Our work in nine stories

Three major programmes

Our three major programs are No News is Bad News (our strategic partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the Russian-Language News Exchange and our Syria programme.

1. No News is Bad News

Our largest programme is the five-year strategic partnership No News Is Bad News with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Together with our alliance partner, the European Journalism Centre, we support 53 media partners in 17 countries to improve the conditions for independent media, to strengthen their position as watchdog and to make them (financially) sustainable. In addition, we give attention to international advocacy, gender and safety.

More possibilities for media

In 2018, half way through the term of No News Is Bad News, we organised a thorough evaluation. Are we still on the right track, should we make adjustments? The answer is yes, on both counts. The results are mostly great, we can be proud of our partners and ourselves. ‘No News Is Bad News has increased the possibilities and legitimacy of journalists to influence the policy of governments and companies in several areas,’ says To Tjoelker, Chief DSO/MO of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The interim review concluded that, even after 2.5 years, No News Is Bad News has improved the conditions under which journalists do their job. For example, in Somalia, twenty media and five civil society organisations successfully collaborated to amend the new media act. Within three months, 70% of their amendments were adopted and the government accepted 14 of the 18 provisions that the coalition wanted to see in the act. And last but not least: the Minister for Constitutional Affairs stopped his open attacks on Somalian media. Unfortunately, this does not take away from the fact that Somalia is still one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

Watchdog role

Journalists are better equipped to fulfil their watchdog role in society thanks to training in, among other things, investigative journalism in No News Is Bad News. Particularly at local level, this led to clear improvements in the area of governance, human rights and gender equality. For example, our Iraqi partner, KirkukNow, revealed that 40,000 refugees from Kirkuk could not return for the elections in May 2018, and were also unable to vote outside of Kirkuk. KirkukNow wrote a series of articles about this in four languages that were re-posted in three other media. The reactions to it had results: the election committee amended the procedure so the refugees could vote.

Together with our partners, we also managed to further professionalise media. For example, the managers of partner organisations in the new whistleblower platform, IndonesiaLeaks, were trained in digital security, so they can now communicate in a way that does not endanger their sources or themselves. However, the (financial) sustainability of media needs even more attention, despite all the training and other capacity strengthening in our projects. We will be tackling that in the second half of No News Is Bad News.
Read more about the approach of this evaluation here.

2. Russian-Language News Exchange

A cartoon with skipping bunnies and briefcases full of bank notes: that is how the Russian-language News Exchange helped the Moldavian investigative newspaper Ziarul de Gardã to reach a huge audience with a fairly boring and particularly long report about a money laundering scandal. In two minutes, the appealing cartoon explained to readers how the bank connections and money streams ran. For Ziarul de Gardã this was a totally new approach and a great success, thanks to three Russian, Czech and Ukrainian editors of the Russian-Language News Exchange. The Russian, Rumanian and English versions of the film reached more than half a million people, also in the Baltic states, where part of the laundered money was channelled. Up to that time, the Moldavian newspaper only had 3,000 subscribers to its Russian page.

The Russian-Language News Exchange, established at the end of 2015 by Free Press Unlimited and seven media partners, unites independent media from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldavia, Ukraine and Russia: countries in which a large proportion of the inhabitants speak Russian. After just 2 years, the platform has reached 40 million people with reliable information and penetrating stories that transcend boundaries and connect people. Like the Georgian network, JAMnews that also delivers news about arch-enemies Azerbaijan and Armenia, including controversial areas such as Nagorno-Karabach. Because JAMnews publishes in the different languages, Armenians can read articles written by Azerbaijanians and vice versa.

Online multimedia packages

The stories that the platform exchanges, publishes and jointly creates, are often extremely powerful and influential. For example, in 2018, the media partners stimulated the public debate on vaccinations, also a complicated issue in Eastern Europe, that highlighted it from every angle. In 2018, Hromadske in Ukraine even had two scoops that went global, thanks in part to the online multimedia packages of the Russian-Language News Exchange: a documentary about the secret prisons of the Ukrainian Intelligence Service, and a multimedia report on an impending environmental disaster at unattended, abandoned mines in the Donbas.

The Russian-Language News Exchange supports partners with editing, collaborates with them on multimedia productions and advises on distribution, so that they reach as many people as possible. What helps is that since 2018, the media partners also coordinate their social media activities with joint projects. That increases the reach and the impact of the stories tremendously. One strength of the platform is that it is constantly experimenting with new formats, for example, Instagram videos in Russia and Belarus, or video blogs about research projects in Georgia. The platform also refuses to choose one medium or social media channel. Just how valuable that flexibility is, became clear when a revolution broke out in Armenia in the spring of 2018. Russia blocked the widely-used chat-app, Telegram, and censored the internet. One media partner immediately reverted to the ‘old-fashioned’ printed newspaper and brought the news on Armenia to the Russian audience in that way.

3. Syrian media becoming more professional

Independent media that offers its audience reliable and critical information… that, to put it mildly, is not easy to achieve in Syria. Yet, it is more important than ever. Certainly now the violence seems to be waning, but Assad has not disappeared and for the time being social and political conflicts are persisting. Since 2012, together with Syrian journalists and media, many in exile, Free Press Unlimited has been steadily building a professional media sector.

As of 2018, we are many, sometimes painfully taken, steps further. One giant step was the signing of the Ethical Charter, by now 23 media and media organisations that have pledged to adhere to fundamental ethical principles such as objectivity and respect for freedom of expression. That helps. Syrian media are all too aware that their future rests on the confidence of their audience in what they write or broadcast.

Audience research

What does the public actually want and expect? In 2018 we organised a unique public survey carried out by Ipsos and CMC. They asked 80 Syrians and 27 media professionals inside and outside Syria the question: what do you think of the reporting in Syrian and international media, like BBC and Al Jazeera? The agencies also held in-depth interviews with 49 Syrians. A shocking 95 percent of Syrians had absolutely no faith in the level of truth of the reporting. But they seemed well aware of what independent media means for the future of their country. And they generally identified our partners’ publications as more independent than other media.

In the past year, Free Press Unlimited trained 966 Syrian media workers (28% female), for instance in organisation development, financial management, digital security and making videos with smartphones. Coaches gave individual support to almost 300 journalists (24% female). In the context of our gender equality spearhead we produced a manual on gender and media that is used in all our gender training. And together with our partners, we organised offline and online fora, for example, on women in the media, for which we invited civil society organisations. One good result was the decision of employers to offer women paid maternity leave.

Media and civil society organisations desperately need each other in the in all respects devastated Syria. In 2018 we launched a successful co-production fund that financed nine collaborative initiatives. With a small budget they managed to set up no less than 61 media productions on a wide variety of subjects such as parenthood, displacement and forced marriages.

Every quarter, for between five and ten media, we monitor how objective their content is and how they report on and for women. In the past year we did not do that as extensively, we chose a single incident instead and investigated how fourteen national and international media published on it. By repeating this once or twice a year, we can draw a better comparison of the journalistic quality. We concluded that independent media, partly supported by Free Press Unlimited, contribute to more pluriform reporting on Syria. However, we also saw that almost all the media had trouble with accurate source acknowledgment.

Two media institutions

We are proud of our partners: they have booked great progress. The Ethical Charter, for now with quite a bit of support from Free Press Unlimited, is learning to stand more and more on its own feet as a media institution that oversees ethical journalism and strengthens the professional capacity of Syrian media. And the Syrian Journalists’ Association (SJA), established with our help, has grown into a strong discussion partner for Syrian media. The SJA stimulates dialogue and inclusion and stands up for the freedom of expression, professional journalism and the protection of journalists.

In 2018, we had an interim evaluation performed on our Syrian programme and concluded that we should concentrate on strengthening these two media institutions. In the near future, they must independently support Syrian media to do their job well. This means organising training and events themselves, advocating for a professional journalism sector and safeguarding the code of conduct without our support. It is crucial that they are able to build bridges to the (government-oriented) media and the public in Syria itself. After all, the hatred, sadness and contradictions between ethnic groups are enormous. Where necessary, Free Press Unlimited will continue to support the young professional media in this terribly difficult exercise.

Safety for journalists

Free Press Unlimited has a pretty complete safety programme for journalists: we offer preventive safety raining, emergency help through Reporters Respond and recently, thanks to support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also legal assistance.

We also support partner projects for the safety of journalists, such as the legal help desk of the Nepalese Freedom Forum. Moreover, we actively advocate (internationally) for the protection of journalists and that those who forcibly silence them be brought to justice. If journalists cannot do their work safely, press freedom is in danger, and with it, the right to reliable, relevant and independent information.

In 2018, we gave dozens of safety training to journalists who work in conflict areas or are exposed to online risks. They not only learn to physically protect themselves in the best way as possible, but also how to deal with the digital and psychological consequences of working under constant pressure. Through Reporters Respond we helped 73 journalists in 40 countries whose equipment was destroyed or who themselves had been seriously threatened or mistreated. Like the Nigerian publisher and chief editor, Jones Abiri, who had been detained and tortured for two years without any indictment. A lawyer, paid from our emergency fund, helped him get free. His wife and children were also able to visit him in prison, thanks to the contribution to their travel expenses from Reporters Respond.

Since November 2018, we have been able to provide legal help to journalists like Abiri out of our brand new Legal Defense Fund. This is financed out of the € 1.45 million contribution made available by the Dutch government for the protection of journalists worldwide. That legal contribution is unequivocally necessary. Journalists are increasingly being silenced with random charges; for example, Daphne Caruana Galizia had no less than 47 ongoing cases against her at the time she was killed with a car bomb. And her family still has more than twenty cases hanging over them. How can an individual journalist or next of kin pay the steep (legal) costs of that? The Legal Defense Fund will fill that gap with support for Dutch and foreign journalists and media organisations abroad.

Better protection for journalists

In 2017 the new Intelligence and Security Services Act (Wiv) was adopted. Like many others, Free Press Unlimited opposed the parts of this ‘dragnet law’ that affect the right of journalists to protect their sources.

Although we, along with others, managed to prevent intelligence services from sharing information ‘related to a journalist’ with their foreign colleagues, the dragnet law remains a real danger for journalists and their sources. That is why we continued to insist in The Hague on the importance of actual source protection and in 2018, with ten other organisations, we initiated proceedings against the unaltered introduction implementation of the Act. Unfortunately, the court rejected our demands at the end of June. Since our fundamental objections to the Act still exist, the coalition will continue with the main proceedings that it started against the Act.

Liquidation of investigative journalists

For the first time in 2018, investigative journalists held the majority on the summary lists of murdered journalists. This year, this worrying trend took top priority in the message from Free Press Unlimited to Parliament and to the United Nations: murderers may not go unpunished! Then after Free Press Live on 2nd November, we went to Parliament with the son of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the colleague of Ján Kuciak, where they shared their story during a special procedure. Paul Caruana Galizia and Martin Turĉek confronted the Members of Parliament with the fact that journalists are not certain of their lives even outside of warzones. Investigative journalists like Paul’s mother and Martin’s colleague were murdered because they were investigating fraud, corruption and violations of human rights by politicians and companies.

Fortunately, not only Free Press Unlimited is seriously concerned about this trend and its consequences for democracy in Europe and beyond. At the end of 2017, Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, Member of Parliament for D66, served a motion that was adopted, whereby in 2018 the government launched a fund for the (legal) protection of journalists worldwide. Our wish to make this fund also available for conducting strategic lawsuits, research and insurances, found support. During Free Press Live, Minister Blok of Foreign Affairs, announced that Free Press Unlimited could allocate € 1.45 million for legal assistance to journalists.

Gender (in)equality in the media

In 2018, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) evaluated the state of affairs in relation to previously made agreements by UN member states about women and the media. António Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, drew the sad conclusion: there has hardly been any improvement in the last eighteen years. Has women’s participation in and access to media improved, and how do media help strengthen the position of women? Reason for Free Press Unlimited to advocate for more attention from the CSW for the image-shaping role of media. With success: in the negotiation text with which the EU left for the CSW meeting, there was a powerful paragraph about the crucial role media can play in the fight against gender inequality. To reinforce our advocacy in the area of gender and media, we have now joined the Dutch gender platform WO=MEN.

Link between local and international

Free Press Unlimited is receiving increasing international recognition and appreciation for its influential work. Our partner satisfaction survey showed that appreciation from our local partners for the connections they establish through our network with international fora in New York, Geneva and Paris, is just as important. It is of course absurd that they are experiencing violence against journalists but have little access to the UN bodies that make agreements on this subject. Conversely, local media organisations are the missing link for UN organisations when it comes to the delivery of concrete data on violence against journalists.

Reliable data on violence against journalists

If you want to take measures to combat the violence against journalists, you need to know what you are talking about. Unfortunately, we noticed an enormous lack of reliable data among the various bodies (including United Nations agencies) that keep track of how many journalists have been threatened, tortured, imprisoned or kidnapped. This is because there is no clear definition of the type of violence and everyone is using their own methodology. In 2018, Free Press Unlimited attended two major meetings of UNESCO on Sustainable Development Goal 16.10 (access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms). It turns out that a lot of data are available only about the number of journalists killed, but that very little information is available about the other issues, i.e. arrests, abuse, torture, kidnapping and threats. How then can you measure whether countries are making progress in this area?

That provided a clear goal: good data collection on and better monitoring of violence against journalists. Since 2018, together with the University of Sheffield, we have been working on a method with which everyone can collect and store data in the same way. This should result in a better framework that enables local media organisations to record the violence in their own country in such a way that it provides reliable data that are comparable and therefore useful. That also makes monitoring violence against journalists, an important barometer for Sustainable Development Goal 16.10, much simpler.

Safety Coalition

The Safety Coalition, established on the initiative of Free Press Unlimited in 2017, now has 24 members. The aim is to be able to stand up firmly for the effective protection of journalists, through better cooperation between organisations similar to Free Press Unlimited. In Kenya, Mexico, Myanmar and Nicaragua, the coalition partners align their strategies with each other and draw up a plan per country together to increase the safety of journalists. We established a work group that collects information and cooperates in the area of gender and media. And after the question ‘what can media themselves do’ raised a great need for insurances for freelance journalists, now for the first time there is an international model policy for affordable basic insurance; a huge step forward when compared with the current lousy protection of freelancers.

The Safety Coalition also turned out to be an excellent platform for reacting quickly to the increasing lack of safety for journalists in Europe. Shortly after the murder of Ján Kuciak Free Press Unlimited sent a pressing letter to the European Commission (EC), in which we insist on better protection of journalists and prosecution of their murderers. The letter was signed by seventeen organisations, thirteen of which are members of the Safety Coalition.

Gender and media

In 2018, half the world’s population was still barely represented in the media. Some statistics: only 10% of news reports are on the subject of women and they are often portrayed as victims; no more than one in five experts interviewed is female; one in four management positions in media is filled by a woman. Fortunately, we are seeing progress, certainly with our partners.

For example, our Syrian media partners developed a gender policy and female journalists now have paid maternity leave. What is also new is the taxi service at two Nepalese newspapers that bring women home if they have to work late in the evening. And Men4Women, that Free Press Unlimited organised for the first time in three countries in 2017, found a response a year later in no fewer than fourteen countries. From Mali to Bangladesh, thousands of male media workers demonstrated for women’s rights and gender equality, online and in real life.

App and quality label

Together with our partners in Nepal, Congo, Somalia, Syria and Mali, we systematically track how media report on women. We do that on the basis of the internationally recognised criteria of the Global Media Monitoring Project. In meetings with the studied media, we then discuss the results and show how things can be done differently. In Nepal, where our partners publish a quarterly gender media monitoring report, women are now getting a lot more cover in two of the nine major newspapers. Our Malian partner, Tuwindi, developed its own app for its monitoring; it works so well that we expanded the app together in 2018. Now there is an online gender media monitoring platform that can be used in several countries. Media can easily collect data and enter it online, and get clear graphs in return. Pilots are now running in Mali, Nepal and DR Congo: to be continued.

Tuwindi found the results of the media monitoring in Mali disappointing – women are mentioned as source in only 12% of all the radio news, and no more than 11% of all the news reports in papers and on the radio are made by women – and decided to develop a quality label. This GIP label (Gender, Independence, Professionalism) is given by the organisation to media that successfully promote gender equality. In this way, Tuwindi hopes to encourage them to do their best, both in terms of content and on the position of women on the work floor.

Training and coaching of female journalists

In Iraq, the number of female photo journalists who that signed up for a coaching program was overwhelming: 137, as compared to less than 40 in 2017. The women were inspired by the impact of the photo stories that the first training programme of our partner Metrography had delivered. The fourteen women who were selected received a four-day long training and then, under supervision, created impressive photo stories about women’s rights, strong women and climate change. Their photos were exhibited at five locations in Iraq as part of Metrography’s annual photo festival, and five women appeared on TV programmes. This is exactly what we wanted to achieve: more visibility and recognition for photo journalism as a profession for women.

The violence of Boko Haram left deep wounds in the lives of the people of Northern Nigeria, and certainly in the lives of girls and women. In October 2018, it was in this region specifically that we initiated a project that illustrates their stories. Our partner PAGED trains young journalists and couples them with experienced colleagues from fifteen media organisations from all over Nigeria. A documentary in which people talk about their lives with this conflict, shown in a mobile cinema, is the starting point for a dialogue in the affected communities and for articles from the journalists.