By Simone Galimberti
KATHMANDU, Nepal, May 30 2023 (IPS)
There have been an array of proposals to sustain journalism around the world– from tax incentives and subsidies to the idea of allocating 1% of governments’ GDP to a drastically increased ODA for independent journalism in the global South.
The debate has been intense and rightly so.
What is needed is a long-term project that would put together a global architecture supporting serious and reliable journalism regardless of the size and business model of the outlets producing it. Amid such calls for governments and philanthropies to do more, something finally is moving.
Yet the needs require real ambition and farsightedness that in practice means a coherent global governance to safeguard trustworthy media worldwide. The International Fund for Public Interest Media, initially announced by France during the Paris Peace Forum in 2022, is taking shape and an initial pilot cohort of media outlets already got selected.
Because of its hybrid form of governance, independent but backed by governments and major philanthropies alike, the IFPIM could become the biggest source of funds for media around the world.
As per the information provided on its website, it has already raised $50 million USD from more than 15 governments, philanthropies, and corporate entities but the ambition is much bigger.
The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), an initiative of the bipartisan National Endowment for Democracy, an entity funded by the American Congress, estimates that global spending to support independent media globally should be $1 billion a year.
The reality on the ground– considering also how many legacy media houses are struggling with revenues and a declining readership– might require a much bigger figure.
If the situation was already dire before the pandemic, COVID was the knockdown blow for many media around the world that were already assaulted by the damaging impacts of big tech companies and their social media platforms. And now we also have to deal with an even more threatening and disruptive use of artificial intelligence.
While AI-based technologies can offer some positive elements on how media engage with public, the risks are enormous. “AI-based technologies also have an enormous potential to harm our information ecosystems and threaten the fundamental human rights on which robust, independent media systems, and free societies” reads a resolution recently passed at the International Press Institute General Assembly just held in Vienna.
With this gloomy scenario, the public interest media landscape is rapidly turning into what experts define as “news desert. We should be all very weary of the perils associated with its consequences. After all, as explained by the World Trends Report published by UNESCO, it is a vital issue because journalism is a public good that must be protected at any costs.
In such a scenario the fact that the IFPIM aims to reach $500 million USD, itself a milestone in this quest, is a relief. Still, it is not enough.
An issue to be taken into account is the fact that we are dealing with a fragmented landscape in this line of sector. There are already a small but increasingly more visible and impactful ecosystem, still in construction that is made up of blended agencies supporting independent media around the world.
Some of the most significant among them are the Media Development Investment Fund, MDIF that takes a more investor like approach then what seems the still in construction approach of IFPIM, has been already able to provide a variety of funding options.
With also a mixed lineup of investors, MDIF has already invested $300 million USD in 148 media outlets from 47 different countries. In addition, there is an increasing number of “intermediary” organizations.
Some of them like Pluralis acts more like investors (among its own backers there is MDIF). Others offer a blended package, financial and capacity building like Free Press Unlimited IMS, International Media Support while United for News takes a market approach of linking ads with local online news outlets.
BBC Media Action and Internews, on other hand, are intermediary closer to the field.
Though each of these represent a different model of support, are different from each other, they are all aimed at enhancing the viability of robust, independent media.
Interestingly we are seeing a crosspollination of such initiatives because their backers are often interlinked to each other with a major philanthropic foundation or bilateral donor supporting multiple initiatives at the same time.
And we are not mentioning the mechanisms that several bilateral institutions in the West are putting together only exclusively to safeguard and protect journalists in danger.
For example, the recently announced Reporters Shield, an undertaking of USAID, is particularly designed on tackling SLAPPs, the strategic lawsuits against public participation.
Undoubtedly the IFPIM is going to be a standout catalyst but it is rightly showing commitment to partner with other key stakeholders.
The recent MoU signed with Reporters without Frontiers, RSF and the Forum on Information and Democracy, the latter itself a global initiative leading the debate on safeguarding journalism that is housed at RSF, is promising but it is not enough.
If the ambitions of IFPIM is to become a global fund for media and journalism support akin to the funding mechanisms being used to fight HIV and Tuberculosis, all the actors investing in independent media must truly come together.
The fact that some of the major philanthropic organizations are putting resources in different baskets could be a positive element in a yet to establish globally coordinated multilayered approach promoting journalism and media houses.
Such common intent would enable a truly global ecosystem allowing media to return to prominence they used to command and becoming, once again, a central pillar of public debate.
First governments with adequate fiscal capacity should do whatever it takes to support their own media industry. Some of them in Europe are already doing so and also in the USA there are discussions for a new legislation and other financial tools, including cash vouchers for the citizens to buy subscriptions.
Yet if we want to safeguard journalism and media around the world, it is essential to boost public and private media working with integrity in the North, including legacy newsrooms.
It is not just about providing incentives, rebates or other financial support or ensuring that big tech owned platforms pay what is due to the newsrooms like it is slowly starting to happen.
It is also about re-persuading people, including the youths, to read news, on and off line.
Massive awareness initiatives involving schools and universities should also be prioritized in a way that a common user of news, can also turn into a citizen journalist or opinion writer.
Second, a truly global and truly massive funding for media and journalism should be established even by merging existing entities. The result could become mega funder or donor of donors, a true Global Fund for Media and Journalism.
All major governments and philanthropic organizations would inject financial resources and know-how that would then trickle to other smaller actors in the supply chain.
In a potential ecosystem protecting media and journalism, there would be enough spaces for intermediary organizations like the ones already operating close to media houses on the ground, especially in the global South.
It might be that entities like IFPIM and MDIF, each with its unique identity and features but united in their intents, one day might come together or might themselves act as at the upper level of a pyramid sustaining journalism and media, just a step below what would be a Global Fund for Media and Journalism.
Journalism and the thriving of media should also become a central area of focus of the United Nations. Despite the obvious resistance that might come from certain camps, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres should include it in its ambitious Our Common Agenda.
Two of its twelve strategic pillars, “promote peace and prevent conflict” together with “build trust” should be strengthened with initiatives focused on media. A global code of conduct that promotes integrity in public information, one of the milestones under “build trust” should be accompanied by other bolder actions.
Let’s not forget that UNESCO has been already involved in the promotion of media with two programs, like the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) on the top of the narrower, journalist focused protection tool Global Media Defense Fund.
Positively, at the present, the momentum to save the media is gaining strength.
Yet it is indispensable to ensure that the focus is going to be on medium and long term measures rather than on a short term fixes.
Without a global design and ambition, it’s certain that the situation is only going to be worse. All global actors, together with the professionals and activists on the ground, must come together. The level and speed of discussions around the future of media must step up.
It is only with profound changes in the funding mechanisms of journalism that serious and reliable news outlets both in North and South, either legacy or startups thriving on internet, will be able to continue to operate and thrive.
There is no firewall to stop the journalism’s decadency. Only urgency and bold actions offer the best chance to ensure a “New Deal” for global media and journalism.
Simone Galimberti is the co-founder of ENGAGE and The Good Leadership. He writes mostly about youths’ involvement in the UN, social development and human rights.
IPS UN Bureau