Non-profit news site The Wire, a leader in India’s digital news revolution and an unflinching defender of independent, high-quality journalism, is the recipient of the 2021 Free Media Pioneer Award.

The annual Free Media Pioneer award was established by the International Press Institute (IPI) in 1996 to recognize media organizations that are innovating for better journalism and news access, or working to ensure freer and more independent media in their country or region. For the past six years, the award has been given in partnership with Copenhagen-based International Media Support (IMS).

This year’s Free Media Pioneer award will be presented together with IPI’s 2021 World Press Freedom Hero award during a special ceremony on September 16, 2021, in Vienna, Austria, as part of IPI’s annual World Congress.

Commitment to independence and watchdog journalism

The Wire was founded in 2015 as an independent digital news venture by a trio of journalists –  Siddharth Varadarajan, MK Venu and Sidharth Bhatia – with several decades of experience between them. It deliberately eschewed traditional corporate- and advertiser-driven funding in favour of a non-profit, audience-centred model dedicated to holding all forms of power to account. Six years later, that strategic decision has paid off: The Wire has shown that deeply reported accountability journalism that’s trusted by its audience can be translated into sustainable revenues.

As the site’s founding editors explain, “The founding premise of The Wire is this: if good journalism is to survive and thrive, it can only do so by being both editorially and financially independent. This means relying principally on contributions from readers and concerned citizens who have no interest other than to sustain a space for quality journalism.”

Published in English, Hindi, Urdu and Marathi, The Wire has emerged as a prominent voice in India’s otherwise crowded media landscape, combining fearless watchdog reporting with sensitive coverage of how the authorities’ policies and actions impact the day-to-day lives of Indians. Its YouTube channel, with 3.5 million subscribers and 24 million views a month, has one of the largest reaches of any newspaper or digital news site video platform.

Amid India’s press freedom downslide, The Wire’s commitment to public-interest news has also made it a growing target of government harassment. This year alone, three cases have been filed against the outlet and its reporters, including for their coverage of India’s farmers’ protests. In 2020, The Wire and Varadarajan were charged with “spreading panic” for reporting on violations of COVID-19 rules by religious leaders. The site previously faced 14 defamation cases by figures close to the ruling party requesting $1.3 billion in damages.

The pressure on The Wire and its journalists took an even darker turn this summer with the Pegasus Project revelations. The phones of Varadarajan and Venu were shown to have been infected with the Israeli-made spyware, presumably at the behest of the Indian government, while The Wire’s diplomatic editor was also on the leaked list of probable targets. The Wire was part of the collaborative global investigation, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, that uncovered the extent of government surveillance of journalists and human rights defenders using Pegasus.

The Wire has also been at the forefront of the battle against India’s new regulations for digital platforms, which grant the authorities increased powers to censor digital content. The Wire’s publisher, the Foundation for Independent Journalism, has sued to stop the rules, which, it says, represent an unconstitutional attempt by the state to tell the media what can and can’t be published.

Forging a new path

Founding Editor Siddharth Varadarajan said of the award: “The Wire is thrilled to receive the IPI/IMS Free Media Pioneer Award. We have strived to deliver on our mission of providing high quality journalism to the people of India, free from the political and corporate pressures that beset most of the media in the country. We’ve paid a price for our independence, of course – defamation cases and now criminal charges for doing journalism, and of course difficulties in raising finances. But there is nothing like recognition from our peers in India and around the world to make this journey totally worth it.”

IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi added:

“We are extremely proud to recognize The Wire as this year’s IPI-IMS Free Media Pioneer. The Wire is a leading force in India’s digital news transformation and its commitment to quality, independent journalism is an inspiration to IPI members around the world. We congratulate all of The Wire’s staff for their tremendous work in the service of critical reporting and press freedom, and stand with them in the face of increasing political pressure.”

IMS (International Media Support) Executive Director Jesper Højberg says:

“Media in Asia experience rising pressure. We have observed how Asia’s independent media and citizens must navigate a tightening operational space while dealing with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis and the risk of being punished for speaking out. The Wire relentlessly finds ways to uphold the right to freedom of expression, in inspiration for others, globally and in the region”.

The most recent Free Media Pioneer award, in 2019, was given to the Egyptian news website Mada Masr for courageously delivering independent, investigative coverage to a public otherwise starved of it. Previous winners have included the Philippine news site Rappler, the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), and Russia’s Novaya Gazeta.