state power and the traditional mass media—the primary objects of Ford FOE grantmaking in the past half century. The rise of digital technologies and the liberalization of media sectors, especially, have produced an upheaval in the institutions, cultural practices, and forms of governance that shape the public sphere, often in ways that bear only tangential relationship to the speech rights, demands for government transparency that dominate the core FOE tradition. This report suggests that an effective contemporary engagement with expressive freedoms must increasingly work within the larger set of converging policy and issue domains, ranging from media and technology policy, to intellectual property regimes and development strategies. These are powerful structural and infrastructural determinants of public life, shaping not just formal rights but also the underlying conditions and possibilities of expression. The project of translating expressive freedoms into these new technological arenas is fragile and incomplete at best, though enriched by a growing number of conceptual advances, socio-technical practices, and forms of political mobilization. Ford has played a small but important role in this process to date.

This report begins and ends with two basic questions:

  • How will Ford advance its core expressive values in the post-broadcast, digital era?
  • How will it determine those strategies?

Hopefully, this history of Ford work on freedom of expression provides some guideposts for that inquiry.

To read the full report, please download the PDF by clicking on the link below.

Freedom of Expression at the Ford Foundation: History and Renewal (PDF)413.89 KB