The role of media freedom in promoting democracy and human rights around the world
Will Church, Head of Journalism and Media Programs, Thomson Reuters Foundation
For those who know about the rich heritage of Thomson Reuters, it is probably not a big surprise that advancing media freedom is a key pillar of work of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The Foundation has been working in the space for over 35 years, supporting journalists from emerging economies and the Global South. This includes working with more than 20,000 journalists through training programs, mentoring, grants, and networks in almost every country that has its own journalism corps.
But when I joined as a coordinator in 2010 — just a few years after the iPhone was launched and just a few months before the digital edition of The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom put up a paywall, the first general news service to do so — the world and the journalism industry were a very different place.
Protecting free media is fundamental to protecting civil society and our human rights.
Business models, consumption trends, and the tools to deliver journalism are now being reinvented all the time. This is on top of a declining media freedom environment, with new laws and regulations curtailing journalistic freedoms, or even persecuting practitioners; decreasing trust in the industry; and, more generally, what Rasmus Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, calls a “democratic recession.” So, journalism is becoming harder, more technical, more entrepreneurial, more targeted, and more vulnerable.
Protecting free media is fundamental to protecting civil society and our human rights. And the Foundation has made — and can continue to make — a huge difference. This is why we do what we do. Not only has the community of interested stakeholders grown massively in my time, with more NGOs, academics, businesses, institutional funders, and concerned citizens pulling together to find solutions; the Foundation has also doubled down on its efforts. In 2021, we launched a dedicated Media Freedom team to ensure we can deploy our range of media, legal, and convening resources more effectively to support the role of media, respond to threats, and take advantage of opportunities.
This has also meant a new spirit of innovation, with a range of novel initiatives aimed at providing added value to individual journalists, news organizations, and those working in the wider ecosystem. For instance, we are launching TRFilter, a tool developed in collaboration with Google Jigsaw to address the alarming surge in online violence faced by journalists. Filter is designed to limit the user’s exposure to abusive content, automatically recognising and flagging harmful comments, which can then be managed or reported. The aim is to empower journalists who might otherwise be silenced by the slew of harassment to continue their vital work.
We will also be launching the TRF-inspired Legal Network for Journalists at Risk, a unique collaboration of 15 major media freedom organizations to provide journalists and independent media outlets at risk with a single-entry point into an ecosystem of legal support. We are launching a pilot program in Southern Africa to help newsrooms fend off legal attacks and other threats to their editorial independence and financial sustainability and a whole host of other initiatives. This is on top of a full slate of training programs, newsrooms development initiatives, and legal research projects.
Whilst the challenges and obstacles facing journalism continue to mount, we’ve been given the task — the purpose — to take on the fight. And, thanks to the inspiring work of my colleagues, our partners, and thousands of practitioners around the world, we feel the fight is only just getting started.