The pushback against democratic development is gathering pace. Dozens of governments in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa have shown growing hostility against democracy, against the human rights and freedom of expression community by introducing restrictive laws and other repressive measures. In 2014, the work of our partners to safeguard independent media and free speech in countries like Azerbaijan, Egypt, Libya and South Sudan became increasingly difficult due to crackdowns by authorities on media and the arrival of new groups such as Islamic State. In fact, the level of press freedom was at its lowest in a decade, with only one in seven people living in a country with fully free media.
Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom. There are pockets of encouraging development — areas where democratic progress and societies based on the rule of law are gradually evolving and creating some space for freedom of expression. In Tunisia, we saw peaceful elections and continued work to push forward on media law reform. Myanmar continued to take positive strides in its democratic reform process, albeit also with some worrying steps backwards.
IMS’ tried-and-tested approach to media development has, over the past 14 years, contributed to a widening of the democratic space in some of the most democracy-hostile places in the world. Coupled with long-term, close partnerships it has helped us adjust our priorities and manoeuvre in rapidly changing political and social contexts.
With the clampdown on civil society as one of the most noticeable downward trends in many developing countries in 2014, we faced having to choose whether or not to fund unregistered media associations in countries where onerous requirements for independent civil society organisations make formal registration almost impossible. In countries where external funding to civil society is prohibited, we have had to evaluate whether it was possible to continue operating while conforming to national laws and whether IMS could still make a difference and add value to marginalised independent media communities within these restrictive political environments. We also had to carefully consider when and where to work with governments with conciliatory approaches, but authoritarian pasts. IMS’ ability to be flexible and adjust our approach to these challenges has also required us to be closer to our partners and interventions on the ground. In 2014, IMS thus strengthened our presence in countries including Kenya, Iraq, Tunisia and Pakistan.
What has not changed, is our broad media sector approach that allows us to refocus when priorities shift on account of the shrinking space. Our areas of strategic focus have remained on three key aspects that make up a democratic media system: the legal and working environments for media, the main institutions that make up that system and the content produced by media and journalists. Reinforcing these efforts is our aim to work in collaborative partnerships with local and international media and media development organisations to ensure that media development is owned by and driven by national media partners.
Our partners’ and our ability to impact on the legal frameworks in regions such as the Middle East and North Africa in 2014 was challenged by political and social instability. While some of the media law reform processes initiated in the wake of the 2011 uprisings could not move forward in 2014, IMS focused increasingly on strengthening the safety and protection of journalists in the region. Media law reform to protect the safety and rights of journalists is a long-term process. Our multi-year involvement in the drafting of new media laws during periods of political transition and violent conflict in Ukraine, Myanmar and South Sudan, are a testament to this.
IMS’ focus on the safety of journalists in regions such as the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia expanded in 2014. Our support to a network of safety committees that oversee the safety of journalists throughout Afghanistan has provided a model for similar initiatives in Pakistan and the Philippines. The establishment in Colombia and Mexico of government bodies with powers to investigate and prosecute attacks against journalists serve as a blueprint for similar initiatives now being supported in Pakistan and Nepal. Dialogue between the media and the security forces in South Sudan have since been emulated by IMS partners in Colombia, Pakistan and Kenya.
Despite difficult conditions, institutions that form the backbone of media sectors have continued to play important roles for media in the regions we work. Through a mixture of human, technical and financial capacity building, we have worked with unions and media associations in South Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar, Tunisia and Yemen to address barriers to media freedom faced by their members in their respective countries. Notwithstanding the political instability that has characterised Libya, the Libya Media Institute in Tripoli was established in cooperation with our local partners as an independent national learning and working center for media professionals. Building on this experience, IMS was party to establishing Myanmar’s first private, independent journalism school, the Myanmar Journalism Institute in July 2014.
Our focus on strengthening and diversifying media content by working with independent media has also been a priority in the shrinking spaces for media freedom. In Egypt, Mada Masr, one of the most progressive independent online news and opinion portals in Egypt continued operations under heavy pressure. The Syrian Radio Rozana is one of the most reliable Syrian media today, broadcasting to Syrian audiences inside and outside Syria from Paris and from 2014, also Gaziantep in Turkey. In Myanmar and Tajikistan, IMS has supported research on gender equity in the two media environments and the representation of women in media content to inform further work in this area.
At IMS, we are heightening our efforts to address gender equity in the media environments in which we work. In 2014 we welcomed a Gender Advisor who will work closely with IMS staff and partners to strengthen our focus on this issue.
As the challenges intensify, we need to redouble our efforts to work in partnership with both local and international organisations to harmonise our approach, coordinate our efforts and align them to national priorities and international human rights standards. In this respect, the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and Issue of Impunity represents an impressive effort amongst international and national media organisations, the UN, civil society and governments to address the safety of journalists.
The backward drift in space to exercise freedom of expression is not showing signs of slowing down. In 2014, 61 journalists were killed, regretfully including close partners of IMS. The situation is serious and makes support for independent media more essential than ever. We need to persist and continue to identify new opportunities, find room to manoeuvre in support of independent media within these closing spaces for media freedom and help open doors from within.