OSF’s mission is “to build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people.” It has spent nearly $12 billion since its launch in 1979 by Hungarian-born financier George Soros. One of its first initiatives was “to distribute photocopiers to universities, libraries, and civil society groups, breaking the communist party’s grip on information” in Soros’s native country.
The Open Society Foundations (OSF) Program on Independent Journalism (PIJ) works directly with journalists, media outlets, media associations, and media freedom groups “to promote independent and viable media and professional, quality journalism in countries undergoing a process of democratization, and building functioning media markets.”
In the CIMA survey, each donor was asked to rate from high to low in terms of priority the types of media interventions it supports.
Free and independent media has remained one of OSF’s important concerns, although specific emphases have evolved. “In 2014, our name changed from the Media Program to the Program on Independent Journalism [PIJ], and our revised funding priorities reflect this,” Colombian investigative journalist Maria Teresa Ronderos, who assumed PIJ’s leadership in May 2015, explained in an interview at OSF’s London offices. “We are moving out of media policy and reform issues in 2015, but will continue to support diversity, inclusion, and minority voices in media through quality journalism.”
Quality journalism must be independent, Ronderos explained, and help open a conversation with society by collecting and curating information that is verifiable and trustworthy. “Online platforms are our new public plazas, where people can meet to share information and mobilize around issues, she said. “Importantly, they can connect people who are marginalized to each other and the wider society.”
Yet Ronderos, like many other observers of the development of social media, is concerned over a lack of depth on many digital platforms: “Television soundbites can sound like Einstein compared to what we see on Twitter,” she said.
High quality investigative journalism has been a special focus for PIJ support. In response to the CIMA Survey, Ronderos wrote: “In a broad way the investigative journalism we have supported has had a large impact on transparency in several sectors, such as the financial sector. OSF’s support for several new digital media outlets in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe has multiplied the number of independent voices that hold power to account and provide citizens with verified, trustable information. “Sometimes, like in Nicaragua or in Malaysia,” she added, “these outlets are among the very few independent media that exist in the country.”
The annual budget for the Program on Independent Journalism (PIJ) for 2016 was $10.7 million annually. In 2017 that amount rose to $13.2 million. While there has been no comprehensive tracking of the myriad media and information-related activities within OSF’s overall spending, some spending outside PIJ would likely be considered media development support.
Some assistance is very straightforwardly to help media survive existential threats: aiding outlets to fend off censorship by providing legal defense advice and enhancing journalist safety through physical and digital security training. Media freedom groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists receive PIJ support. Details of some grantees are confidential because of the hostile environments in which they operate.
Regional Breakdown of OSF Media Development Support:
Africa – 8%
Asia – 9%
Europe – 5%
Eurasia – 5%
Latin America – 10%
Middle East 7%
Global Programs – 54%
Program on Independent Journalism (PIJ) Funding in 2016
In Nicaragua, OSF grantee Confidenciale has done important investigative reporting and is also reaching out to rural areas to build a broader audience and community. But it operates in a very difficult media environment. As a 2013 OSF report noted: “One of the most significant levers of government influence over the media is official advertising. Over the last five years, around 80 percent of these funds have been allocated in favor of [Nicaragua President] Ortega’s own media interests or those allied to his administration.”
One OSF grantee is the Nepal radio network Ujyaalo 90 Network (UNN), which reaches urban and rural communities through 170 stations in Nepal. UNN has developed strong investigative journalism and good story telling skills to expose injustice and promote redress. After the April 2015 earthquake, OSF provided emergency grants to replace damaged equipment so its broadcasts could again reach many seriously affected areas and help connect survivors and mobilize rebuilding efforts. UNN online has also built an important role in providing useful information to and building communities among very vulnerable Nepalese migrant workers in the Persian Gulf and around the world.
Business sustainability is very important to PIJ, and it encourages media outlets to find new ways to fund quality journalism. OSF has supported the Malaysian online news service Malaysiakini, which has won a loyal audience for its independent reporting—and thus attracted advertisers—in Malaysia’s tightly-controlled media environment, and has also raised money through crowdfunding.