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April 30, 2018, 10:51 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Where are all the Asian-led programs to support fellowships and grants for journalists in Asia?

Wealth from Asia isn’t being channeled into media development on anything like the scale seen in the U.S. and Europe: “It’s not just about the money. It’s about priorities.”

Each year, a host of universities, nonprofits and foundations offer fellowships and grants for journalists to brush up their skills, learn new ones, or fund exciting reporting projects. But Asian journalists often miss out: Wealth from Asia is not being channeled into media development on anything like the scale seen in the U.S. and Europe.

U.S. fellowship database ProFellow has collated a list of some 40 different journalism fellowships for journalists, while Poynter notes that during application season in the last quarter of 2017 alone, more than 85 fellowships were advertised, all of them hosted by U.S. institutions. [Editor’s note: With the Nieman Fellowship being the oldest and, obviously, the best.]

By comparison, there is “a dearth of Asian-funded fellowships and grants” on offer to journalists working in the region, according to International Center for Journalists program manager Zainab Imam.

Global Investigative Journalism Network executive director David Kaplan thinks there are differences between the way philanthropy is practiced in the West and in Asia. U.S.-based organizations may distribute a large number of fellowships, but it’s not necessarily because Americans are naturally more generous. Rather, he credits the charitable tax deduction that U.S. donors get, which provides a strong economic incentive for giving and has helped support nonprofit news outlets across the country.

Kim Kierans, a vice president and professor for the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College, Canada, has worked with Konrad Adenaeur Stiftung’s fellowship program. She echoes Kaplan’s sentiments, adding it was possible that funding fellowships is just “not what rich people in Southeast Asia want to do with their profits.”

Private donations are not always the main driver for fellowships. Though governments in the West often bolster such programs, many in Asia lack the budgets to fund similar initiatives. Others are simply reluctant to pony up the cash to support reporters, who may turn their journalistic skills back on unscrupulous politicians and civil servants. “It’s not just about the money,” Iman said. “China and Japan, for example, are countries that are doing fairly well economically. It’s about priorities.”

Despite some scattered, extremely minor improvements in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index — Indonesia, for instance, rose six spots to 124th in 2017, while Myanmar actually moved up 12 places from 143th between 2016 and 2018 — most countries in Asia do not rank well. China, for example, was 176th this year. (North Korea occupied the bottom of the scale at 180th.) Far too many Asian governments view the news media as an instrument of control rather than the essential independent watchdog it should be, Kaplan says: “This discourages investment in fellowships and grants to develop journalists’ skills and networks.”

“Those who have the resources to fund fellowships may not value or wish to support a free media that provides diversity of opinions and gives a voice to those who have no voice,” Kierans added.

Despite this, there are scattered examples of state-sponsored journalism fellowships programs, some of which are delivered via investment companies in Southeast Asia.

The Singapore government-linked Temasek Foundation International, for example, established the Asia Journalism Fellowship in 2009. Chief executive Benedict Cheong says journalists who participate in the program benefit from expanding their networks and through editorial collaborations or study visits to other newsrooms in the region.

In neighboring Malaysia, state investment arm Khazanah Nasional says nationally backed investment organizations have a responsibility to invest in capacity building programs. “Khazanah’s objective is to support the local journalism industry to developing better, well-rounded journalists, who would, in turn, be able to contribute to nation-building in a more meaningful manner through their writings,” a spokesman said. It has sponsored the Wolfson Press Fellowship for journalists at the University of Cambridge since 2012.

But the Institute of Journalists Malaysia has questioned the government’s role in enhancing journalism. And a Malaysian government official, who asked to remain anonymous, told me the government does offer fellowships to journalists, but only to those who work for the government news agency. Independent journalists do not qualify because, he claimed, “there was nothing in it for them [the government].”

Paul Niwa, assistant dean at Emerson College’s School of Communication in Boston, said that even if there was a diverse choice of fellowships available in Asia, “the source of funds are reasons why some journalists hesitate to apply for them.”

To circumvent this reluctance, third-party institutions with strong reputations, such as the East-West Center in Hawaii can bridge the gap, he said. Its annual Jefferson Fellowships, which are offered to print and broadcast journalists in the U.S. and Asia-Pacific, are a strong offering.

Meanwhile, the dire state of many modern newsrooms — operating on squeezed budgets and shoestring staffing arrangements — means that many journalists are unable to take advantage of those fellowships that are available.

New Zealand National Press Club president Peter Isaac said the club had for many years been charged with finding candidates for the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship. “But our candidates could not be sure that they would be allowed to take the time off, and then get paid while they took up the residential scholarship,” he said.

Charlie Beckett, a professor at the London School of Economics’ Department of Media and Communications, said that while other professions, such as law and medicine, view professional development as a routine part of career enhancement, the same isn’t true within journalism. “Journalism is massively under financial pressure so editors can’t always spare the time to let their journalists do this,” he said. “Also, journalists fear that if they are out of the newsroom they will lose touch.”

Niwa, who has designed and overseen a number of fellowship schemes, said that some established publications in Northeast Asia are culturally inclined to both be supportive and financially able to back journalists who wish to take a sabbatical. “Northeast Asia’s support of fellowships have a historical root, with the legacies of the World War II and the Cold War, so developing robust journalists was important to, say, Korea and Japan,” he said.

Still, Kaplan noted that there is enormous wealth in Asia, and said he was confident that potential donors want to see better skills and higher quality news media develop across the region. “But someone needs to make the case to them,” he said. “This applies not only to educational and professional development programs, but to support of independent media generally.”

He pointed out that public interest nonprofit newsrooms such as the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, South Korea’s Newstapa, Taiwan’s The Reporter, and IndiaSpend are proving, in various ways, that there is local support in Asia — through grants, donations, memberships, and sponsorships — for independent media.

“Those who want to see more of these kinds of programs will need to educate potential donors about why these benefit society,” Kaplan said. “There’s a strong case to be made.”

A version of this story first appeared in The Splice Newsroom.

Petronas twin towers at night, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photograph by Eirien, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 30, 2018, 10:51 a.m.
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