If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last two decades of international development, it’s that politics matter, yet this lesson has not been fully assimilated into the media assistance sector.

In governance, health, education, and nearly every other area, there is a growing recognition that durable solutions to the world’s problems need to get the politics right. The Open Government Partnership, Global Fund, Global Campaign for Education, and the Sustainable Development Goals are among the many initiatives that seek to coordinate action from the local to the global with common objectives and strategies, but also to give civil society actors the access and moral authority they need to sustain political will, the collapse of which has doomed so many development efforts in the past.

Media development has suffered from the same weakness. Building strong media institutions, training top-notch journalists, and funding news production isn’t enough. When there is a breakdown in political and societal support for independent media, the whole effort can unravel. This threat is more acute than ever amid the new, complex threats to vibrant and plural media that are bubbling up in the current mix of politics and technological change.

Though not occurring at the necessary scale, there have been efforts to confront media challenges through diverse, multi-stakeholder coalitions that can work across borders and institutional barriers, and at multiple levels from the local to the global. Through these various initiatives, we have learned a great deal about what determines a coalition’s success. With all sectors of society having a stake in the future of media systems, these coalitions must have a wide base, including actors not traditionally included in media reform movements.

For example, South Africa’s SOS Coalition has unified NGOs, CBOs, trade unions, researchers, journalists and writers, actors, law groups, freedom of expression activists, and others around the mission of preserving quality public broadcasting. Argentina’s  Coalición por una Radiodifusión Democrática (Coalition for Democratic Broadcasting) provided a similarly broad umbrella, with indigenous peoples, community media associations, and women’s groups adding media reform to their agendas. In the United States as well, the progressive reforms of the 1940s such as the Fairness Doctrine were made possible by the political impetus of broad-based coalitions. These examples and many others are a testament to the contribution that such coalitions can make to media development, but we have also learned that their formation does not depend solely on historical happenstance: Very little is actually required to catalyze and strengthen them.

The Open Society Foundation’s Open Society Media Program, the precursor to its current Program on Independent Journalism, fostered a number of successful media reform coalitions, including one in Uruguay that influenced a host of laws related to community radio, libel, and freedom of information; and the efforts leading to the 2013 changes in Mexico’s telecommunications law.

CIMA has worked with DW Akademie, which has been a catalyst for regional coalition-building in Latin America, South East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa with relatively small investments in research, workshops, and coordination.

Linked to the CIMA and DW Akademie-hosted consultation in Latin America and illustrating another approach to coalition-building has been UNESCO’s efforts to train members of the judiciary in the region in the legal frameworks governing freedom of expression and the rights of journalists. In the process of providing a massive online course to over 7,000 workers in the judiciary, and in the efforts to mainstream freedom of expression curriculum into judicial schools, UNESCO discovered that with modest additional efforts, it could achieve the additional goal of consolidating a cross-country coalition dedicated to ensuring that the judiciary is a defender of these basic rights in the region.

At the global level, CIMA (together with the Global Forum for Media Development, ARTICLE 19, and International Media Support) has worked to foster a growing coalition of actors focused on the implications of internet governance for media pluralism, especially by bringing activists from the Global South engaged in these issues into global debates and commissioning research and reports on these issues.

Though each is unique, together they highlight some important lessons for how to support effective coalitions.

Support to coalition-building can be relatively modest, frequently taking the form of research, opportunities for diverse stakeholders to meet and connect, and flexible funding that allows coalition members to coordinate.

Coalition-building can also be achieved by donors and implementers as a way of working, even built into the process of delivering other forms of programmatic support. The convening power of donors to bring together diverse actors is currently under-leveraged for confronting today’s challenges to the media sector.

Finally, coalition-building can be done nationally, regionally, or globally, though many of the complex challenges facing media require coordinated action at all those levels. Regional coalitions seem particularly well positioned to create those intersecting horizontal and vertical connections.

Small efforts to support coalition-building can have an outsized benefit for media development, and conversely, failure to build and sustain these coalitions jeopardizes existing gains and exacerbates the risk of further democratic backsliding. As Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, recently wrote, “How we arbitrate the rights and responsibilities of maintaining a free and fair press function is one of the defining political issues of our age, and we seem to be inadequately prepared for the task.”

Nicholas Benequista, Research Manager and Editor, and Paul Rothman, Project Manager, CIMA

This essay appears in Global Media Philanthropy: What Funders Need to Know About Data, Trends
and Pressing Issues Facing the Field. With so many pressing issues affecting the media funding space as well as specific regional considerations around grantmaking strategies and priorities, Media Impact Funders turned to experts from the field and asked them to share insights across a range of media issues. Listening to those working on the ground is essential for understanding challenges and opportunities in a global context, and these essays offer critical insights that funders need to understand in the global media ecosystem. Opinions offered by essay authors are their own.

About the Author

Nicholas Benequista

Research Manager and Editor, and Paul Rothman, Project Manager, CIMA