Our approach (and why we follow it)
Free Press Unlimited aims to give as many people as possible access to reliable information. This can be quite a challenge – particularly in countries that are ravaged by war or where the free press are muzzled. That is why we have given careful thought to how we can best achieve our objectives. We have developed a Theory of Change, which is embraced by every member of our organisation.
Of course, this is one question – what is the best strategy? – that we never really stop thinking about. Together with our partners, we monitor and thoroughly evaluate the progress that we make in our projects. We refer to our findings when accounting to our support base and donors. And wherever possible, we apply any lessons we have learned. This continuous process of assessment, accountability and improvement is called MEAL (Monitoring and Evaluation for Accountability and Learning).
In 2016, we started to implement both our Theory of Change and the new MEAL framework.
What is a Theory of Change?
Put simply, a Theory of Change answers the question: Which change do we wish to bring about, and how will we be achieving it? Free Press Unlimited’s Theory of Change is a living document. It points of departure – our mission – are always the same. But how we set about achieving this mission isn’t ‘set in stone’. After all, circumstances are constantly changing: regimes can become more oppressive over time; the local circumstances for journalists can deteriorate. And our strategies can change in response.
In 2016, we discussed our new Theory of Change with our local partners during a number of baseline workshops for ‘No News is Bad News’. During these 3- or 4-day programmes, we mapped out all our key points of departure. Do our partners identify with our views on the world around us? Which matters do they see differently, and what do they add? Do they agree with our analysis and our chosen strategy for change?
These workshops weren’t just for show, with local partners meekly nodding to each of our proposals. We work together with critical journalists and dedicated organisations, and also seek the input of civil society organisations like women’s movements. With partners like this, you can count on a vigorous and informative debate. That is why we are also very pleased that almost without exception, our partners nevertheless subscribed to our Theory of Change.
What is our Theory of Change?
To explain our Theory of Change, we need to go back to our ultimate objective: a diverse and professional information landscape, in which independent media organisations and journalists serve as drivers and catalysts for change in their society.
The important role of the media is often underestimated in the international development sector. But citizens and civil society organisations can only fight for social change if they are adequately informed. And when they are free to exchange information and ideas. But in many countries, freedom of speech and the right to information are precisely the two conditions that are in short supply.
If we want to help media organisations and journalists fulfil their vital role in society, three matters are of inestimable value:
- An enabling environment for the media is established, conducive to freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity.
- Media serve the interest of the public, and act as a watchdog on their behalf.
- Journalists and media-actors work professionally, and are effective and sustainable
These are, in a nutshell, the three conditions that local media need to satisfy if they are to fulfil their role in society. They are our ‘interim goals’, which we need to realise before we can start thinking about our ultimate objective. And of course, this raises the question: How can we bring them about? How can we get this process of change underway?
- We advocate solid legislation that effectively guarantees the public’s right to information. We do this both in the Netherlands and abroad. And we teach our local partners how to influence the relevant policy in their own region or country.
- Impunity perpetuates violence against journalists and leads to self-censorship. That is why we work to convince governments, politicians and civil servants – the police and the judiciary – of the crucial importance of press freedom and safe working conditions for journalists.
- We lobby for legislation that provides scope for all sorts of media organisations, so that every segment of the population feels represented in the media landscape. These media organisations need to satisfy basic quality standards that are clear to everyone involved and citizens need to be able to hold them to account by lodging a complaint.
- We bring media parties and civil society organisations together. The media are often distrusted as extensions of ‘the elite’. We want to restore trust. Citizens need to be confident that the media’s reporting is unbiased and reliable. And vice versa, the media need to be aware which information their audiences – and underrepresented groups in particular – require.
- Media need to fulfil the role of watchdog. They hold policy-makers accountable for their actions, remind of their promises and expose abuses.
- We support civil society organisations that work to make citizens ‘media-savvy’: the ability to assess to which extent the provided information is relevant and reliable.
- The media need to reflect the diversity found in their society. That is why we encourage diversity in our partners’ own organisations and in their content – particularly when it comes to the representation of women.
- Public confidence in the media is closely linked to their level of professionalism. That is why we train journalists and media organisations in the factual and conscientious coverage of news events, according to internationally-accepted standards and ethical codes. In addition, we help them to gain access to modern technology that can support them in their research and reporting and allows them to directly involve their target audiences.
- And last but not least: safety has top priority in all our activities. We teach journalists and media companies how to protect themselves, their sources and their audience as effectively as possible, both online and in the physical world.
How do we measure the impact of our work? (MEAL)
Of course, we want to determine whether our approach is working. Are we achieving our objectives? That’s why we devote a lot of attention to using the best methods to measure the effects of our projects. So that together with our partners, we can draw new lessons from our findings and adapt our strategy as required.
Since 2016, we have been assessing our progress via two different methods. We use ‘indicators’ to systematically monitor our project results with respect to our key themes. For example, we check to which extent we and our partners are able to structure the organisation in such a way that both men and women feel comfortable working there. What makes these indicators particularly useful is that each time round, they measure a project’s impact according to the same standards and procedure.
But occasionally, this uniform approach can also be a drawback: you risk overlooking important, context-specific information. You can circumvent this by asking people who are directly involved to share their experiences. Their accounts are often far more effective sources of insight. That’s why in 2016, we launched a new pilot programme, in which we collect and analyse stories from people involved in our local projects. This method is called ‘Most Significant Change’ – after the key question we ask our respondents: “What is the most significant – positive or negative – change that you experienced and that resulted, in part, from this project?”
Since the MEAL framework itself is new, in late 2016 we also ordered an external review of this system. Are the MEAL measurements relevant? Do we need to make any adjustments? And is everyone able to use the system as intended? The conclusion for the time being is that MEAL needs to be embedded even more effectively within our organisation. We need a joint planning, in which MEAL is a natural, integral part of every project development process.
While we work to achieve our mission, every year, we pause to ask ourselves a number of questions. We do this to measure our progress. Are we still on the right track? Or do we need to adjust course? We rely on three indicators to measure the current status in each of the three ‘interim goals’ set out in our Theory of Change.
We use the following questions to determine to which extent local media operate in an environment that is supportive and contributes to freedom of speech:
- Are civil society organisations able and willing to defend journalists and media organisations?
- How safe are journalists?
- How effectively are the media and the right to information protected by law?
We use the following questions to determine to which extent local media work in the public interest and serve as a watchdog in their society:
- Do the media hold those in power accountable for their actions?
- Are women and men given an equal amount of attention in the media?
- Are the media there for every section of the population and do they enjoy the public’s trust?
We use the following questions to determine to which extent local journalists and media organisations deliver professional, effective and sustainable results:
- Are the media able to effectively introduce (technical and substantive) innovations in their professional operations?
- Do the media have the expertise and strategic insight required for effective policy influencing?
- Are the media financially self-sufficient?
‘Most Significant Change’ stories
“I really stay on top of it nowadays,” says a radio manager in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I always ask my people to also gain women’s perspectives. Including when it’s about an ostensibly ‘male’ subject like the economy.”
Some time ago, we performed a detailed study of the media situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our partners systematically logged how much space was devoted to female perspectives in local newspaper columns and radio broadcasts. Now, we wanted to establish which effect these monitoring efforts have had. What have the local media organisations done with our conclusions and recommendations? To this end, our partner interviewed 24 radio managers and journalists in Kinshasa. Their accounts provided us with insights and information that wouldn’t have been brought to light via normal indicators.
In 2016, we organised three pilot programmes for local partners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Iraq that trained them how to obtain ‘Most Significant Change’ stories from participants in their projects. Our partners proved as enthusiastic about this method of collecting information as we are. It enlivens the somewhat staid evaluation process: our joint impact is suddenly given a face and a context. In addition – and this is also quite important – these stories yield useful new insights that help our partners to organise their projects more effectively and fine-tune their strategy. The stories shed light on the intended and unforeseen effects of our work.
This is what we learned from Press Freedom 2.0
In 2016, we took stock of our results in Press Freedom 2.0: the alliance within the Dutch government’s second co-financing scheme (MFS II) for which we served as the main applicant. Our fellow alliance members were Mensen met een Missie, the European Journalism Centre (EJC), World Press Photo and the European Partnership for Democracy. For five years, we worked – with the financial support of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs – to strengthen local media organisations in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. We provided hundreds of existing and aspiring journalists with professional training. They stirred public debate about all kinds of subjects and held their governments accountable for issues like women’s rights and access to information. The Ministry has named a number of ‘telling examples of results achieved in the programme’, including MexicoLeaks and the introduction of media awareness as a subject in Bolivian schools.
One particularly valuable outcome of Press Freedom 2.0 were the close ties that were forged in a number of countries between the media, education programmes, local NGOs and community-based organisations. They will enjoy the rewards of these partnerships for many years to come. In addition, this has laid solid foundations for our new strategic partnership ‘No News is Bad News’, in which we actually work to encourage collaboration of this kind. We learned how to get a wide range of different parties to sit down together and agree on a common objective. But we also experienced just how indispensable solid risk analyses and scenario planning (“What should we do if…) are in countries where the freedom of the press regularly comes under pressure.