When the board of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) decided in spring 2018 to close its operation in Hungary, many local activists and NGOs were outraged, asserting that the charity— endowed by philanthropist George Soros—should stay and fight the populist, immigrant-bashing government of prime minister Viktor Orban. OSF’s decision to leave was prompted by the resounding win of Orban’s party, Fidesz, in the Hungarian elections held in April 2018.
But OSF first and foremost feared for its employees in Budapest after Orban’s government introduced a bevy of legal provisions aimed at immigrant-defending NGOs. A law adopted in June 2016, officially called “Stop Soros,” forbids NGOs to act in asylum cases. Because OSF funds such NGOs, the foundation also needed to operate according to the new laws. In response, its Budapest staff moved to Berlin, where it has been operating since August 2018.
But what happens to the organizations bankrolled by such philanthropies, particularly media outlets closely targeted by governments, when their sponsors leave?
Some choose to stay and fight from within, but that is hardly a sustainable and realistic solution, history shows. Through legal tools, pressures and intimidation, governments manage to muffle critical voices. Media in such regimes eventually have to move their operations out of country, just as funders do. None of the OSF’s media grantees has moved out of Hungary yet.
Moving operations out of country was extremely complicated in the pre-internet era. For example, philanthropy-funded The Zimbabwean, established in 2005 by journalist Wilf Mbanga, was edited in London, printed in South Africa and then shipped to its readers across Zimbabwe. That was a backbreaking operation. Yet, for Zimbabweans, the newspaper was the sole source of independent news during the grim times of the Robert Mugabe dictatorship.
Thousands of miles away, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a media outlet initially funded by philanthropic money, was based across the border in the Thai town of Chiang Mai. It aired its radio broadcasts from Norway for many years via a short-wave radio transmitter. Both The Zimbabwean and DVB had reporters on the ground, often operating incognito.
Today, thanks to the internet, people have much easier access to news and reporting from outside an anti-democratic country, and moving operations is less of a hassle. Meydan TV produces broadcast news for its Azeri audience from Berlin. Meduza, a news portal covering Russia, is headquartered in Latvia’s capital city, Riga. Both Meydan TV and Meduza are financed mostly by philanthropies.
It is hard to tell what will happen to the few philanthropically-supported investigative journalism outlets in Hungary. Although Hungary is part of the EU, a political and economic union that would normally guarantee media freedom, the EU has been ineffectual in reining in Orban’s dictatorial outbursts.
If the political situation in Hungary deteriorates, the last standing independent media there will have to go into exile, too. That might be, unfortunately, the sole solution. However, especially in such situations, philanthropy support is probably the most needed.
By Marius Dragomir, Director of the Center for Media, Data & Society
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.