Independent media are under attack around the world. At the IPI World Congress flagship town hall on September 17, some of global journalism’s most courageous thinkers shared their perspectives on the shrinking space for news – and how to combat it.

“Our future depends on what we do now.” That was the simple yet powerful message from IPI Executive Board member Maria Ressa, founder and editor of Rappler news site in the Philippines. Ressa – the target of numerous criminal cases designed to silence her – emphasized Rappler’s trio of technology, accountability journalism, and community building as the keys to resist creeping authoritarianism.

“Journalists have to embrace the tech”, she said. “We cannot rely on social media platforms to distribute facts. Studies show that algorithms are biased against journalists and biased against facts. It’s an existential problem for all of us around the world.”

The second speaker, Meduza editor Galina Timchenko, described grappling with Meduza’s future after Russian authorities labelled it a “foreign agent” in April. Faced with an advertising exodus, Timchenko considered closing the outlet. Her team wouldn’t have it. They decided to fight back, with the help of their readers, telling them: “We have no advertisers – but we have you. Help us save this media for you. And they answered.”

She described Russia’s growing efforts to shut down critical speech, increasingly with the help of tech companies. Timchenko said that Apple and Google stores had removed apps related to Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny and removed search results, while Apple also does not allow Russian users to enable a function protecting them from government tracking. “IT giants are helping Russian authorities in their repression”, she told the IPI World Congress.

Pressure on media is intensifying in Pakistan, too. Dawn editor Zaffar Abbas said his newspaper’s biggest challenges came from state security forces as well as militant groups. “If we question the government and the security forces, we are branded as traitors”, he said. “If we write about atrocities by militant groups, we are a target.”

Attacks from authorities on independent media are two-pronged, Abbas said. On the one hand, the government has introduced new legislation to control the media, such as a new draconian media regulation bill called PMDA. On the other, there is a policy of using social media and online trolls “to malign credible journalists and journalism”.

With regards to international support, Abbas was clear about what was needed. “We don’t need funding”, he said. Rather, the world must continue to monitor and protest against attacks on Pakistan’s media.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, a columnist and senior staff writer at Thailand’s Khaosod English news outlet, told participants that the press freedom situation in Thailand wasn’t as bad as neighbouring Myanmar, but still faced serious challenges. His name appeared on a recently leaked list of so-called “enemies of the state”.

The media landscape in Thailand had also shifted, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rojanaphruk said. Print media continued to decline, with social media and small online media playing a greater role. He highlighted the recent arrest of two citizen reporters as a sign of the changing times. “There is a grey area now being discussed as to whether these people are journalists”, he said. “My point is that we should be more encompassing in treating press freedom.”

Bold steps needed

Until recently, Khadija Patel was the editor-in-chief of South Africa’s respected Mail & Guardian newspaper. Now, as head of programmes for the International Fund for Public Interest Media, she’s thinking about the investment needed to keep independent media alive across the globe. The fund’s goal is to ensure that 1 percent of overseas development aid (ODA) is directed toward media.

Small pots of money here and there aren’t enough, Patel said. “We need to dig deep to ensure the viability of media. We have to seek a step change, something significant. This is an opportunity to come together and cement media as a public good.”

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro commented that the general situation of media freedom had “clearly worsened” over the last 10 years. The problem, she added, is not the lack of commitments from states. “The problem is the implementation” of those commitments. She called for greater international mechanisms to allow for her office and others to follow up on implementation efforts.

Mary Fitzgerald, the director of the Information Democracy programme at OSF, said that OSF placed particular importance on supporting experimental media projects and business models, looking for “models of resilience” that can be “applied and adapted elsewhere”.

She also echoed comments by other panellists on the need to speak with a collective voice and become more “creative and front-footed” in the fight to defend independent journalism. What is needed, she said, are “new advocacy strategies to deploy to hold the line and tell the story about how journalism serves societies. How can we deploy our funding and networks and solidarity to build different communities of action? What about building new technologies that don’t rely on these massive, unaccountable tech platforms?”

The IPI World Congress Town Hall was moderated by Nadja Hahn, a journalist with the Austrian public broadcaster ORF.