Annual report 2020

Defending societies with good journalism

Along with the climate crisis, the decline of freedom and basic rights are currently the biggest global issues we face. Instead of cherishing free
media as sources of critical, life-saving public information during the Covid-19 pandemic, many leaders around the world responded with crackdowns and restrictions, creating further challenges for public interest media in 2020

The global decline of democracy looks less like a temporary fluctuation and more like a permanent state. Covid-19 has only deepened the crisis by giving authoritarians and autocrats a pretext for further limiting civil society and media.

Around the world, IMS partners have had to adjust to audiences’ increased needs for trustworthy information, especially regarding the pandemic. Paradoxically, independent media outlets have found it more difficult to operate, whether because their staff faced arrests, targeted online harassment, lawsuits, shrinking revenues or the threat posed by Covid-19.
The global political climate has changed dramatically during the three decades I have worked with freedoms of the press and expression in developing countries and conflict areas. The balance of power between liberal democracy’s standard bearers and illiberal and authoritarian forces has shifted in favour of the latter.

In 2020, this development was thoroughly underlined, as seen during the elections in Belarus, violations of the human rights of journalists in Zimbabwe and the limitations placed on independent media (but not state controlled media) ahead of national elections in Myanmar.

Different internal developments in Europe and the USA over the last decade
have influenced the political atmosphere and led to a waning commitment to global democratic development. The underlying reasons for this shift are many and complex, but as a result, other influences are filling the void left by the historic advocates of democracy.

The consequences for the state of democracy are clear: the world has become less free and less democratic every year for the past 15 years – and the negative trajectory continues. Within the last year, 75 percent of the global population has had their basic rights restricted or limited in some way, to which the Covid-19 crisis has only contributed further.

Popular protests call for change

However, the people have not stayed silent. The pandemic has weakened governments’ images of benevolent but firm authority, leading to popular uprisings calling for more participation, representation and accountability.

Throughout 2020, decentralised popular protest movements around the world showed their dissatisfaction with the political leadership in countries such as Belarus, India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Peru and Kyrgyzstan, while protesters continued their on-going struggles in Sudan and Hong Kong – to name just a few examples.

The common denominator of these movements has been that they are taking place in regions where democratic rights and basic freedoms have been limited. And, most importantly, these movements are proof that democracy and human rights are still valued and still resonate, despite developments in the world in general.

In this context, journalism has an important role to play – and an equally big responsibility. Trust in national governments and the international community has plummeted, but in many places the media have experienced a different movement.

Throughout the pandemic, the media have contributed to and enabled populations’ rightful demands by distributing trustworthy information, practicing what we know as public interest journalism. And it has resonated widely with news consumers.

Throughout the pandemic, the media have contributed to and enabled populations’ rightful demands by distributing trustworthy information, practicing what we know as public
interest journalism. And it has resonated widely with news consumers.

Our partners around the world have reported massive increases in readership – especially in the early phases of the pandemic – illustrating how public interest journalism provides real value that state-controlled
media in many places simply cannot provide. This is indicative of the essential function media have in societies and the trust many people still have in journalism as a source of accurate information.

A well-informed public is able to actively participate in society, which is the core of any democracy. And the distribution of factual information through the media supports that agency.

New approaches

In light of developments of the last few years, where the people have protested authorities’ threats to democracy, new approaches are needed to both safeguard and promote democratic values. 2020 has seen IMS partners come up with new, innovative solutions, such as online media outlet Lok Sujag in Pakistan setting up pop-up newsrooms outside urban centres to cover a wider range of stories and include more diverse voices, or our fact-checking partner in Zimbabwe, ZimFact, making sure reliable information about the pandemic was made accessible, despite many political actors’ disregard of facts. Looking at the bigger picture, however, we have been
forced to accept that merely defending democracy is at least as important as promoting and developing democracy.

I do not see this change of tactic as an abdication of a core value or an acceptance of the tide of authoritarianism. It is more of a pragmatic approach, and an acknowledgement of the reality that many of IMS’ partners already operate in, where civic spaces are increasingly restricted.

Our contribution is first and foremost to ensure that an organised civil society still exists when the tide hopefully turns again. Democratic values in practice An example of both the long-term perspective and the importance of civil society’s involvement in democratic development is Tunisia. It was not civil society that deposed dictators across the entire region as part of the Arab Spring – but it is to a great extent to civil society’s credit that democratic development is still in progress in Tunisia more than 10 years later, despite various bumps in the road and regressions.

A comparable dynamic could be seen in Myanmar at the beginning of 2021 – though with the opposite outcome. After more than 10 years of largely positive democratic development, Burmese civil society is now playing an essential role in organising peaceful protests, securing broad, popular support and attracting international attention. All of this is an effort to protect the progress that had been made now that the democratic space is closing to an unheard of extent and human rights violations are piling up.
But it is in this interplay of progress and setbacks that civil society comes into its own everywhere in the world: on the one hand, as advocates for rights and popular involvement when society becomes more open, and on the other, as a bulwark against restrictions on freedoms and democracy
when the grip on civil space is tightened.

Civil society is perhaps the closest we come to democracy in practice. This is why it is essential that IMS’ work takes a holistic approach to strengthening free media, supporting civil society organisations and ensuring that they have the necessary capacities to withstand autocratic pressure and operate in a way that truly represents the diversity and entirety of their communities.

Civil society and public interest media play a key role in ensuring long-term democratic development and short-term defence. It is a priority for IMS to ensure that individuals and organisations are in the best possible position when sudden shifts occur and the civic space either opens or closes.

A question of priorities

Part of the pragmatic work needed to keep the democratic ball rolling equires engaging in topics that are less controversial in the eyes of autocrats. This can then lead to feasible development projects such as
support for digital development and regulation, collaboration between educational institutions and universities, environmental protections, anticorruption measures, media literacy or networking between local, national and regional organisations. These are areas which can help promote – if not directly, then indirectly – a pro-democracy agenda, and can slowly push the tectonic plates of society towards a democratic rupture.

If we don’t do our utmost to support the calls for democracy and freedom – which in recent years can be heard louder and louder from around the world – it will not only be a moral failing but will also do long-term damage to basic human rights and democratic values. We must set the course of action using the developments and lessons learned from 2020.

We will not be able to turn back the tide of authoritarianism with a flick of a wrist. But it is our choice to either stand idly by or stand up and unequivocally support democratic forces around the world, so that more people in the future can live their lives in better and freer societies founded on democratic values.

Jesper Højberg
IMS Director