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.