At the Media Freedom Conference in Tallinn, participants discussed ways of addressing the complex challenges associated with advancing media freedom worldwide.
On February 9-10, 2022, members of the Media Freedom Coalition (MFC) came together in Tallinn, Estonia, to discuss strategies and responses to the most pressing issues facing journalists and media workers today. A key question at the conference: is the MFC succeeding in meeting its stated goals? In an attempt to answer the question, this article presents a few observations of key themes and possible future directions.
A common theme at the conference was that the safety of journalists and media viability are two sides of the same coin. If journalists cannot report because of lack of resources, such as money, qualified staff or access to sources, media freedom suffers almost as much as when they are in jail. The international community must therefore find ways to ensure the long-term viability of media enterprises. This includes, among others, encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurship, fostering audience engagement and strategically addressing safety concerns.
At a side event on media viability organized by the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), participants also underlined that the media development community needs to become more systematic in assessing viability aspects: so far, unlike in other policy areas like climate change, there are no clear and established criteria for measuring success. Initiatives like DW Akademie's V-Sprints and the Media Viability Accelerator currently being developed by Internews provide practitioners with a concrete set of tools to assess risks and improve their business models.
Media development practitioners also emphasized the importance of long-term and flexible funding approaches on part of the donor community. It is therefore encouraging that, in their joint communiqué, MFC member states expressly recognize the importance of media development work and commit to "working together to improve the effectiveness of this work including through the Working Group of the Coalition on Media Development". Discussions around principles for media development could be important steps towards streamlining approaches and getting a better sense of what is needed on the ground.
A research team comprising researchers from the universities of East Anglia, London and the Philippines presented its findings on the first two years of the MFC. The results were mixed at best. According to the researchers, the MFC largely failed in meeting its stated goals of "shining a spotlight" on media freedom and working together to improve media freedom worldwide. They also bemoan a lack of accountability, clear criteria for action and communications efforts on behalf of MFC members.
Some of the shortcomings identified in the report are already being addressed: the MFC now has a website and a Twitter account, which should help increase transparency and awareness of its activities. The newly created secretariat, housed at the Thompson Reuters Foundation, can help coordinate activities and alleviate the administrative burden on MFC member states' bureaucracies.
MFC states have so far focused on statements and diplomatic efforts to protect individual journalists. The experts now recommend a shift from this "diplomacy-heavy, grant-light" approach to actually providing financial support for media sustainability. Canada and the Netherlands, the current co-chairs of the MFC, have announced substantial contributions in this direction. It remains to be seen if other MFC members, in particular from the MFC Executive Group, will follow their example.
Crucially, the research team also recommends for the MFC to formulate a "theory of change underpinning its activities and institute a system of monitoring, evaluation and learning to improve the coherence and effectiveness of its work." At first blush, this may sound like a lot to ask of civil servants who are already fully engaged. But the formulation of such a theory, especially if it were made public, would certainly bolster the MFC's credibility and provide important impulses for its work going forward.
In a similar vein, the Consultative Network of the Media Freedom Coalition, of which DW Akademie is a member, calls for concrete actions in their joint statement. Recommendations include immediate action in the most urgent situations like Afghanistan, Belarus or Ethiopia, increasing support for media development to one percent of international development funding, and engagement with existing international human rights mechanisms and initiatives.
At the conference in Tallinn, one thing became abundantly clear: Supporting media freedom is a complex undertaking. It requires long-term and multi-pronged approaches and commitments – by states, practitioners and civil society alike. The MFC has its work cut out for itself.
Miriam Küller is Advocacy Officer at DW Akademie