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“Journalism moves fast…philanthropy moves slow.” Press Forward’s director wants to bring them together
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May 6, 2024, 2:44 p.m.
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LINK: internews.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Hanaa' Tameez   |   May 6, 2024

On World Press Freedom Day last week, the International Consortium of Investigative Reporters said in a statement that “governments worldwide are failing to protect — and frequently cracking down on — independent media in 2024, casting a shadow over Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom rankings in a major global election year.”

Decreasing press freedom sometimes forces journalists to flee their home countries to be able to report on them safely. But operating news outlets in exile is another beast on its own, and exiled journalists are met with financial, logistical, and editorial challenges at every step.

Last week, Internews, a nonprofit that supports independent journalism around the world, surveyed and interviewed media workers from 25 news outlets in exile from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea, Myanmar, Hong Kong, China, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. (In the report, the journalists are granted anonymity.) The research took place between October 2023 and April 2024 to answer one question: “How can the media development community support exiled media outlets to survive and continue their work?” The report’s authors, Dr. Isabelle Schläpfer and Rosie Parkyn, also came up with a working definition of “exiled media”:

“Exiled media” refers to media outlets that operate either partly or fully from outside their home country — due to closing spaces and a hostile political and legal environment for independent media leaving them with reduced press freedom and exposing them to security and safety risk. Exiled media serve their home audience as a primary audience with unbiased information, regardless of whether they were founded outside or inside their home country.

Internews wasn’t able to determine the exact number of journalists working in exile, though RSF reported at least 460 left their home countries in 2023 alone. The majority of outlets discussed in the report are digital-only (64%), while 20% are television-based, 12% are radio-based, and four percent are print publications. More than half (56%) are registered in their host countries as nonprofit organizations and 28% are registered as for-profits. The remaining 16% aren’t registered at all.

The report details that exiled news outlets face two types of challenges — structural and organizational. Structural challenges include:

  • Complex and unfamiliar laws and regulations inside the host country that complicate and lengthen the process of registration and require new compliance regimes around HR, tax and media or non-profit law.
  • Economic sanctions that hinder an outlet’s ability to register appropriately, open bank accounts and engage with global credit or payment systems.
  • Occasional tensions between diplomatic and media development priorities.
  • Eligibility issues to apply for funding that serves an exiled media outlet’s region.
  • Issues with social media platforms’ algorithms, content moderation policies and verification process.

Organizational challenges vary by outlet and the country it covers, but boil down to four main themes:

  • Editorial, including working with sources and verification of information from afar.
  • Physical safety, transnational repression, digital security of operation and staff, staff burnout and risks to audiences.
  • Understanding and meeting audiences’ information needs, ensuring information reaches audiences and measuring the impact of content.
  • Revenue diversification amid a dependence from short-term, project-based donor funding

All but two of the outlets in the study either fully or mainly financially dependent on philanthropic or institutional funding. Twenty-eight percent of outlets are fully funded by donors, while another 28% are funded by donors and commercial revenue (selling production services, consulting, ebook sales, translation services, and advertising). Sixteen percent receive funding from donors and their audiences while 20% reported having revenue streams from donors, audiences, and commercial services. The report says four interviewees reported using their own money to sustain their outlets, while three said they were offered (but refused) money from “rich individuals” in exchange for not covering certain issues.

“We do advertising for human rights documentation, organizations that want to promote…the work that they do. And we were able to do that back in 2016, where we were basically the only one who could offer detailed targeting. So even the mobile website…when somebody comes to me and says [we] have an Android and an iOS app, then we can have two sets of banners…So it’s…sort of blow[ing] your own trumpet because we haven’t been able to do audience monetization…

[I have] friends who have been extremely successful in rallying the diaspora behind, basically saying, ‘We are targeting you because we need your help to help your fellow countrymen back in the home country.’ This membership model is something that we are…eager to explore…We also offer translation services and consultations, and do tech development, like ‘tech for good’ apps that help access our content safely for the audience.”

The outlets reported that either business registration type, whether nonprofit or for-profit, come with its own set of challenges. The type of registration can impact an outlet’s eligibility for different types of funding, but at the same time, the decision of how to register the company depends on its revenue strategy. Legal registration in the host countries is required to participate in platform programs like the Google News Initiative or Facebook News Partnership.

“Not all donors will fund a for-profit media company, leaving them largely dependent on commercial or audience revenue,” the report’s authors note. “On the other hand, there may be restrictions on a non-profit’s ability to raise commercial revenue.”

“I was really worried about it…As a first step, I talked to our donors and explained our situation: ‘Is there a way you can send us the money outside of [home country]?’ Some donors…said we can send the money into your personal account. With other donors…they had their protocols and processes, and there was no flexibility. Then we started the legal process to register our outlet in [host country]…It took two years…Then we made an agreement with an organization…that helps journalists with evacuations. So if we need to flee, they can help…We hope to stay as long as possible in [home country] but at least we are prepared to leave.”

Economic sanctions, anti-terrorist laws in host countries, and international banking restrictions can complicate basic business setup. The European Union and the United States have active sanctions against 13 out of the 17 home countries studied in the report. Transferring money in and out of certain countries raises flags to banks, which will then require more information about senders and receivers, posing security risks for the journalists.

“We are also struggling to open a bank account here in Germany…If you are registered in Germany, you must get the residency beforehand. And the banks, not all of them accept to give an account to a nonprofit organization…even though you have papers and [are] fully registered and everything. At the same time, we cannot send the money to [home country]…So we have to ensure that all the freelancers and…collaborators with us, they have a bank account outside [home country].”

Producing journalism from exile can also be a funding headache. Exiled outlets can be ineligible to apply for grants because they are based outside of the countries they report on. If they do get funding, it’s often not enough and doesn’t account for exile-related expenses.

“Our level of funding is designed for a poor country like [home country], but I don’t live [there]. My electricity and my rent and my expenses…are nothing like it would be for a [home country] news organization.”

Foundation and donor funding is also complicated by political interests. The report says some funders are afraid of giving money to certain news outlets in exile because it could impact their relationship with the home country’s government. Other times, media outlets are unable to be transparent about where their money is coming from because their donors don’t want to be publicly associated with them.

All the news outlets also reported that the constant change in donors’ funding priorities makes it difficult to plan for the future.

“Some describe receiving huge grants over a relatively short period of time, often because the situation in their country was in the international headlines,” the report says. “However, once attention shifts to another crisis or conflict, the funding stream can stop quite abruptly, leaving exiled media in a precarious state.”

In its list of 13 recommendations for donors and media support organizations, Internews says they must be willing to work with exiled media outlets and meet them where they are with their unique constraints:

Acknowledge the reality that donor funding must remain part of the revenue strategy for most such outlets, and that it would ideally be flexible in order to respond to emergencies without bureaucratic delays, and allow members of the team to undertake strategy development, fundraising, donor engagement and reporting without distracting from the organization’s core mission to report on and for their country of origin. Pressure to develop alternative revenue streams may be unrealistic and can result in perverse incentives — for example, a disproportionate focus on diaspora audiences at the expense of audiences at home. By the same token, a too rigid focus by donors on specific audiences or reach targets may have the opposite effect — outlets avoid diaspora audiences who may need their products and be a source of audience revenue because they are too small in number or not deemed a donor priority.

Find the full report here.

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