In his eighth and final speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama called on world leaders to embrace the idea of open society as the only way for nations to prosper. “Entrepreneurs need to access information in order to invent; young people need a global education in order to thrive; independent media needs to check the abuses of power,” he said.
That call for independent media is also an essential part of the U.N. sustainable development goals, which encourage efforts to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms as a way to provide justice for all and to build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.
Easier said than done.
Journalism can be a risky occupation. In many nations journalists are an endangered species, faced with a variety of existential threats, including financial challenges, intimidation by hostile authorities, and, in many cases, outright violence.
A new report from BBC Media Action suggests that increasing economic and political challenges are undermining the ability of media to check corruption and hold the powerful accountable. The study calls for grantmakers and government agencies to boost support for media development.
Fortunately, there is an entire field of organizations focused on strengthening media practices in the developing world. Key players are meeting this week in Jakarta at the 2016 World Forum for Media Development.
Some organizations focus on training journalists in ethical reporting and the latest broadcast techniques. For example, the Thomson Foundation, founded by Canadian-born media magnate Roy Thomson, has provided training for journalists for 50 years.
Other groups offer direct assistance for journalists in danger. The Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, provides legal, medical, and relocation assistance to journalists facing various threats to their security in a growing number of countries.
Indeed, there appears to be an epidemic of repression breaking out — sometimes at the hands of organized crime, sometimes as an expression of state power.
Since the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July, Turkish authorities have shut down more than 100 media outlets and detained more than 100 journalists, according to CPJ. Around the world, the organization identified 199 journalists who were in prison last year because of their work, a slight decline from 2014. And the most gruesome statistic: Seventy-three journalists were killed around the world last year, according to CPJ.
Several major U.S.-based foundations are already providing critical support to media-development organizations. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation sponsors CPJ’s global campaign to combat impunity for the murder of journalists. Likewise, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Open Society Foundations have provided substantial support to the field in recent years. But there’s much more that donors can do to strengthen a free and independent press around the world.
A check on repression
As President Obama warned in his U.N. speech, autocracy limits leaders to two paths to retaining power—”permanent crackdown, which sparks strife at home, or scapegoating enemies abroad, which can lead to war.”
Our best check on the rise of authoritarian leaders and repressive regimes is to promote a strong and independent press. And there are many ways that philanthropy can strengthen these institutions.
What happens when the strongman prevails? We see it in Russia with the violent kleptocracy run by Vladimir Putin. And a frightening situation is unfolding in the Philippines, where newly installed President Rodrigo Duterte is embarking upon a reign of terror, promising to kill drug dealers and other alleged criminals across the country in the same way that he did as the longtime mayor of Davao City. It is estimated that nearly 2,000 people have been killed in a wave of extra-judicial attacks throughout the country in recent months. And Duterte is just getting started.
But that’s a tiny fraction of what can happen when a dictator unleashes the full fury of genocide. Fifty years ago in Indonesia, more than 500,000 people were killed in a vicious wave of state-sanctioned murders. Carried out under the banner of fighting communism, and with the support of Indonesia’s U.S.-backed military government (and possibly with active American assistance), paramilitary forces and criminal gangs slaughtered labor organizers, ethnic Chinese, and other perceived enemies of the regime.
We now know the gory details of the Indonesian killing spree, described in excruciating detail by many of the killers themselves, thanks to a pair of remarkable, Oscar-nominated documentaries, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, from director Joshua Oppenheimer. What becomes clear in the unblinking lens is how easy it is for people to be drawn into violence fueled by intolerance. And how important it is to maintain transparency to hold power accountable.
Vincent Stehle is executive director of Media Impact Funders and a regular Chronicle columnist. This piece originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on Sept. 22, 2016.