It became obvious in 2017 that the phenomenon of fake news and trolling is a global problem. False or framed reports popped up everywhere: from the United States to the Philippines and from South Africa to Brazil, even down to the editorial departments of quality newspapers. Recent research reveals that fact-checking will not help to turn the tide. People who believe fake news, ignore the facts – or do not even get to see them, thanks to the social media algorithms. Everyone gets ‘hung up’ on his or her own ‘truth’ bubble.
Trolls and hate mongers can spread their fake news almost unhindered via social media. Newspapers, magazines, radio and TV are seeing their dependence on that same social media increase daily. At the same time, their influence on news provision is decreasing. Whole tribes mostly read news that Facebook and Google have selected for them using algorithms; algorithms mainly based on their reading history and internet preferences. Due to Facebook’s recent change of direction, the news in many timelines will largely be replaced by messages from friends and family. The filter bubbles that are created, inevitably contribute to the (political) polarisation that is growing at an alarming rate in many countries.
Crisis of trust
The social media giants are the nail in the coffin of the standard earnings models of mainstream media. Due to the information that users of their platforms give away for free, Google and Facebook can bombard them with extremely well-targeted ads. The result: companies are transferring their advertising budget en masse to social media. In the Netherlands, they spend 60% of their total advertising budget on platforms like Google and Facebook. In the United States that share is 80% and worldwide, social media giants already consume 25% of all online and offline advertising funds.
In short, media all over the world are in a serious crisis, on several fronts. How can they win back their audience, how can they restore the trust that has, in large circles, dropped to a minimum? And how can they survive financially? In addition, media in the countries in which we mainly work, are under heavy fire. Literally, because the bullets fly over the heads of journalists in conflict areas. Figuratively too: the Putins, Erdogans, Trumps and Dutertes of this world are doing everything they can to discredit independent media.
Key role for local media
Free Press Unlimited is convinced that ‘proximity’ is part of the answer to this crisis. Media must step out of their own bubble and learn to serve their audience again. Not by telling them what they want to hear, but by giving them information with which they can influence their own lives and their community. Independent local media play a key role in this. In Sudan, where our partner Radio Dabanga saves lives by sounding the alarm about a cholera epidemic and at the same time by explaining to its listeners how they can prevent infection. In Zambia, where we train citizen journalists to report professionally on news from their slums. ‘Our cemetery had become a garbage dump. After I made a news item about it, the municipality began to clean it up. Now people come to us because they know that journalists can help them solve their problems.’
Proximity is the keyword for the relevance and future of media. The future belongs to those who know what is important to readers, listeners, viewers, and who serve their audience. Online news site Nómada in Guatemala understands that well. As well as debates and TedTalks, this partner also organises monthly ‘pizza-beer-get-to-know-your-journalists-evenings’. The idea for these successful meet-and-greet evenings with readers was quickly adopted by other media in Central America.
Cooperation strengthens journalism
After some initial scepticism, the national Indonesian magazine, Tempo, realised the value of cooperation with local organisations. As you can read in ‘Indonesian Investigative Journalism’, without this cooperation the stories about slave labour of Indonesian fishermen on Taiwanese ships would not have been possible. Thanks to these stories, Indonesia and Taiwan are drawing up agreements about labour conditions on the fishing ships. That’s how journalism should be: professional and independent, journalism that serves its audience and holds the powers that be to account.
Cooperation does not come naturally to journalists, but it is essential to the survival of the media sector. Free Press Unlimited insists that her partners strengthen rather than compete with each other. We are therefore proud that seven of the Pulitzer Prize-winners in 2017, the international team that published the Panama Papers, are partners of Free Press Unlimited: Inkyfada (Tunisia), Tempo Media Group (Indonesia), Malaysiakini (Malaysia), Hromadske (Ukraine), Premium Times Nigeria (Nigeria), El Faro (El Salvador) and Confidencial (Nicaragua).
Press freedom drops again
Authoritarian leaders like Erdogan (Turkey) and Duterte (Philippines) appeared on the cover of ‘Freedom of the Press 2017′, like a pack of hungry wolves circling a group of journalists. This annual check from the American organisation Freedom House shows that worldwide press freedom has dropped for the thirteenth consecutive year. Just one in seven world citizens has access to independent journalism; the other six are at the mercy of lies, half-truths and moreover, silence. Their right to information is being violated.
The usual suspects such as North Korea and Eritrea are in the dubious top 10 of least press free countries, but Syria and Burundi are now also a regular item on this list. Unfortunately, even in Europe, statements such as, ‘Some of you [journalists] are filthy anti-Slovak whores’ (Prime Minister Vico of Slovakia), are no longer the exception. Press freedom deteriorated in Poland more than anywhere else in the world. And Turkey scores lowest of all European countries, ranked at position 163 on a world ranking of 198 countries.
Protection or impunity?
An important weapon deployed by authoritarian regimes to suppress press freedom is the silencing of journalists. Worldwide, journalists are increasingly faced with threats and intimidation, and in 2017 a record number of journalists were thrown into prison. Hundreds of journalists were forced to flee countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Burundi. But outside their own countries too, journalists and family members are exposed to threats and violence. So once again in 2017, Free Press Unlimited took action in countless countries for journalists in danger.
‘If it takes a murder for us to open our mouths, then we’re already too late. By that time, a journalist has already been physically, psychologically and financially harassed.’ Paul Caruana Galizia knows what he’s talking about. His mother, the Maltese investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was blown up in her car on 16th October 2017. Her son described how, long before she was murdered, she had been threatened, attacked, arrested, and had 57 lawsuits against her. Now, months after the murder, there is still no progress in the investigation to find the perpetrators. That is no exception: impunity is rampant worldwide, when it comes to crimes against journalists. 90 per cent of the perpetrators are never prosecuted or punished.
Emergency fund and lobby
Free Press Unlimited works with local journalists in complex countries. They run the greatest risk of being beaten up, arrested or murdered. Through our Reporters Respond emergency fund, we provide immediate financial support to replace equipment, for medical expenses or legal aid. If necessary, we help them to flee their country. Of course, the real solution is that journalists are able do their work unhindered because governments protect them and perpetrators of crimes against journalists are punished. That is why Free Press Unlimited actively lobbies at all levels to combat impunity. Internationally, in 2017, we set up the Civil Society Safety Coalition and in the Netherlands, we strongly supported an adopted motion from D66: the government promises to set up an emergency fund for journalists.
Solidarity is crucial
Mutual solidarity of journalists and media organisations can be crucial in combatting impunity. Around the 2nd of November, Free Press Unlimited asked them to speak out openly about the protection of the profession of journalism and to tell stories about crimes against journalists worldwide. Already, more than 60 (international) media organisations have promised to do so. We also drew up a petition calling on policy makers to protect journalists. This petition now has more than 190 signatures, both from international organisations and individual journalists.
We were shown great examples of independent journalism that make a difference in people’s lives during Free Press Live, our annual event against impunity for violence against journalists. Winner of the Most Resilient Journalist Award, TV journalist Mwape Kumwenda from Zambia, courageously and tenaciously exposes illegal killings, government corruption and illegal land expropriation. Her reports have led to investigations, resignations and hundreds of arrests. She is one of our heroes, the journalists we support with heart and soul every day.
We are also proud of the project ‘Breaking the silence’, executed by our local office, Free Voice South Sudan. It produced stories about various human rights, based on the experiences of ordinary South Sudanese people. Despite the war, it succeeded in broadcasting 42 radio programmes on the subject, contributing to the knowledge about fundamental human rights: 80% of the listeners said they had heard a broadcast about human rights. The EU recorded this radio programme for an EU staff training an example of how to successfully deploy media to support human rights in extremely difficult circumstances.
In 2017, much of the work was dominated by three large, multi-year programmes. It is full steam ahead in all 17 countries of No News is Bad News, our strategic partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Partners in Bangladesh, Guatemala and Nepal, for example, achieved great results. But in a country like Burundi, the ongoing war nips every development in the bud. Thanks to the 5-year support of the Swedish Sida, we could help media in Syria to further professionalise and organise effectively. In addition, the Russian-language News Platform has more than proven its worth: the number of stories that media partners shared and spread among 24 million Russian-language readers in 7 countries, rose from 1 or 2 per week to no less than 50.
In September 2017, Free Press Unlimited unexpectedly became the subject of negative media attention itself. De Correspondent published an article in which Free Press Unlimited was accused of censorship. These unfounded and unjust accusations touched us deeply, right in our heart. The story was mainly based on the vision of vindictive former employees of the Radio Tamazuj radio station. The reading and the facts from the editors of Radio Tamazuj and from Free Press Unlimited were not or were hardly investigated and included in the article. Free Press Unlimited immediately and firmly denied the allegations and regrets that De Correspondent hardly applied the journalistic principal of an adverserial process. There was no response to our repeated invitation to visit us at our office. This means that the author concerned has not seen many of the e-mail exchanges and documents, which in fact prove the opposite of all the allegations in the article. Naturally, we immediately informed our donors, Friends and other stakeholders about the publication.
What the article in De Correspondent does show is that our work is complex, particularly when it takes place in a conflict area. Setting up a radio station is not black and white, or something you just do. It takes time, money and energy, from all stakeholders. It asks the utmost from the donors, the Free Press Unlimited team, and last but not least, the radio journalists themselves. The fact that we continue anyway, is because we are fully committed to our mission and draw motivation from the positive reactions from the audience we reach with the station. Their support and their voice give both the Radio Tamazuj journalists and Free Press Unlimited the strength and courage to go on. Even in difficult times.
In the past year, we refined our methods for measuring the effect of our work: in addition to hard numbers, the Most Significant Change stories express what our projects mean for journalists. Like the experienced journalist who followed our comprehensive safety training in El Salvador, where his work is becoming increasingly dangerous. He said that he not only learned a lot of practical things, but now feels more connected to other journalists. ‘Now I understand how important it is to protect yourself, so I can help others when we work in conflict areas.’ We also experimented with Outcome Harvesting in Somalia and Pakistan. Together with our partners we set out the planned and the not previously envisioned outcomes – with a fantastic result, which you can read about later.
In 2017, we put our gender policy into practice all over the world: we worked hard and patiently with our partners to focus more attention on women in the media and on a stronger position for our female journalists. And we drew up a new, integral safety policy: how can our partners protect our journalists as effectively as possible against digital, legal, physical and psychosocial dangers? Plus: what can we, as Free Press Unlimited do?
Friends and donors
Our income dropped slightly in 2017, mostly due to the termination of several projects. Thanks to multi-year funding from donors like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sida, in 2018 we can continue to build on what we achieved in the past year. We are also delighted that the Dutch Postcode Lottery announced in 2017 that it would structurally support our work with a considerably higher sum: Free Press Unlimited can spend € 900,000 (unearmarked) per year on its projects, thanks to the participants of the Dutch Postcode Lottery.
Our loyal Friends continued to warmly support Free Press Unlimited in 2017. We are also very happy with the new Friends we welcomed over the past year. And of course, we would like to express our enormous gratitude to all the staff of Free Press Unlimited. They are the backbone of our organisation – without their patience, cooperation, drive and enormous expertise we would only have achieved a fraction of the results that you can read about in this annual report.
Leon Willems, Director Policy & Programmes
Ruth Kronenburg, Director Operations