A free press:

  • Disseminates information and ideas among citizens, contributing to a people’s common storehouse of knowledge.
  • Improves the workings of representative government by helping citizens communicate with their governments.
  • Affords citizens a means of calling attention to violations of their rights.
  • Keeps government closer to the people by helping policymakers better understand how their actions are being perceived.

If, as one recent study concludes, the world has seen a “deep and disturbing” decline in media freedom recently, we all have a stake in finding solutions. These solutions include better funding, creative use of new information technologies, and judicial enforcement of journalists’ legal rights.

Sustaining a free press

Media can be truly independent only when their financing is secure and backers refrain from editorial interference. So where does one find this kind of backing?

Organizations like the Global Investigative Journalism Network and the Fund for Investigative Journalism offer significant fellowship grants. Current Knight International Journalism Fellow Rahma Muhammad Mian, for example, created a citizen-engagement lab in Pakistan to gather data for media projects and built networks to improve collaboration between media and government.

Row of newspaper boxes on sidewalk (© Tupungato/Shutterstock.com)
Local papers and their online versions are important sources of “news you can use.” (© Tupungato/Shutterstock.com)

Some journalists have turned to crowd funding to help finance their reporting. For example, in 2013 journalists in the Netherlands raised $1.7 million via crowdfunding to found De Correspondent, an online platform that offers background, analysis and investigative reporting in Dutch and English. And Krautreporter, launched in 2013, used crowdfunding to create its online magazine.

In the U.S., the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news site supported by money raised from across the donor spectrum — political, corporate, foundation and government — publishes nonpartisan reporting on Texas state politics. Its success has led to news partnerships with the New York Times and, more recently, the Washington Post. Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw told NiemanLab, “If our readers can’t get a story somewhere else, that’s a story for The Texas Tribune.”

Large group of people holding up protest signs (Malaysiakini/Lim Huey Teng)
The Malaysiakini staff, led by founder-editors Steven Gan and Premesh Chanran, show their support for Al Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt and the #freeAJstaff campaign. (Malaysiakini/Lim Huey Teng)

For Malaysiakini, an independent, multimedia online news outlet in Malaysia, creative financing goes hand in hand with editorial independence. “We are like pesky schoolkids who poke the bully in the eye and refuse to go away,” co-founder and editor Steven Gan told guests at Malaysiakini’s 15th anniversary celebration. To remain independent in Malaysia’s restrictive media environment, Malaysiakini relies on subscriptions, online advertising and foundation grants, avoiding political party or corporate sponsorship. Its core incentive: “Without a vigilant media, those in power are tempted to use their financial powers to bribe the influential and their policing authority to limit dissent. Acting in the interest of a few, such actions lead to disunity of the nation and decay of society.” Malaysiakini’s funders include the International Center for Journalists and the National Endowment for Democracy.

Electronic media meet professional and citizen reporters

Internet-based electronic media platforms open new resources for professional journalists and provide a platform for citizen journalists to report newsworthy events via social media and blogs. Digital sites are agile and cheap to maintain.

Innovative platforms like Ushahidi can deliver lifesaving news during crises. The idea of a few tech-savvy journalists who created a website — later an app — Ushahidi allows citizens to report and map incidents in real time via email and text messages. Ushahidi helps journalists map the Syrian conflict and track the Ebola outbreak in Africa.

Hands holding smartphone, showing press event in viewfinder (© AP Images)
Portable devices and online media have changed journalism. This journalist takes a photo at a Mexico City press event. (© AP Images)

Since 2005, Global Voices has curated trending news and feature stories submitted by more than 1,200 mostly volunteer writers, analysts, media experts and translators in 167 countries. Global Voices covers stories that may get little attention from mainstream media, for example, “Malaysian Cartoonist Vows to Continue Fighting Government Abuses Despite Sedition Charges,” or “New Internet Rules in China Target Usernames, Avatars as Subversive Tools.” The Global Voices team verifies and translates reports before publishing them in 43 languages. Global Voices also advocates for online rights and press freedom, and it trains and provides tools for citizen journalists in underrepresented communities.

The ability to convey information through compelling videos is a real advantage of the new electronic media. Organizations such as WITNESS help disseminate the necessary skills, with internationally experienced filmmakers and tech-savvy human rights journalists educating citizens about safe, ethical video reporting. Journalists can find online tips in the Society of Professional Journalists’ “Journalist’s Toolbox.” And the Knight Foundation funds various partners to enhance digital journalism skills.

Keeping journalists safe

Funding and Internet savvy go only so far. No press is truly free if professional and citizen journalists must fear for their physical safety.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) counts more than 72 journalists killed because of their work in 2015. Countries on nearly every continent are represented on CPJ’s annual Impunity Index, “Getting Away with Murder.”

Hand holding up "Je suis Charlie" sign and pencil (© AP Images)
After 11 people were killed at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, journalists around the world, like this woman in Lebanon, took up the slogan “Je suis Charlie” to show support for press freedom. (© AP Images)

One key protector of a free press is a free and strong judiciary. Agnes Callamard, director of Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression initiative, observes that courts have upheld free speech rights even in nations whose governments do not generally protect free speech, or journalists. Her organization has honored courts and legal groups in Norway, Turkey, Zimbabwe, and Burkina Faso for protecting a free press though the courts.

Freedom of the press is a group effort, and when individuals, organizations and governments come together to preserve it, everyone benefits.