World Press Freedom Day: How the Foundation is giving independent media the tools to thrive

by Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 3 May 2024 07:51 GMT

REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

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A thriving independent media is a key pillar of any free, fair and informed society.

Yet threats to independent media are escalating around the world with journalists being subjected to a slew of physical, legal and online attacks. Rising authoritarianism, conflict and dwindling media freedoms are also forcing growing numbers of journalists from their home countries.

Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported more than a threefold increase in journalists seeking support for relocation over a three-year period. Two years on from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian independent media continues to grow in exile. At least 93 independent media outlets are now operating abroad, branded as “foreign agents” or “undesirable organisations”. Most independent Belarusian media outlets are also operating in exile, primarily out of Poland and Lithuania, following the quashing of pro-democracy protests in 2020 and 2021.  

Meanwhile, legal attacks on independent media, known as ‘lawfare’, are on the rise. In many cases, these attacks can extend beyond country borders – utilising international legal mechanisms, extradition orders, cyber or intellectual property laws. Media in exile are acutely susceptible, often lacking the financial resources or knowledge of the legislative landscape in their new jurisdiction to put up a defence.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation has a legacy of over 40 years supporting independent media around the world through capacity-building activities, harnessing its combined journalism and legal expertise. In recent years, we saw an urgent need to leverage this experience to support Russian and Belarusian outlets who have been forced into exile to continue their operations. Now, recognising that media operating in exile is a growing global phenomenon, it is our ambition to build on our work in this field, scaling up support to exiled media in other regions, including in Latin America.

This year, UNESCO is hosting World Press Freedom Day in Chile from 2-4 May. Our Director of Media Freedom, Will Church, is discussing the legal challenges faced by exiled journalists, and the impact this has on media resilience and sustainability, at a side session on 4 May: Survival Strategies: How Exiled Media Adapt to New Realities.

Read on for more details on our media in exile work and the other ways we are using our unique combination of media and legal expertise to advance press freedom.

Support for media in exile

Our work with exiled Russian and Belarusian outlets includes supporting them to register and restart operations in new host countries, and we provide ongoing training, mentoring and legal guidance, alongside business planning support. Fostering sustainability is an essential aspect of this work, ensuring that these outlets can continue delivering consistent, high-quality coverage of relevant and under-reported issues.

The surge in exiled media, however, represents the dire state of press freedom worldwide. In Latin America, harassment, intimidation and threats are driving more and more journalists into exile, with many fleeing to Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States. As of 2024, over 250 journalists, communicators, directors, and other media workers have been forced to leave Nicaragua alone. Other hotspots include El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

In response, we are collaborating with SembraMedia to produce a series of legal and operational resources for exiled journalists in the region, which will be published later this month. These guides will cover how to set up and structure a sustainable media outlet in their new host country, from opening an appropriate bank account to deciding between a profit or not-for-profit legal status.


Harnessing the power of journalism and the law

With our combined legal and media expertise, and unparalleled global networks, we are uniquely positioned to empower journalists and media outlets to leverage the law to counter threats aimed at stifling their reporting, including lawfare. 

Through the Foundation’s pro bono legal network, TrustLaw, we work with leading law firms and legal teams worldwide to facilitate the creation of a range of legal tools and resources to support journalists and newsrooms. These include guides on defamation and journalistic sources laws in different jurisdictions, alongside ‘Know Your Rights’ guides for journalists. The Foundation also facilitates legal support for media outlets on issues ranging from registration to data protection and employment to bolster their operational resiliency to withstand legal threats. You can access this support by joining the network here.

As a founder member of the Legal Network for Journalists at Risk (LNJAR), we can also refer journalists and independent media outlets to the network for specialist legal counsel, and steward co-ordinated defensive action to counter legal threats. Over 2023, LNJAR membership grew to 18 organisations and the network provided assistance ranging from financial support for legal fees, pre-publication advice and pro bono representation.

Sharing insights and expertise

Bringing together media freedom experts and activists to share perspectives is essential in raising awareness of the emerging threats that journalists face and developing coordinated ways to counter them.

At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy in April 2024, our CEO Antonio Zappulla led a session defending journalists and the protections available to them, while our Head of Media Initiatives Heba Kandil moderated a discussion on how journalists at risk can anticipate and prepare for exile

Our annual Trust Conference in London, England in October 2023 featured Turkish activist Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as the keynote speaker, and included sessions on a range of media freedom issues. The panel discussion on protecting journalists from lawfare included Sebastien Lai, whose father Jimmy Lai, founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is currently imprisoned in Hong Kong. Sign-up for the latest updates on this year’s conference here.

Thomson Reuters Foundation/Copland-Cale Photography

Training and capacity building

For over 40 years, we have promoted the highest standards in journalism by training reporters around the world to cover issues relevant to their local context, accurately and impartially. This includes thematic training around topical issues ranging from climate change to artificial intelligence (AI)

In partnership with the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, in 2023, we launched pilot training courses for journalists and civil society organisations in Latin America and East Africa to raise public awareness of both the significant human rights risks and the vast opportunities presented by AI and Data and Digital Rights.

Alongside training courses, we offer ongoing support to our global alumni network to sustain their learning, build connections and progress their careers. And we provide organisational capacity building to support independent media outlets to bolster their business sustainability measures as well as their editorial standards.

Fostering international collaboration

Since 2022, the Thomson Reuters Foundation has hosted the Secretariat of the Media Freedom Coalition (MFC), a partnership of 50 countries from six continents that promotes media freedom. Initiatives include legal reforms, trial monitoring and public and private advocacy for journalists at risk.

During 2023, the Secretariat delivered operational improvements such as faster responses to urgent cases and provided vital toolkits for embassy workers and government representatives on how to advance media freedom in their jurisdictions.

“Without the support of the Secretariat of the Media Freedom Coalition, member countries with a small foreign service and limited number of diplomatic representations across the globe would hesitate to become a co-chair of the Coalition. The extra hands that the MFC Secretariat guarantees enables us to achieve significantly more. With their invaluable work, the MFC Secretariat supports us in promoting and protecting media freedom around the world.”

Katrin Kivi, Ambassador at large for Human Rights and Migration, Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Spotlighting courageous journalism

Since 2009, the Thomson Reuters Foundation has supported and hosted the Kurt Schork Awards, which recognise excellence and courage in reporting conflict, corruption, injustice and human rights issues.

Named in memory of American freelance journalist Kurt Schork, who was killed in 2000 while on assignment for Reuters in Sierra Leone, the Awards recognise the bravery of journalists who take great personal risk to shine a light on truth and hold power to account.

Applications for the 2024 awards remain open until 31 May 2024. The 2023 awardees were Hisham Arafat, Asami Terajima and Léa Polverini, recognised for their brave reporting on conflict in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, and documenting the persecution of Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang territories.

Kurt Schork Memorial Fund

To find out more about the Foundation’s work on media freedom, sign up to receive updates on our latest safety and legal resources for journalists and newsrooms, research and events. 

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