Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French diplomat, political philosopher and historian, once said that “media is how we ‘maintain civilization,’” noted USAID Administrator Samantha Power recently. “That is high praise,” she said, and “speaks to the indispensability,” of the media.
And she stressed that “[i]ndependent media is facing existential challenges at the moment: one of them . . . is a direct onslaught from autocrats.”
“Autocrats target independent media because information empowers us. This is not, as they say, a bug; this is a design feature of repressive rule,” she said. “And whether people are resisting an invasion, whether they are campaigning to replace corrupt leaders with reformers, taking on climate change –- collective action really cannot begin without a collective understanding of the challenges and opportunities in front of us.”
“What’s noteworthy and maybe gets a little bit less attention,” said Administrator Power is that “for all of the declining indicators among human rights and civil liberties” tracked by the research group Freedom House, “freedom of the media and freedom of expression have declined the most.”
“In the past 17 years, the number of countries that have a score of zero out of four on the media freedom indicator has more than doubled - from 14 to 33,” she said. “And, again, that aligns with the 17 straight years of freedom in decline. Powerful people who seek to control the narrative spread inaccurate information to drown out the truth. They’re silencing journalists.”
The second existential challenge to independent media is a financial health crisis resulting from a rapidly transforming media environment. The United States is “partnering with fellow democracies to try to recognize these two distinct challenges and come up with tools to address them,” said Samantha Power.
For one, USAID is partnering with Microsoft, Internews and companies and organizations to launch a public-private partnership to help small media companies transition to an online subscription basis to help make these outlets viable, even profitable.
Then there are corrupt and repressive actors who use protracted lawsuits to drive small, underfunded, independent media outlets out of business. To help such outlets defend themselves and continue publishing even while under attack, USAID and its partners have founded Reporters Shield, a pooled public insurance fund intended to defend reporters and NGOs from legal threats meant to silence criticism.
“I want to use this occasion as a call to action for anybody who finds this intriguing,” said Administrator Power, “and would like to get involved, or to join.”