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Is it time for an International Fund for Free and Independent Media?

James Deane

Head of Policy

Recognition that free and independent media around the world is in deep trouble is growing. Most democratic countries understand with increasing alarm the impact that the current assault on media freedom is having on prospects for democracy, development and stability. Misinformation and disinformation preoccupy multiple policy debates. Shrinking civic spaces and the fixing of elections – often by intimidating, co-opting or distorting traditional and social media - form a mainstay of anxious commentary among those who care about freedom and democracy.

The response to all this, however, is a mess. There is a near absence of individual leadership from any democratic country let alone the development of a clear collective response from those countries most committed to freedom of expression. Many democracies are, themselves, implicated in attacking and intimidating journalists and media freedom. There are excellent media freedom and media development organisations fighting a rearguard action to protect fundamental freedoms, and this is an era of outstanding journalism, but the international response to supporting independent media around the world is fragmented, siloed and lacks impact. A recently released report from the National Endowment for Democracy Center for International Media Assistance concluded that “donors still only commit a tiny fraction to the [media assistance] sector and appear to be responding slowly, if at all, to the unique challenges of press freedom in the digital age.”

As a consequence, the fight to support independent media is being lost.

In recent weeks I have argued there is a need to bring fresh energy, creativity and intensity to efforts to support independent media. But these alone will not be enough. There is a fundamental problem of resources so I propose the creation of a new International Fund for Free and Independent Media focused in particular on resource poor societies and those societies where media freedom is under most pressure. The fund would support independent journalism, independent media institutions focused on serving the public interest, and other media and social efforts designed to underpin informed and fact based public debate.

I think it would solve several problems.

First, and most obviously, it would help solve the problem of money. Independent media, and the journalism it supports, decreasingly has a viable business model available to support it. This is of course a problem facing independent media everywhere as social media platforms attract the advertising that provided, until only a few years ago, the financial foundations for traditional media institutions. But it is far greater problem in fragile and resource poor countries where economic challenges are compounded by especially acute political ones. The co-option and capture of media by political, factional and other interests - which often have far greater financial backing than those available to independent media – is an even greater challenge. It is precisely because media is so effective at holding power to account that those political and other interests who need to avoid public scrutiny find it worthwhile investing heavily in setting up their own media or undermining media presenting a threat to their interests. An international fund would invest in strategies capable of making independent media organisations more economically viable but would also support other mechanisms – including exploring other models of public subsidy within these societies - capable of sustaining them in the long term. It would also support the development of professional skills and other initiatives necessary for media to serve the public interest and underpin informed and effective democratic societies. And the International Fund for Free and Independent Media could provide a way for people to directly support independent media around the world through private donations.

Second, an International Fund would solve the problem of transaction costs. Many donors – bilateral government donors, multilateral institutions and private philanthropic foundations – already support independent media. But, as the recent National Endowment for Democracy report demonstrates, that support is cumulatively tiny (0.3% of development assistance) as well as being disorganised and lacking strategy. A small number of foundations and a very small number of government donors have expert staff and long experience of supporting independent media and the International Fund would be intended to complement and not replace these. But the vast majority of donors, many of them with very substantial potential resources available to support independent media, have almost no staff focused on developing effective strategies, learning from what works and does not, and able to support an area that they often consider to be too political, difficult and time consuming in terms of grant management. Many bilateral development donors, in particular, often consider media support an important priority but don’t feel they have the administrative capacity or infrastructure to spend money well in this area. The same donors are under pressure to reduce administrative costs and are highly unlikely to increase their in house expertise and capacity in this area in a meaningful way. A International Fund would solve that problem.

Third, it would help solve the problem of independence and would immunise funding to independent media from undue donor – and especially governmental – influence. Many media support organisations find it uncomfortable to accept governmental funding because they feel it represents either an actual or perceived threat to their independence. An International Fund with the right governance structure would ensure that would not be the case.

Finally, it would provide better impact, effectiveness and strategic clarity. The International Fund would be committed to ensuring that investment strategies are rooted in the best available evidence and learning about what works in supporting independent media. It would look to develop long term strategies that many existing donor efforts find especially difficult. And it would be have the capacity to experiment and innovate in an extremely fast changing environment. It would also need to invest in its own research and evidence base given the relative paucity of excellent research currently available. And it would have the convening power to better organise and crystallise the often disjointed and mono-disciplinary research efforts that do currently exist in this field.

There is much work to do before this proposal could become a reality. Care would need to be taken not to compete with excellent existing media support efforts, including the Media Development Investment Fund. But the International Fund would focus explicitly on resource poor settings where markets are weak, freedoms are especially endangered and where a financial return on investment, however desirable, would not be a condition of spending.

The governance of the Fund would require careful design and consideration. The majority of its board would need to be derived from, or at least highly credible to and respected by, independent journalists and media. The main donors to the fund, who would include bilateral agencies from governments committed to democracy and media freedom, would also need appropriate representation. The Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria (which has donors, people affected by HIV and other related issues and other stakeholders on its board) would provide the beginnings of a model. Strong representation from the Global South would also be necessary. Its governance structure would need to guarantee its immunity to government or other political influence. It would also need to be independent from any existing media support organisation or other entity which it may end up supporting. The strategic priorities of the Fund would need to be developed once sufficient appetite for such an initiative was established (I have put forward some of my own ideas recently).

For this proposal to gain traction, an initial group of donors would need to express interest in at least exploring its potential. I am an adviser (informal and sometimes formal) to several bilateral, multilateral and foundation donors and believe that there may be an appetite for such an initiative, although I should make it clear this idea has not been discussed with any of them. The Fund would only be worthwhile if the resources invested in it very substantially exceed what would have been allocated to media development in the first place so it would need to demonstrate that its administrative costs would make it cost effective to those investing in it.

There are some hopes that a meeting of bilateral, multilateral and foundation donors will take place later this year to discuss how best to support free and independent media and I would hope this proposal could be on the agenda.

James Deane is Director, Policy and Research at BBC Media Action.

BBC Media Action is the international development charity of the BBC. Any views expressed in this or other blogs should not be taken to represent those of the BBC itself.


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