Every day, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine grinds on, we are witness to bloody crimes against Ukrainian civilians and crimes against humanity, in a growing crescendo of violence that can only be called genocide. The grim photos and videos streaming out of the city of Bucha in recent days, call to mind the chilling images of the killing fields and death camps that pock-marked the darkest moments of the last century.

We are witnesses, in large measure, because brave journalists have continued to cover this conflict, at great risk to themselves and in service to the public interest of truth and accountability in the face of naked aggression.

The International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy.

As we continue to rely on courageous journalists on the front line to seek and deliver the harsh truth of this war, philanthropy has a huge opportunity to provide urgently needed support to journalists operating in Ukraine and in conflict zones around the world. This week, leading voices in journalism and media philanthropy are assembling here in Perugia, Italy, for the annual International Journalism Festival, where they will issue the Perugia Declaration, calling for increased support of public interest journalism in Ukraine.

As the opening lines of the document declare: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underlined once again the essential role of independent, trustworthy, public interest journalism in assisting citizens to make life-or-death decisions, informing the world, and holding the powerful to account.”

The Perugia Declaration, a joint project of the International Journalism Festival and the Global Forum for Media Development, implores private and public donors and funders of professional journalism to “urgently increase and provide flexible financial support to media that produce public-interest journalism, enabling them to hire or keep paying reporters, editors and producers who are reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

While the unprovoked attack upon Ukraine has sparked widespread condemnation by the global community of nations and a tremendous outpouring of international press attention, the declaration correctly acknowledges that “many conflicts and crises have at times not received the united and sustained response that our collective conscience demands.” Let’s hope that, in the future, we will be just as sensitive to concerns about the human rights of people in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, or Central and South America, as we are to the plight of European refugees.

Already, more than 50 institutions—including Media Impact Funders—have signed on to the Perugia Declaration, along with many individuals, as well. Any and all are welcome to add their names to the declaration, which will be launched on Saturday, April 9, at the festival.

Any funder who might wish to support journalists in Ukraine, and support journalists who have been driven from their homes to seek refuge outside of Ukraine, can draw upon a resource list organized by the Global Forum for Media Development to find worthy recipients. And that can take the form of traditional gifts and grants, but also program related investments and other impact investment opportunities like those organized by the Media Development Investment Fund.

In the meantime, anyone wishing to hear more about the most pressing issues facing international journalism is invited to listen in to the festival remotely, anywhere in the world at no cost, via live feed over the next several days, from April 6 through 10. The festival, which was canceled due to the pandemic for the last two years, will cover a wide range of issues. But the conflict in Ukraine will be center stage for many sessions, offering fresh and painful insights for conference participants.

This tragic episode illustrates, going forward, the need for philanthropic and public donors to redouble support for press freedom. At the same time, this dark chapter in history offers a clear lesson in what happens when societies invest in a free press and civic institutions versus pursuing authoritarian policies that sharply limit a free press and constrain nongovernmental civic institutions. It would be difficult to find a more clear contrast between the open and democratic Ukraine and the violently closed society of Putin’s Russia.

From the moment the nation of Ukraine chose, in the decision to exit from the former Soviet Union and become an independent and democratic society, a free press has been essential to the Ukrainian way of life. And a dedicated network of private and governmental donors, including the Open Society Foundations, Internews, and a variety of European aid agencies have contributed to roughly three decades of media development efforts. (And just this week, Internews President and CEO Jeanne Bourgault wrote a piece calling for immediate support to help journalists in Ukraine survive both physically and financially.)

A study by media researcher Katerina Tsetsura evaluating the impact of philanthropic and public donors on the Ukrainian media ecosystem carried out in 2011, reviewing contributions from 1990 to 2010, found: “In short, donor interventions have changed the landscape of media freedom in Ukraine. In particular, the independence, readiness, and articulate voices of Ukrainian media NGOs have greatly contributed to the development of independent media in Ukraine and have helped to support many independent journalists and editors.”

This is effective philanthropy. Indeed, the bitter lesson of the war of Russia upon Ukraine is that philanthropic funding of a free press is an urgent and essential mission for philanthropy. It is clear that the rich array of independent media outlets in Ukraine has contributed to the social capital that has enabled the Ukrainian people to establish an effective defense against a much larger, better armed, and more powerful adversary.

Almost as a warning bell sounding the alarm for the approaching war, the most recent Nobel Peace Prize was awarded this past year to two brave figures in journalism: Maria Ressa, editor of Manila-based Rappler, and Dmitry Muratov, editor of Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, one of a handful of independent Russian news organizations, the rare and lonely outlet that continued precariously to report openly several weeks into the war, until it was finally forced to cease operations. Perhaps it was prescient for the Nobel Committee to see that a free press is our last bulwark against the violent excesses of authoritarianism and the descent from peace into war.

Traditionally, American observers have looked upon the erosion of press freedom as a problem of authoritarian regimes in distant lands. But the experience of recent years, where we experienced a violent insurrection that nearly thrust us into a constitutional crisis, saw many attempts to cast the press corps as the “enemy of the people.”

It’s common to think of all of the elements that make up our media system as a “media ecosystem” (for good or ill). But just like the actual environmental ecosystem, we are now learning that our “media ecosystem” is a global reality. Much in the way that philanthropy can no more fight the impacts of climate change by focusing solely on environmental factors at the local level, we need to think of support for media in a global context. 

In Russia, Novaya Gazeta’s reporting, however bravely carried out, nevertheless failed to serve as a brake on the inexorable march of the Putin regime, from Grozny, to Tblisi, to Aleppo and Crimea and ultimately right up to the war-battered gates of Kiev.

But every day going forward, we have the opportunity to invest anew in media and journalism efforts that serve as the foundation of democratic open societies, here in the United States and around the world.

About the Author
Vincent Stehle

Vincent Stehle

Executive Director

Before joining Media Impact Funders in 2011 as executive director, Vince was program director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City. Prior to joining Surdna, Stehle worked for 10 years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered a broad range of issues about the nonprofit sector. Stehle has served as chairperson of Philanthropy New York and on the governing boards of VolunteerMatch, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy.