Can the ‘Summit for Democracy’ deliver for independent media?

This commentary was originally published in The Hill.

There has been much handwringing about President Biden’s proposed “Summit for Democracy” slated for December. Will it do anything to stop the alarming trend of democratic backsliding around the world?

On one hand, symbolism matters. Simply hosting such a summit puts authoritarians on notice that the U.S. prioritizes democracy and won’t overlook — and let aid continue to flow to — repressive regimes. 

On the other hand, details matter and money matters. It remains to be outlined how, exactly, governments and the private sector will invest concretely to advance this agenda.

The administration has taken a welcome step in elevating independent media to the top of the agenda. Amid rising persecution of journalists around the world — a record 274 were imprisoned last year — staunch support for democracy’s fourth estate has never been more important. The administration’s commitment, on the heels of the Nobel Committee awarding the Peace Prize to two journalists last month, amplifies the call to support a free press the world over.

In the spirit of making commitments to support independent media, here are some concrete ideas:

Increase foreign aid for independent media

Governments that provide foreign aid should commit 1 percent of their official development assistance to supporting independent media. From the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago through the crisis in Ethiopia right now, the U.S. State Department, USAID, and foreign government agencies have been instrumental in fostering independent media in emerging democracies, conflict zones, low-income countries, and during humanitarian crises.

In most instances these governments have acted effectively – nimbly providing support during key windows of opportunity, ensuring investments get to the most promising independent organizations, and letting local partners drive their own development.

They should simply do more of it. 

Create a media business accelerator

The collapse of traditional media business models poses an existential threat to news outlets across the globe. An idea that the Biden administration is exploring is the creation of a media business accelerator (MBA). This is a good idea. 

Such an accelerator could help donor governments coordinate efforts to help independent media adopt more effective business models.

This MBA could include a research arm to give outlets insight into their own markets and identify potential revenue opportunities; a data clearing house to provide donors and media support organizations with information on where support is needed most; and a consulting arm to provide business expertise to help media outlets craft business models that fit their market and audience.

Go big early, stay for the long term

Timing is everything when supporting media in emerging democracies.

Funds should be set aside for “breakthrough” moments that allow for building an effective, collaborative media reform agenda, backed by resources to support this agenda over the long term.

Establishing strong free press laws and regulations as new constitutions are written makes it harder for future regimes to weaken them.

Financial resources and outside expertise are especially needed early in a country’s democratic transition, as new outlets are just getting off the ground. But donor countries must also commit to supporting independent media over the long term.

In low-income, emerging democracies many vital independent media outlets simply can’t survive without external support. Political mouth pieces or outlets driven by oligarch agendas will fill the void if independent outlets fail.

Accurate information is the lifeblood of democracy.

The “Summit for Democracy” holds the potential to bolster the journalists, filmmakers, artists and activists who draw attention to issues that matter, help citizens make informed decisions, and hold power to account. But we must meet this moment with action, policy change, and money — not just words.

Jeanne Bourgault is president and CEO of Internews, a nonprofit that supports independent media in 100 countries.