[OPINION] Immediate, decisive action required to protect journalists

Nishant Lalwani
[OPINION] Immediate, decisive action required to protect journalists
Without a free and vibrant press, abuses of power go unchecked, corruption increases, and overreaching leaders can distort our democracies


Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, and Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian minister of foreign affairs, will cohost the first Global Conference for Media Freedom on July 10th and 11th. This event will bring many prestigious independent journalists, over 50 foreign ministers, and leading media funders to London. We’ll be discussing how to prevent attacks on journalists, and raise the cost for those who are trying to silence the free press. 

The conference comes at a critical time for independent media. In many long-standing democratic countries, we are witnessing the systematic undermining of journalism that seeks to uncover truth and hold power to account.

In other countries – Brazil, Myanmar, and the Philippines, for example – news media organizations are under attack from tides of authoritarianism, exclusionary nationalism, and aggressive populism.

Today, just 13% of the world’s population enjoys access to a free media. In the last decade over 1,000 journalists and media workers have been killed. 2018 was the deadliest year on record, seeing 80 journalists murdered and another 348 imprisoned and 60 held hostage. 

Worryingly, impunity for these crimes remains the norm, with just one in 10 cases seeing justice. And yet, without a free and vibrant press, abuses of power go unchecked, corruption increases, and overreaching leaders can distort our democracies. 

The Global Conference for Media Freedom presents a huge opportunity for collective action to reverse these trends and protect media freedom. We want to see the attending ministers, funders, and philanthropists commit to action on 3 crucial and complementary fronts.    

1. Governments must act rapidly, collectively, and decisively to curb attacks on journalists.

Democracies weaken – and eventually die – without a strong, independent media sector. We need governments to recognize, champion, and protect independent journalism around the world. This requires faster, more collective diplomatic responses when journalists are targeted, a higher political profile for individual reporters who are threatened or harmed, and meaningful and enforced sanctions against those that try to suppress the media.

As we saw with the two jailed Reuters journalists who were recently released from prison in Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, international pressure and diplomatic action can have successful results. However, as former champions of independent journalism – such as the US government – fall away, we need other global leaders to step up and defend media freedom. The UK and Canada are signaling strong intent by making media freedom an international priority for their governments, and Luminate is supportive of their efforts.

2. We must support greater legal protection for journalists under attack.

There must be a robust legal safety net for those who speak truth to power. Legal attacks are a common tool used by authoritarian governments and influential individuals that want to silence journalists. Tying up small media organizations in long – and often unfounded – court cases can be an effective way to distract them from their reporting and cripple them financially.

The 11 cases launched against Maria Ressa, founder of Rappler, by the government of the Philippines is a typical example of this tactic. To counter these attacks, we must significantly increase funding for strategic litigation and emergency legal defense funds for journalists.

Organizations such as the Media Legal Defense Initiative (MLDI) and the Press Freedom Defense Fund advance international standards for the legal protection of journalists and set precedents on landmark cases. For example, MLDI successfully defended “Zunar,” one of the most acclaimed political cartoonists in Malaysia, when he was sued by the Prime Minister. He was facing 43 years in prison, but was rightfully acquitted in 2018. Ninety percent of the journalists that MLDI defends in court are able to continue reporting, but MLDI is limited by capital available: they could have significantly more impact if they had greater funds.

3. An ‘International Fund for Public Interest Media’ is needed to increase support to independent journalism organizations: there is strength in numbers.  

Defending journalists who find themselves under legal, electronic, or physical threat is critical, but ultimately, our goal should be to prevent these attacks from happening. It is much easier to silence one individual journalist than a vibrant community, as we saw with the tragic murder of Jamal Khashoggi, one of the few Saudi journalists challenging the regime. And yet, global news media organizations are struggling to stay afloat: we estimate that the sector will lose around $12 billion of advertising revenue in the next two years. 

Luminate and BBC Media Action are proposing the creation of an “International Fund for Public Interest Media,” with the capacity to deploy $1 billion a year drawn from government development agencies, philanthropic donors, social media platforms, and others. This fund would support national news media, investigative journalism, and media development organizations, with the goal of creating a greater number of media outlets and stronger independent media sectors in each of its target countries. Multiple independent voices in any given context would ensure that journalists are not alone and are therefore less vulnerable. 

A large scale international fund devoted to public interest journalism would help tackle the perilous economic conditions for independent media by providing diverse funding possibilities to establish new, successful revenue models to help journalism thrive. It would focus where the need is greatest and most acute: where advertising markets are weakest, political conditions most challenging, and where misinformation and disinformation are having the most devastating consequences. Luminate has sponsored a feasibility study of how such a fund might work: if you’d like to learn more, contact us at hello@luminategroup.com

The global crisis confronting media freedom can, and must, be met. It is imperative that the cost of silencing journalists is increased to untenable levels. This can be achieved by supporting legal responses to political intimidation, channeling a large volume of new capital into public interest media, and urging governments and politicians to take more decisive and punitive action against those who threaten our journalists. – Rappler.com

Nishant Lalwani is the Director of Investments at Luminate, which is part of The Omidyar Group. He leads the organization’s global strategy for investing in independent media. 

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