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National Conference: Media Literacy - Overcoming the Digital Challenge

Keynote speech by Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General

National Conference: Media Literacy - Overcoming the Digital Challenge 

13 November 2019 - Attard, Malta

His Excellency Dr. George Vella, President of Malta
President Emeritus Dr. Ugo Mifsud Bonnici
Minister for Education and Employment, Mr. Evarist Bartolo
Ambassador Anthony De Bono
Distinguished guests
Members of the Media
Ladies and gentlemen

It is a great pleasure for me to have this opportunity to be with you today. Malta has a long association with ITU. It is a country which ITU has promoted as a role model, especially during the period of great change in the telecom sector in the 1990’s with liberalization, competition and digitization. Today, once again, Malta is leading the way in many new areas of information and communication technology, in particular distributed ledger technologies, blockchain and artificial intelligence.

We have heard from our eminent speakers this morning how important critical thinking is in navigating today’s fast-changing digital media landscape. President Emeritus Dr. Ugo Mifsud Bonnici referred to Gutenberg’s printing press and how its freed knowledge from what he called “the strictures of the old ‘unities’ of space and time”.

Today we are living in the digital age. Whilst it took a 1000 years for the development of printing from its invention in China to the printing press, now thanks to global communications, such innovations are now happening at lightning speed. New platforms for media and communication are continually being developed. News travels around the world instantaneously.

But for everyone to benefit, they have to be connected − and as we know, still almost half the world’s population remains offline. Right now in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 is amending the international treaty on the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits to facilitate some exciting new innovations such as high-altitude platform stations and low earth-orbiting satellite networks that promise to bring low-cost connectivity to the remote, rural and isolated communities where most of the unconnected live. Only by bringing high-speed, low-cost connectivity to these regions will all the world’s people benefit from these technological advances. Then, and only then, will everyone have equal opportunity to fulfill their potential without any boundaries.

But affordable connectivity alone is not sufficient. People need to be aware of the benefits of connecting and have the digital skills to make the most of the opportunity.

In ITU we need countries with far advanced policies and regulatory frameworks, and skills, such as Malta, to continue to play their role as a model for other countries to follow and show them the benefits that the new technological innovations can bring to their economy and people.

Artificial intelligence is one of the most significant of these new technologies, in many areas such as health, transportation and environment, but also the media. Much like Gutenberg’s printing press, it is transforming how people understand and interact with news media. On the one hand, AI gives all professional journalists new tools to report stories in a more effective and nuanced manner. As one of the participants to this year’s World Summit on Information Society Forum in Geneva put it: “AI can save resources and time for journalists so they can spend more time investigating complex social issues”. On the other hand, AI also has the ability to spread misinformation at a pace and scale not seen before, not to mention the threat that algorithms can pose to media pluralism.

As the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies, ITU is an advocate of AI for good, whilst being mindful of the challenges and risks associated with the technology. At last year’s ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit, participants from academia, the UN system, major media outlets and the private sector gathered at our headquarters in Geneva to discuss the unintended consequences of AI and AI-powered misinformation. ITU’s objective with this summit is to generate new AI projects that can accelerate progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Our vision is to ensure trusted, safe and inclusive development of AI technologies and equitable access to their benefits, recognizing that the marginalization of countries with low technological capabilities is a significant risk.

I would like to commend the Maltese government for launching an ambitious strategy for artificial intelligence last month − a strategy with the explicit aim to put Malta amongst the top 10 nations with the highest impact national AI programme. As such I would very much welcome Malta’s active participation in some of our related areas of work in ITU, such as the newly launched Focus Groups on ‘AI for autonomous and assisted driving’, ‘Quantum Information Technology for Networks’, ‘Environmental Efficiency for Artificial Intelligence and other Emerging Technologies’ and ‘AI for Health’ jointly with the World Health Organization. The objective of the Focus Groups is to support standardization activities to build public trust, ensure openness and interoperability, reduce costs through economies of scale and avoid getting locked into propriety standards.

I also recognize Malta’s leading role in distributed ledger technologies and blockchain. The government’s legislative framework for distributed ledger technologies is a model for others that wish to attract fintech companies as it is already showing encouraging results. Use cases of distributed ledger technologies are emerging not only in the finance sector but also in telecom, energy, supply chain and government, to name a few. Just last month, the ITU Focus Group on the ‘Application of Distributed Ledger Technology’ issued guidance on the adoption of this technology and documented and analyzed some 60 use cases − an analysis that includes insight into the relevance of distributed ledger technology to the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals. The group has brought together a diverse range of interests, from governments and regulators to multinational companies, civil society organizations, and SMEs and start-ups.

Malta’s small and medium-sized sector is vibrant and I very much look forward to strengthening ITU’s cooperation with these Maltese companies as from January next year when ITU opens a new category of membership for SMEs with substantially reduced fees. It is an opportunity to work with other members like Google, Alibaba, Facebook, Tencent and Netflix, but also the increasing diverse membership such as Volkswagen Group, Hyundai, Tsinghua University, Zhejiang University, Maersk, Amazon Web Services and many others. With 193 governments as well as some 900 private sector companies, universities, and international and regional organizations reflecting the digital economy, ITU is the leading platform to engage in today’s rapidly changing world of technology.

I started off by saying that Malta is a long-time supporter of ITU, and an influential one at that. Malta joined ITU in 1965. Twenty years later, in 1985, it helped raised the significance of the historic “Maitland Report” – the first report that underlined the direct correlation between the availability of, and access to, telecommunication infrastructure and a country’s economic growth, and proposed concrete solutions to fix the so called “missing link”.

Then, in 1992, with the assistance of ITU, Malta became one of the first countries to completely digitalize its network. This achievement earned Malta the distinction of being singled out as a ‘role model’ for telecommunications development at the first ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference in 1994 in Argentina. This year, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of that event. This is a moment to celebrate all those who have nurtured the relationship between ITU and Malta – and none more than my good friend Ambassador Anthony De Bono, the former CEO of Telemalta Corporation and former Chairman of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization, who acted for more than three decades as Malta’s special envoy to ITU. Dear Tony, thank you for all you have done over the years and all you are doing to inspire a new generation of Maltese leaders to bring Malta and ITU closer together. I would like to take the opportunity to present you with a token of our appreciation shortly.

It is clear that Malta’s influence on the world of technology stretches well beyond its shores. The country is blessed with the natural role as a bridge for goodwill and cooperation between nations. And that is why I hope Malta will play an active role in the Commonwealth ITU Group, set up in 2002 and revived at last year’s ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference in Dubai. Malta is a strong believer in the Commonwealth which can play an increasingly relevant role as a force for good in the world and an effective network for promoting development.

Commonwealth coordination in ITU conferences has proved to be very successful in helping ITU maintain its wonderful tradition of working by consensus. It is something that is playing an important role in the current World Radiocommunication Conference where Malta is represented, and I am pleased to say is actively participating in the Commonwealth coordination.

I would like to end with the words of Pope Francis and what he said at ITU’s last World Telecommunication Development Conference: “As you reflect on communication technologies and their contribution to social and economic development,” the Holy Father told the participants, “I encourage you to deepen your commitment to constructive forms of communication that reject prejudice towards others and foster a culture of encounter, helping all of us to view the world around us with realism and trust”.

As we look to the future and try to improve medial literacy in the digital age, let us work together to foster a culture of encounter, but also inclusiveness. I can think of no better place to engage in this dialogue than right here in Malta, a country at the crossroads of civilizations and at the cutting edge of emerging technologies. And let us view the world around us with realism and trust, but also with hope and ambition. And I very much hope for an even stronger relationship between Malta and ITU in the future so as to promote the use of information and communication technologies as a force for good and for everyone, throughout the world.

Thank you for your attention.