The following article is one of a series examining the role of independent journalism as a crucial component for disseminating solutions-based information in the public interest, particularly youth. If you like what we do, please DONATE.
The Nobel Committee in Oslo has embarrassingly erred with some of its past peace laureates, notably Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Ali in 2019, now engaged in a brutal civil war with rampant human rights abuses, and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, who has consistently ignored the military regime’s brutal repression of the Muslim Rohingya.
The 2021 Peace Prize, however, was a good choice. This recognized two journalists, Dmitry Muratov, for his courageous reporting of Putin’s Russia, and Maria Ressa, for her role in doggedly highlighting Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s murderous Philippines now considered the most dangerous country in the world for the press. Both have operated beyond the call of duty by consistently criticizing the invective regimes which have not only violated their societies but basic human decency. As the Committee pointed out, the award was being given for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”.
At the same time, the Nobel Committee considered Muratov and Ressa “representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions”. This means that others – editors, writers, photographers, cartoonists, filmmakers, broadcasters, and social media commentators – are also being recognized for their work. There is no shortage of determined professionals willing to stand up to those who fear the truth, such as Lukashenko’s Belarus, Myanmar’s military junta, Erdogan’s Turkey, Xi’s China, and Afghanistan under the previous western-backed regime and now that of the Taliban.
Donor governments, the United Nations, international organizations, NGOs and select corporations have all made the necessary noises about what the courage of journalists means for the dissemination of credible information. Some, too, such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have pinpointed the countries that represent debilitating environments in which journalists are regularly ‘disappeared’, harassed, beaten, killed, imprisoned, or expelled. Last year alone, over 65 journalists were killed worldwide by military juntas, abusive politicians, drug cartels and terrorists. According to the European Union, journalism deaths continue to creep up in 2021 – nearly 50 to date.
They also expressed concerns about how across-the-board stifling of freedom of expression is on the rise in places such as Belarus and Turkmenistan. In Burma/Myanmar, a military court sentenced U.S. journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in jail (he was released on 15 November 2021 following negotiations between the US government and the military junta), while the BBC’s Sarah Rainford, was deported recently from Russia by the Kremlin. Once relatively free Hong Kong, now little more than an appendage to China, has become notorious for imprisoning or otherwise silencing those who dare speak out. With worried companies and investment moving out from both countries, such abuses are not only devastating for individual freedoms but also business. In Thailand, the press remains stifled, primarily through auto-censorship, in its criticism of the monarchy. The latter is accused by growing numbers of Thais, mainly young people, of large-scale corruption and failure to respond to the needs of ordinary citizens, particularly since the outbreak of Covid-19.
Recognizing the role of trusted journalism is not enough…
Similarly, we have witnessed growing anti-press hate speech even in so-called open societies such as the EU and the United States, whose former president Donald Trump threatened journalists in direct violation of the First Amendment. In Hungary, an EU member, media pluralism and freedom of expression have been dangerously eroded by smear campaigns and government-sanctioned disinformation. In Malta, political corruption led to the murder of investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017. On 29 July 2021, a landmark public inquiry concluded that the state was responsible for her assassination with its atmosphere of impunity, generated at the highest levels, the Prime Minister’s office no less, and then spread “like an octopus” to other entities, including the police, all of which led to the “collapse of rule of law”.
…it’s time for a re-boot on how we support independent reporting
These are all well-placed concerns about the current state of journalism. Yet what the Nobel announcement failed to accentuate was that courage alone is no longer sufficient to ensure a vibrant and trusted press. Media across the globe are in financial straits. They are increasingly unable to undertake the sort of reporting in the public interest that is so crucially needed. There has to be a complete re-boot in the way we support independent journalism.
Some major news organizations such as The New York Times, The Economist, El Pais and Süddeutsche Zeitung are doing relatively well. So are public broadcasters such as the BBC, National Public Radio/Public Television in the United States, and ZDF in Germany, even if they complain about not receiving nearly enough taxpayer support, or a mix of foundation, corporate and audience contributions.
It is a different story for less privileged media and journalists. Many can no longer provide the sort of reporting that societies require in order to remain transparent and informed. Numerous North American newspapers have closed or cut back, unable to cope with diminishing revenue from advertising and subscriptions. While this funding backlash has yet to hit countries such as India where a burgeoning middle class is assuring the ability of traditional publications to survive (even if they are coming under increasing pressure by the Modi regime to tow the government line), it is severely undermining reporting diversity.
What this means is that many US cities no longer enjoy the competitive reporting to hold local councils and politicians to account. Or to thwart the deliberate disinformation campaigns by select interests that have undermined the public understanding of everything from climate warming and the pandemic to gun violence, racial tolerance and democracy itself.
Every time I visit the United States, I am stunned by the incredibly poor information that so many Americans allow themselves to consume. There is little to contradict the highly influential TV and social media platforms that pose as journalism yet dispense fake news with the efficiency of a MacDonald’s or Dairy Queen drive-in. While the Internet can indeed reduce the running costs of an independent publication, local newspapers once known for their individual nitty-gritty investigative reporting, but now streamlined by their corporate owners, are increasingly offering the same bland journalism with little individual content.
It is a similar story in France and Italy, where provincial media, often weeklies, struggle to provide critical coverage with barely two or three editor/reporters. Only occasionally will they grapple with diligent probing into the activities of local mayors and property developers or the social disintegration that has penetrated the peripheral suburbs of cities such as Marseille or Milan.
A sharp reduction in foreign reporting
Of equal concern is the effect budget cuts have had on foreign coverage. This includes regional newsgatherers, which had previously made the effort to provide some form of international reporting, particularly pieces featuring hometown doctors and aid workers in places like Mozambique or Sri Lanka, or soldiers deployed in Mali and Afghanistan. “It was the best way of reporting an international story with a local angle,” noted a former editor of The Providence Journal of Rhode Island. A producer from Strasbourg with France’s FR3, a regional TV broadcaster, made a similar comment. “We could always manage to do one or two foreign stories, but those days are now gone.”
Freelancers, whose on-the-ground reporting provide most of the often dangerous frontline coverage for major TV networks or the initial information leading to major news stories, such as the Panama Papers, are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. (See the Rory Peck Awards for Freelance Journalists) In Kenya, a well-respected local TV producer (a former Rory Peck laureate) spent months trying to raise the funds to cover the costs of a report about small-holder farmers committing suicide that was eventually broadcast by the BBC.
What this means is that we are no longer receiving the sort of investigative reporting or consistent foreign coverage that we need in order to make informed decisions about our lives, including business. While the big media, such as the NYT or BBC and CNN (which also often rely on freelancers for their pointers) may indeed hone in on key issues such as climate warming, political and corporate corruption, wars, pandemics, refugee and migrant crises, or human rights repression, they will eventually turn their attention elsewhere. The same goes for social media commentators, who must nevertheless rely on credibly reported content for guidance. If we are to benefit from trusted information, we need to ensure that someone is actually doing the probing.
Could better reporting have made a difference with COVID-19?
A greater presence of foreign reporters in Asia, for example, might have assured more in-depth coverage in late 2019 and early 2020 of the fast-emerging Covid-19 pandemic and its potential impact on the planet. The problem is that cutbacks had obliged many full-time foreign correspondents to leave China and Southeast Asia leaving freelancers scrambling for funding to hold the fort. This resulted in a shortage of international reporters able to ‘listen’ to the information that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was stifling but certain courageous or responsible Chinese sources were seeking to signal. This sort of thing is difficult to do from a newsroom in New York or London. (See Global Insights article)
While it is easy to judge with hindsight, it is not hard to imagine how good in-country reporting might have been in the position to help warn the international community, thus saving thousands of lives not to count trillions of dollars in lost revenue throughout the world. Clearly, too, the often-contradictory information initially put out by the World Health Organization (CDC) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), such as the need to wear masks or to impose immediate travel lockdowns, did not contribute toward countering the spread of COIVID-19.
The lack of broader coverage is also failing to keep tabs on what one Swiss banker referred to as “economic terrorism” by the Chinese who are increasingly installing themselves in Africa as part of their extension of the “Belt and Road” strategy in their obsession to secure natural resources. They do this by massively indebting countries through high-interest loans for rail, factory or deep-water port projects, arranging mass visa agreements (eg. 5,000 in Tanzania) for Chinese nationals as local workers or market stall operators in direct competition with African labourers and sellers, or forcibly removing tenant farmers from their land. Local journalists who seek to report on this in Uganda, Zambia and Ivory Coast are threatened.
Governments, corporations and foundations need to provide support
As many are now aware, most traditional media support models no longer hold. Audiences, particularly young people, expect their information to be served up free. Even worse, many cannot distinguish what is credible and what is not in social media, a concern now widely reflected among both parents and teachers. Youth no longer understand how good journalism operates, which means that news organizations are losing their future audiences. It also means that we are allowing the gates to open even further to cyber abuse. As young activists surge forward to hold politicians to account for what is happening to our planet, they still require access to information that they can rely on. And yet despite this blatant undermining of the current and future generations, we have yet to do much about it. (See Global Insights on the need for youth to understand journalism)
While some organizations like to focus on more effective digital information, artificial intelligence (AI) and other forms of innovation as a means of improving our access to the news, content remains the key issue. It does not really matter whether we consume our information through smartphones, iPads or computers, or even old-fashioned print and television. What matters is whether it is information that we can rely on. This means calling on donor governments, corporations and foundations, plus individual ‘consumers’ to contribute.
This includes mega cyber corporations, such as Facebook, Google, Amazon and others, which have massively undermined individual “content providers”, such as writers, freelance journalists, photographers, cartoonists, filmmakers, and musicians. They have profited to the tune of tens of billions of dollars lost by publishers to digital advertising. According to eMarketeers, a UK research company, both Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google have consumed 54 per cent of the cyber advertising revenue in the U.S. Yet both companies also have ethical obligations given that they artificially promote content based on payment. Such practices have subverted credible news by dangerously enabling disinformation to proliferate.
When critics suggest that such companies contribute part of their huge profits to newsgatherers, they scream blue murder as both Facebook and Google did in Australia earlier this year when asked to pay local media for content they feature. (There was no mention of individual journalists and other ‘content providers’ receiving their fair share). Both companies also claim to be providing 300 million USD each in support of journalism over three years – but on their own terms. They want to keep the advertising but propose that news organizations focus on selling subscriptions. The end result is that quality journalism is still being subverted. (See Global Insights article on the digital evil empires)
As a long-time foreign correspondent, I am a great believer in getting a good reporter on the ground. This has nothing to do with being innovative or old-fashioned. It is about digging up the sort of ‘ground truth’ we need to make informed decisions about our lives, today and tomorrow. Only by working with trusted local sources combined with interviews, personal evaluations, observation, experience, gut feeling, and other forms of reporting can we determine what is really happening. And only in this manner can journalists provide the sort of insight that people need. For anyone to imagine that relying solely on social media as a principal source, particularly given how so much information can be manipulated, is irresponsible.
So how can one fund quality journalism in the digital age? Certainly, developing effective business models remain crucial but these will have to be a mix of business and philanthropy. And they should not be restricted to news organizations alone, but to individual journalists, photographers, filmmakers, cartoonists…Just as governments support health and education, they need to be backing independent journalism through grants in the public interest. Or to automatically apply part of their grant-making for international development and humanitarian response to reporters both at home and abroad willing to cover such issues.
Many donors have yet to understand the importance of credible journalism
One problem is that many donors have yet to grasp the importance of independent journalism as indispensable to public transparency and information outreach. They also confuse PR with reporting. For them, public information should be controlled rather than given free rein through journalism.
The Swiss government, for example, recently committed an additional 9.4 million CHF ($10.3 million) to promote the UN’s development work, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), across the world. Why not contribute part of this to local and international reporting to ensure a non-sanitized version of what is being achieved (or not) in the field. At least in this manner, both the Swiss taxpayer and the international community can determine whether such funding is being used effectively. Far too often, donors like to support prestigious but often bland conferences where they can present such information but without the necessary illustrative stories that explain what is really happening on the ground and in a manner that will engage the public.
The same goes for UN agencies, international NGOs, universities and other institutions. Rather than commission public relations firms to do their job – as is increasingly happening (See article on PR firms grabbing a foothold within the UN) – they should contribute perhaps 2-5 per cent of their budgets to ensure that the public remains properly informed through independent reporting, particularly of issues such as science and health that require more informed coverage. People want to know how such realities ranging from plastic pollution of the Mediterranean or climate warming in the Alps, are affecting their lives and what can be done about it.
We also need to convince private corporations ranging from Nestlé and Japanese Tobacco International to Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever that they need to kick in. This must include the nearly 15,000 member companies of the UN’s Global Compact Community – the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative as it likes to brand itself – who still have far to go to demonstrate that they are serious about accountability and ensuring the well-being of our planet. Unfortunately, many have an aversion to independent journalism. Even if some do have the means to develop effective solutions to certain environmental or development challenges, they fail to grasp how compelling on-the-ground reporting may actually prove their best bet for making such stories known – and in a credible manner.
Far too often, I hear Global Compact companies and philanthropic foundations say that they do not support ‘journalism’, but that they prefer to back health research, the environment or culture. This demonstrates a disturbing lack of responsibility or understanding of what trusted information is about. Such organizations have an obligation to be accountable to the public and editorially independent journalism is one of the best ways for doing it.
As we have suggested in the past, the creation of a Global Fund for Public Interest Journalism would help. Possibly based in Switzerland with an independent Board, this could collaborate with donor governments and established foundations elsewhere in the world. It should also publicly seek to focus on editorially independent journalism in the public interest with an emphasis on planetary concerns ranging from the SDGs to holding governments and private corporations accountable – obviously not something that many politicians would like but something that the public urgently needs.
Global Insights editor Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author with over 40 years of experience reporting wars, humanitarian crises, and development worldwide.