Sustaining Independent Media in Times of Conflict
In a year where the greatest influx of refugees seen by Europe since World War II dominated headlines and pressured government aid budgets, I have been asked on several occasions why support to media development in conflict zones, humanitarian disasters and countries in the midst of democratic transition should be a priority.
The answer is of course that without access to reliable, relevant information, people are not empowered to rebuild their broken societies or to influence future development efforts. We know from more than a decade of support to independent media in conflict that reliable and trustworthy information is the one thing that people caught in instability, armed conflict or humanitarian disasters need. Their survival and their future livelihoods depend on it. Media often becomes polarised during conflict and may disseminate information that exacerbates rather than reduces tension. This is why access to information and support to ethical and professional journalism is so essential.
A Troubled Year for Independent Media
The attack on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 was the beginning of a severely challenging year for independent media across the world and those working to safeguard it. Conflict and government crackdowns on media and press freedom advocates in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus illustrate only how clearly critical voices are targeted by those wishing to curtail them.
Particularly in the Middle East, the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the massive displacement of people had a major impact on the media, shifting audiences and journalists to surrounding countries. Despite the harsh conditions, our partners persevered. The award-winning Syrian Radio Rozana continued to broadcast to more than 200,000 online listeners inside and outside Syria with the help of 120 correspondents based inside Syria. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the first all-female staffed women’s magazine Zhin forged on, counterbalancing the region’s entrenched gender inequality through stories on female fighters battling Islamic State and stories on the lives of female refugees.
IMS’ decade-long presence in the Middle East, Asia and Africa has proven that long-term support and building partnerships pays off. The fact that the IMS-founded Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and the investigative journalism network SCOOP Russia continue to carry out high-quality, high-impact, cross-border journalism in two of the world’s most difficult regions is a testament to this. As they battle the propaganda machines of some of world’s most repressive regimes, our support contributes to keeping alive these pockets of independent and critical journalism. Further down the line, these agents of change will be key to driving forward democratic reform processes when the tide turns in favour of press freedom.
We also saw encouraging developments throughout the past year. The promise of democratically elected governments in Sri Lanka and Myanmar represent two of the most hopeful examples from a media freedom perspective. Our long-term presence in both countries where we have built trusted partnerships with the media has enabled us to contribute substantially to the countries’ media law reform processes. In both cases we have provided the new governments and media stakeholders with concrete recommendations for next steps of their respective media development reform processes in cooperation with UNESCO.
Locally Anchored Safety Mechanisms
In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, working as a journalist became increasingly dangerous with targeted attacks by the Taliban and in the case of Bangladesh, a series of deeply worrying murders of bloggers and writers. Despite years of international attention to the grim situation of journalists, we, the international community, have still not adequately succeeded in developing the appropriate protection and safety mechanisms at a national level together with local stakeholders. 95 per cent of journalists killed are local journalists and for this we need sustainable local setups to address the issue of safety. Nurturing, building and sustaining locally anchored safety mechanisms for journalists – modelled in part by the IMS-founded, countrywide safety mechanism run by the Afghan Journalists’ Safety Committee – will therefore continue to be our way forward.
These safety mechanisms rely on the support and cooperation of as many relevant stakeholders as possible in a given country – including authorities and judicial institutions when possible, as our examples from Nepal and Afghanistan show. The UN Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity also provides a platform on which actors in the field of media can improve information sharing and the coordination of efforts.
In two of Africa’s poorest countries, Somalia and Niger, we are working with local partners to enable the media to become drivers of peace, reconciliation, accountability and citizen participation in the nascent democratic processes taking place. In Somalia, IMS and our Swedish partner, Fojo Media Institute spearheaded a five-year media support strategy for the Somali media sector – the first for the country. In Niger, our programme works to counter the influence of jihadists active in neighbouring countries.
A full section of this year’s annual report which spans from January 2015 to June 2016 is dedicated to our partners’ efforts to counter gender inequality in the media. The conspicuous absence of female voices in media hampers women’s ability to actively influence developments in society and we seek to actively address this issue in all aspects of our work.
Like many other organisations reliant on the support of Nordic governments, IMS was also affected by the decision of Nordic governments to reallocate funds from development aid to cover domestic costs related to the influx of refugees. However, as the achievements in this report show, we are proud of the difference that our determined partners and we continue to make for press freedom and independent media under the most difficult conditions imaginable everywhere in the world.