July 7, 2020

Journalism is in a rough place. As the world relies more heavily on independent fact-based health information due to the pandemic, journalists everywhere are under increased pressure and in the line of fire, and not just figuratively speaking.

Global independent media find themselves in the vulnerable position of waiting for governments and donors to decide on their future funding as they adapt to the COVID-19 crisis.

Nonprofit media, from small grassroots radio stations to popular multimedia platforms, still largely depend on donor funding. This often comes from media development foundations, which in turn receive their funding through grants from government international development aid budgets. For nonprofit media this means their future is largely in the hands of these donors and whether they will prioritize press freedom in their upcoming policy frameworks.

The dire situation of the media is becoming a hot topic in Europe, especially since the European member states will finalize the EU budget for 2021-2027 this month. Up to 15 press freedom organizations are urging for the inclusion of recovery plans for the media.

Will countries recognize and support the increased need for quality journalism and freedom of the press worldwide? Or will the development budgets decline further due to internal political and economic pressure? And will this lead to prioritizing the economic and health effects of COVID-19, leaving journalism with an even smaller piece of the pie?

In order for the public to have access to diverse, equal, fair and factual information that can save lives worldwide, donor countries should make a commitment to longterm investments.

Pressure grows

“Good morning from Manila! ‘I learned from experience that joy does not reside in the things about us, but in the very depths of the soul, that one can have it in the gloom of a dungeon as well as in the palace of a king.’ St. Therèse of Lisieux.”

These are the words that Maria Ressa, journalist and CEO of the independent media Rappler based in the Philippines tweeted June 15, the day she was found guilty in court for cyber libel. The verdict, for which she could receive a sentence of up to six years in prison, is seen as the latest attempt in silencing the press in the Philippines.

Ressa’s high-profile case is exemplary to that of many journalists worldwide who face harassment, arrests and imprisonment. Many, however, go unnoticed in the international community and don’t receive the support of global campaigning that Ressa receives.

Experts warn that press freedom is under increased pressure during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The pandemic is also a crisis of free expression,” said David Kaye the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, in his address to the Human Rights Council on April 23.

Mira Milosevic and Michael J. Oghia of the Global Forum for Media Development wrote: “Especially now with the perfect storm of disinformation, market destabilization, digital repression of critical voices, and the disruption of our daily lives caused by the COVID-19 crisis, the situation facing journalism and news media is dire.”

During the pandemic, access to information is a matter of life and death. One should expect an increased respect for fact-based reporting and unchallenged content distribution. Governments, however, have used this crisis to “challenge the kinds of freedoms guaranteed in a democratic society,” Kaye said.

This is certainly not a problem unique to authoritarian states.

In America, police intimidation and political attacks on journalists are rampant. Over 400 incidents involving American journalists were recorded by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, including arrests and physical attacks. There are even incidents where reporters were surrounded and arrested by police live on air.

Meanwhile, the appointment of Michael Peck, the new head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media pushed by President Donald Trump, was followed by resignations of the Voice of America director and deputy director. Two days later, Peck dismissed the bipartisan boards of four major global media and the head of an internet freedom organization.

It is clear that journalism grapples with challenges to its core system of independence and ethics, but there is more.

As the Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd seek to address the inequality in America’s society, the inadequacy of Western newsrooms to report on issues of racism and inclusiveness is painfully magnified. Both in publishing, as illustrated by the resignation of New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet after an outcry by his own staff, as well as inside the editorial teams themselves. The stories of journalists of color speaking out about their own racist and discriminatory treatment inside U.S. newsrooms collected by Nieman Lab are particularly disheartening.

The industry can’t save itself

The increased pressure on quality journalism is coupled with ongoing financial challenges to media and freelance journalists, especially during the pandemic.

Globally, independent media have recorded unprecedented audience growth, wrote Andreas Reventlow. Reventlow is the deputy director of International Media Support, a Copenhagen-based international non-governmental organization that works to support local media in countries affected by armed conflict, human insecurity and political transition. Nevertheless, he said: “It is a paradox that, as more and more people realize they need high-quality factual information to navigate the crisis, the business models that sustain that very information are collapsing with severe drops in the advertising revenues that many media outlets depend on.”

The Global Forum for Media Development is seeing an emergence of “news deserts” due to falling revenues and fewer journalists, “with entire communities and regions bereft of any meaningful coverage ranging from the rural United States to communities across Colombia and Latin America.”

While governments do not have the capacity and flexibility to act rapidly to the needs of journalists and media, foundations have stepped-in. Emergency funding for journalists covering or affected by COVID-19 have mushroomed since March. However, the funds have been overwhelmed with applications and are not able to match demand.

To give an impression of the run to support: The Pulitzer Center received 237 proposals to their crisis reporting fund in only one month and suspended the opportunity quickly. The Women Photograph COVID-19 Emergency Fund had $30,000 to disperse among 73 recipients, however, they received 1,000 applications seeking a total of $460,000 within only five days and had to close the fund in the first week of April. The Google News Initiative Journalism Emergency Relief Fund was open for two weeks and the European Journalism Covid19 Support Fund in collaboration with the Facebook Journalism Project was open for one week only due to high demand.

Under the slogan of “Information Saves Lives” a Rapid Response Fund by Internews opened March 26 and closed after barely a month on April 22 after receiving an overwhelming number of submissions. “The response to the call for applications was overwhelming,” they wrote on their website. “Applications came from 56 countries and included TV and radio stations, NGOs, news websites, individual journalists, fact-checking outlets, magazines, journalism trainers, and digital app creators.”

A hopeful sign comes from Norway, which announced on July 3 the continued support of International Media Support and said, “The coronavirus crisis has shown us just how crucial access to reliable information is if we are to safeguard everyone’s rights and maintain a high level of trust within our societies.” UNESCO announced it had allocated close to $1.4 million to 49 local media projects in 33 countries on June 12. The Internews’ rapid response fund could be topped up by the support of Luminate. Other media development organizations, however, have not been as fortunate.

Free Press Unlimited, which supports media and newsrooms all over the world, just saw an important multi-year grant by the Dutch Ministry not be renewed. With those funds they supported 50 partners in 20 countries, which will now lose that support. Press freedom advocates worry it may be a sign of a larger trend, for which the chairman of the Dutch Association of Journalists has started a petition.

It would be a great mistake to think that the industry has saved itself, or that it will be able to in the nearby future. Governments need to step in and commit themselves to supporting independent media and press freedom projects for the coming years if they want to save journalism. And democracy all together one may add.

Why we need to invest in media abroad

Relying on false information and conspiracy theories, 700 people have died from alcohol poisoning after drinking toxic methanol in Iran, thinking it would cure them. Across the U.K., people set phone masts on fire believing that the virus spread through 5G signals. The CoronaVirusFacts Alliance composed of more than 100 fact-checkers around the world published hundreds of fact-checks about false information regarding vaccines.

There are plenty of other examples across the world on how damaging misinformation is. This is not new, but what is different now is how small the world has become.

If the COVID-19 pandemic shows us anything it is the interconnectedness of the globe. In no time the virus traveled from China to every place imaginable. Communities all over the world rely on fact-based reporting to stay healthy and safe, and their health has become directly relevant to the health of all of us.

Journalism itself cannot diversify and become more inclusive if newsrooms remain homogenous, or places where people belonging to minority communities feel unsafe or where these communities do not have an equal voice. So how do we increase diversity in journalism? By ensuring that the voices of journalists from all over the world are strengthened. And establish connections between local, national and international media, as I have argued here before.

Right now, journalism needs advocates, lobbyists and citizens to keep raising the issues of threats to independent media with their governments. They need to address the devastating effect these threats have on communities everywhere, including our own. And the importance of providing financial support to news organizations in order to mitigate them.

Freedom of the press needs to remain on the international development agenda in words and in deeds.

Information saves lives. Journalists save lives. Period.

Rieneke Van Santen is a global media consultant and press freedom advocate. She is based in the Netherlands and can be reached on Twitter @Rieneke4D or via rieneke@dendezo.com.

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