Dec 11, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Free press in peril

Illustration of a skull and bones made out of newspaper
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Press freedom is starting to get more attention from world leaders, as new data suggests 2021 was yet another record-breaking year for violations of those rights.

Why it matters: Press freedoms have taken an unprecedented toll during the pandemic, especially in poorer nations and in countries teetering on the edge of democracy.

The big picture: Journalists have faced record levels of persecution globally during the pandemic, which has empowered autocrats to go after the free press with arbitrary measures like "fake news" laws and internet blackouts.

Driving the news: President Biden on Thursday confirmed that the U.S. will invest up to $30 million in a new initiative, led by news veterans, called The International Fund for Public Interest Media, to protect the free press globally.

  • His commitment makes the U.S. the largest funder of the new program of any nation so far. On Thursday, Taiwan committed $1 million to the effort. France and New Zealand committed undisclosed amounts.
  • The Biden administration also announced that United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will provide $14 million to launch or support other media programs. The State Department will also provide up to $3.5 million to establish a Journalism Protection Platform.

What to watch: The new fund, which launched earlier this year, is a global effort to support independent media outlets and journalists around the world. Former New York Times CEO and BBC director-general Mark Thompson and Filipino journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa co-chair the group's board.

  • Ressa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for her commitment to fighting for a free press and combatting misinformation online, alongside Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.

The group is aiming to raise $100 million from private-sector and government donors to help revive the independent press globally.

  • Thompson told Axios that the group is in serious conversations with 15 more governments about funding. "We're very confident that we can build a fund of real scale."
  • The initial focus is likely going to be on the "Global South" — areas like Latin America, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia, he said.
  • The goal of the fund is to provide grants to "promising and trustworthy, independent news outlets," to help them rebuild if they were impacted by COVID and to help them develop long-term, sustainable business models, he said.

Be smart: The Biden administration's record on free press issues has so far been mixed. While Biden says he's committed to supporting a free press, a few instances this year have drawn scrutiny from press freedom advocates.

  • In March, press advocates slammed the administration for its decision not to sanction the Saudi crown prince, after a U.S. intelligence report concluded that he approved the 2018 operation to "capture or kill" journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
  • In September, the administration faced criticism from senators from both parties for leaving more than 100 government-sponsored journalists and their families in Afghanistan, following a chaotic withdrawal from the country.

The bottom line: "Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world’s existential problems: climate, coronavirus, the battle for truth," Ressa said in her Nobel acceptance speech.

Go deeper: News veterans lead new global fund for public interest media

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