A cameraman in Ethiopia. Photo by: Digni Norge / CC BY-NC-ND

SAN FRANCISCO — Current and prospective funders are keeping a close eye on troubling trends threatening press freedom globally, according to a new report from Media Impact Funders on global media philanthropy.

Around the world, free and independent media is facing a crisis. Threats to press freedom in the digital age have serious implications for democracy, stability, and development. And recognition of this fact is growing among donors, who are coming together in new ways to discuss how to support this space.

“Today, the feeling if a journalist is attacked is, ‘Oh, they deserve it,’”

— Sulemana Braimah, executive director, Media Foundation for West Africa

This week, Ethiopia is hosting the global celebration of World Press Freedom Day. Ethiopia was rated the most improved nation for press freedom in the 2019 world press freedom index, and is asking for support as it reforms its media laws. The country provides a unique setting for a conversation on ways the international development community can support independent media.

“Funders have been particularly attuned to challenges related to the rise of propaganda and disinformation across the web as well as the effects of untested technologies and artificial intelligence on media habits and policy responses,” reads the Media Impact Funders report, produced with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The authors of the report anticipate seeing increases in funding totals and number of grants. But even as philanthropic support grows, experts tell Devex more and better coordinated official development assistance will be critical.

Jeanne Bourgault, the CEO of Internews, which is focused on supporting the free flow of information globally, said she does see more donors expressing an interest in press freedom and independent media.

“It used to be a hard case,” she said. “But now everyone knows what it feels like not to have it.”

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Donors see how, in their own countries, media outlets are closing their doors, which is creating growing news deserts, meaning people cannot access the information they need to make good choices, participate in their communities, and hold governments to account, she said.

“It doesn’t help with what should be done, but we no longer have to answer the why question,” Bourgault said.

Flow of aid for flow of information  

Less than .4% of overall overseas development assistance is going to media development activities or press freedom activities, said Mark Nelson, senior director at the Center for International Media Assistance, citing data from a report from the organization on aid flows for independent media.

“And a lot of the money that is being spent is not being spent wisely,” he said. “If there is money being spent on media development and not on improving the enabling conditions for the media, that money is likely to be wasted.”

Devex speaks with Stephen King, CEO of Luminate, at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford.

Stephen King, CEO of Luminate, a philanthropic organization that supports independent media, said there is a need not only for more funding but also a mix of grants and investments, as well as better coordination among supporters of media.

He pointed to a media freedom conference the United Kingdom and Canada will co-host in London in mid-July as one opportunity for funders to come together to discuss ways to broaden — and increase the impact of — support for press freedom and independent media.

Last year, James Deane, director of policy and research at BBC Media Action, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s international development charity, proposed the creation of a global fund for free and independent media: “The international response to supporting independent media around the world is fragmented, siloed and lacks impact,” he wrote in the initial post proposing the idea.

Writing on his way to Ethiopia, Deane told Devex that Luminate is supporting a feasibility study for the fund, which would support independent journalism in resource-poor settings where media freedom is under pressure.

Threats to media

Recent attacks, including the high profile murder of Jamal Khashoggi, columnist for “The Washington Post,” have elevated the issue of violence against journalists.

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At the Skoll World Forum, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, an investigative journalist from Ghana who covers his face to protect his identity while speaking at public events, says the fake news rhetoric from U.S. President Donald Trump has led authoritarian leaders around the world to allow for attacks on the press.

Despite bright spots such as Ethiopia, the world press freedom index released last month indicates that the number of countries where journalists can work in complete security is in decline.

While attacks on journalists are on the rise, other forces including the market collapse of the news media, the spread of misinformation and disinformation online, and the decline of public support for press freedom pose even greater challenges to the free flow of information and informed debate.

One of the biggest threats to press freedom in Africa is that most citizens do not support journalists, said Sulemana Braimah, executive director of Media Foundation for West Africa.

“In the past, citizens would rise up in the defense of journalists,” he said.

But today, due in part to the fact that the vast majority of radio stations in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa are owned by politicians who “pay people to do propaganda for them,” most people think journalists are corrupt.

“Today, the feeling if a journalist is attacked is, ‘Oh, they deserve it,’” Braimah said.

As donors drive more dollars toward this space, grantmakers and investors should consider what models allow journalists to do their work independently. Reliance on government funding or advertising can lead news media outlets to “bend toward what the government wants” rather than doing the kind of reporting that is needed “to drive transparency and accountability,” Braimah continued.

Caroline Sugg, director of strategy and partnerships for BBC Media Action, recently shared success stories from a number of challenging contexts, such as Zambia, where recent research shows that people who regularly listen to the independent radio station programs are significantly more likely to think they can positively influence politics and governance than those who don’t tune in.

Despite these successes, new alliances and supportive regulatory and legal reforms are needed to support balanced, independent journalism, she wrote in the blog post, noting that “donor support in this space is critical, too — both to help address market failures and support the discovery and application of new media support strategies fit for a changing world.”

Backing bright spots

Reporters Without Borders says this is a new era for Ethiopia’s journalists. Under the leadership of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the country has released imprisoned journalists and lifted bans on hundreds of media outlets, according to the international nonprofit.

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Ethiopia is seeking technical assistance and funding as it reforms its media laws, Nelson of the Center for International Media Assistance said, explaining that independent media is the cornerstone of the future of the country’s liberalization.

The Center for International Media Assistance organized a media reform in Ethiopia event in Addis on Wednesday, ahead of World Press Freedom Day, where participants discussed efforts to improve the media environment and worked together to identify challenges that require collective action for the media, civil society, and government. The meeting drew on perspectives from Ethiopia, as well as Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, and Tunisia.

“The greatest good can happen when things are opening,” Bourgault said.

Certainly, from a media development perspective, but also from an international development perspective more broadly, the opportunity lies where countries are opening rather than closing, she explained.

“The whole development community should be focused on wherever there is a glimmer,” Bourgault said. “If you can embrace that moment of positive change in a holistic way you can have a huge impact.”

Bourgault often refers to Afghanistan as a success story from a media development perspective. Right when it opened, Internews and its partners were able to work on the legal and regulatory environment and find entrepreneurs excited about the change. Bourgault acknowledged that Afghanistan was “a blank slate” in terms of the media, so it may not seem like a fair comparison to other countries, but the lessons extend across borders.

“We’re not coming from the outside to drive an agenda,” she said, but rather “unleashing forces,” and aligning “what is happening in the market and society and government.”

Bourgault said she sees Ethiopia as an example of a place where there is a glimmer and she is planning on visiting the country this summer to meet with partners about their needs and the support they could use.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.