'Turbulent times': Journalists seek international funding for embattled industry

Journalists and advocates of media freedom have spent two days in London discussing the need for a global fund to help pay legal fees and offer training, especially in developing countries, writes the CBC’s Derek Stoffel.

Canada contributes $1 million to global fund to support, train journalists

Journalists, press freedom advocates and politicians from more than 100 countries attended the Defend Media Freedom conference in London this week. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The hearing rooms and hallways of the London conference centre where journalists, academics and politicians from around the world gathered this week have echoed with the chilling statistics showing that 2018 was a particularly deadly year for those working in the media.

According to UNESCO, 99 journalists and media workers were killed last year — a fact that was discussed in several groups aimed at protecting journalists.

But another conversation has been taking place along the sidelines of the Defend Media Freedom conference in the British capital: one about money.

With the traditional business model of newspapers having been decimated in the age of social and online media, there was a call at this global gathering for international funding to help journalists do their work.

"If you are an investigative reporter in Sudan or the Philippines or in Myanmar, when you're fighting the government, advertisers aren't going to come to you," said Maria Ressa, a journalist who runs a news site in the Philippines that has come under fire for its relentless criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte. 

Maria Ressa, a journalist from the Philippines, attended the Defend Media Conference in London. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"And when you don't have advertisers, your survival is always on the line," Ressa told CBC News.

Canada and the United Kingdom hosted the media freedom gathering, held Wednesday and Thursday, and stepped up jointly with $5.25 million in funding to establish a new global media defence fund. Canada contributed $1 million, with the remainder coming from the U.K.

The fund will help journalists, especially in developing countries, pay for legal representation while also providing support and training.

It will also see the formation of a "contact group" of countries to promote media freedom around the world.

"It will be easier for us to raise our voices and we'll be more effective when we do that if we can act in concert with a group of like-minded partners," Chrystia Freeland, Canada's minister of foreign affairs, told reporters in London Thursday.

In addition, a panel of legal experts has been formed to advise governments on how to strengthen laws to better protect media freedom and human rights. The panel will offer embassy staff and other officials advice when specific issues threatening media freedom arise.

Ressa's case is an example. Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer who was appointed as Britain's special envoy on media freedom, has joined Ressa's legal team, after the journalist was arrested twice and now faces several criminal charges. Clooney has also been named to the panel of experts. 

Irwin Cotler, a former federal minister of justice, is Canada's representative on a panel of legal experts on media freedom. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Irwin Cotler, a Montreal-based human rights lawyer and former federal minister of justice, will represent Canada on the legal panel.

"We do need to protect freedom of expression," Cotler told CBC News. "It's not only an individual right. It's a collective right. It goes to the core of what democracy is all about."

A 'game-changing' fund

While advocates of press freedom welcomed the money from Canada and the U.K., the main sponsor of the London media conference is looking for a much bigger fund. 

Luminate, a global philanthropic organization, has called for the establishment of a "game-changing" international public interest media fund totalling $1.3 billion.

"We're flying a plane through turbulent times," said Nishant Lalwani, director of independent media at Luminate. "That plane is independent media and we have to ensure that it doesn't crash or our democracies will also crash. To do that though, we need a large-scale fund."

Nishant Lalwani of the philanthropic organization Luminate called on world governments and tech companies to contribute to a global media fund. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Money would be used to support investigative journalists around the world and help with legal advice while supporting strong and diverse media platforms.

Lalwani is calling on countries that support media freedom to back that support through donations to the fund. The appeal also extends to global philanthropic organizations.

Luminate wants social media platforms and the big tech companies to contribute as well. 

"They've had a huge impact on the health of our democracy, the health of our media," Lalwani told CBC News. "And it's time that they stepped up and contributed toward the future of our societies."

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.