Ruth Kronenburg: “It felt like all the different puzzle pieces fell into place.”
Since April 2022, Ruth Kronenburg has been the Executive Director of Free Press Unlimited, following a 10 year joint leadership structure, which she maintained together with Leon Willems. In a world where press freedom is going downhill and journalists are facing an increasing number of threats, Free Press Unlimited's work has become more important than ever before. At the start of this new year Kronenburg reflects on the future of the organisation, and tells us what drives her.
Ruth Kronenburg and Leon Willems formed a Board of Directors for many years, and together managed to bring Free Press Unlimited to where it is today. The transition from a joint leadership structure to one Executive Director at Free Press Unlimited, was a very gradual process.
"Leon indicated as early as 2019 that he wanted to work for press freedom in a different way. Over time, he expressed to me his confidence that I could take over the reins. And in a way I was already doing it for a while. Because of that, it felt very natural," says Kronenburg.
However, there are plenty of challenges ahead. Press freedom and journalists are under great pressure worldwide and the organisation needs to be stable and strong to be able to continue. Kronenburg: "We still have quite a few challenges to face together. But I enjoy that as well, it gives me energy."
So how did Ruth Kronenburg actually end up at Free Press Unlimited, and what drives her to work for press freedom worldwide every day?
From Dutch TV to a radio station in exile
Kronenburg comes from the corporate media world, where she worked as General Manager at Endemol, one of the biggest TV production companies in the Netherlands with a long track record. Accustomed to hard deadlines and a highly results-oriented and businesslike working environment, it was a 180-degree switch to be in the NGO world. But it was a decision that felt right. "I had seen it all in the commercial world. I thought it was a load of nonsense. I called making TV ‘building air castles’. Because it is so fleeting and often without any depth."
She ended up at Iranian radio station in exile Radio Zamaneh, based in the Netherlands. Radio Zamaneh was looking for a director who had experience with re-organisation, who knew the media world and knew how to get things done. Kronenburg recognised herself in that role. A year and a half later, Radio Zamaneh was debt-free, and had earned a long-term grant. This was a beautiful and constructive time for Kronenburg during which she gained insight into the day-to-day running of a radio station working under high pressure. "I learned about working with stringers, how to transfer money safely, and came into contact with people who had fled a repressive regime, which made a huge impression on me."
"I had seen it all in the commercial world. I thought it was a load of nonsense."
Puzzle pieces into place
At Radio Zamaneh, Leon Willems became a member of the Supervisory Board on behalf of Press Now, where Kronenburg got to know him. "It turned out that Leon was in the midst of a merger process with Press Now and Free Voice, which together would become Free Press Unlimited. I had done three merger projects at Endemol, so I could definitely provide him with advice, and after I finished my time at Zamaneh, Leon called me, asking me to temporarily replace him and complete the merger project."
However, they were also looking for a second director, which Kronenburg applied for and, after completing the application process, got the position. "It felt like all the pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place. As if my whole previous career history had brought me here. Because without the knowledge gained from those years at Endemol, I wouldn't have come this far, and I wouldn't have been able to do this."
Human touch meets business insight
Kronenburg entered a different world, where ‘results’ were considered a dirty word. "In my early days, I was at times very surprised during meetings with fellow NGOs. For instance, these other NGOs sometimes expressed outrage because of the fact that the ministry demanded more result-oriented work. This is the civil society sector, how dare the ministry!"
Kronenburg noticed how influencing the organisation with a more business-minded approach led to many positive outcomes. "You also need to know what you want to achieve. And how you measure that and what you judge it on. That was really lacking. I saw that as my added value. I was also always the one who dared to ask the million dollar question during meetings with donors or other stakeholders: can you support us and if so, how?"
An additional benefit from this approach was that Free Press Unlimited had a very low overhead (costs that cannot be financed by subsidies) right from the start. "I have always been very proud of that, the fact that we always score around 97% when it comes to money being spent directly on our mission. This means that only around 3-4% is spent on administration and management. Those are really nice figures. Most other organisations are at around 10-12%."
"My father was in the resistance during the war. Now I kind of feel like I've followed in his footsteps. That I am fighting for what is right."
Different perspective on the world
At Free Press Unlimited, Kronenburg encountered a very different atmosphere and dynamic environment than she was used to at Endemol. She saw the enormous drive people had, based on ideology, and not for money - or for the sake of meeting a deadline. It also reminded her of her father. "My father was in the resistance during the war. This has always been something I have been very proud of. Now I kind of feel like I've followed in his footsteps. That I am fighting for what is right."
Kronenburg also had the opportunity to see a lot of the world and meet many inspiring people. This provided her with a different perspective on the world. "Now everything I do revolves around safeguarding democratic values. Because that is what press freedom is about; maintaining a democratic norm - a value that you strongly stand for. That's a much better stance to have in life than just to focus on money." But it is also a realistic view to have of the world, because it has not made her any more positive. "Press freedom worldwide has only been declining over the years. And it's also happening in democratic countries."
As an international community, we should certainly be concerned about the state of press freedom, says Kronenburg. "What I find alarming is that in democratic countries like the Netherlands, people have not yet realised that the declining state of press freedom is affecting us here too. There is a sense of dismissal, and people are not yet alert nor critical enough. Journalism itself in many democratic countries is also just not critical enough. There is a lack of self-examination and self-reflection, even though this is exactly what we need right now, more than ever before."
Therein also lies a difference between journalism in democratic and repressive countries. "In countries like Venezuela, I see journalists who are strongly driven to reveal the truth at all costs. You see those types of journalists in democratic countries too, but there they are paid for it, and in a country like Venezuela, they are not. There, they receive death threats and here, fortunately, the vast majority still do not. That does make a difference."
"What you see is that all democratic norms and values are eroding. Press freedom is the canary in the coal mine."
The canary in the coal mine
Kronenburg stresses that press freedom is a human right, an indispensable component of a functioning democracy. That is also why this right is often the first casualty when at the hands of an authoritarian regime. "What you see is that all democratic norms and values are eroding. Press freedom is the canary in the coal mine, or in other words, the first value to be eroded. And then no one is held accountable anymore. If press freedom collapses, then there is no one doing the checks and balances, and the public no longer knows what is going on either. Corruption can then run its course, and a country goes downhill very quickly."
This can also cost lives, and specifically affect minorities. "In conflict-ridden countries for example, people are no longer properly informed about where it is safe to go. Citizens themselves can also no longer raise important issues. Ethnic and religious minorities in particular suffer a lot directly as a result, because no more attention is paid to those groups."
As to how Free Press Unlimited will arm itself against the erosion of democratic values in the coming period, Kronenburg has some ideas. Part of it is by showing guts. "We have to make sure we are known as an organisation that has guts and dares to take risks. We want to be the go-to organisation when it comes to press freedom and safety of journalists. And for that, everyone needs to know what we stand for, what we have already done and what we can do."
She continued: "We are already known as a fantastic, solid implementer of press freedom projects, that is our reputation with donors. But we also need to show that we dare to stick our necks out to initiate new things that are not already a tried and tested concept. We must have room to be innovative, to experiment, because that is where our strength lies. That is also where most of our successes have come from. Think for instance of our Safer World for the Truth project, or the fellowship in Indonesia where we had journalists in rural areas guided by mainstream media, or how set up media and media support organisations for Syria. For 10 years we worked on that, and with result, we can now even speak of a media landscape in and outside Syria again."
"Change takes time, so you have to get there in time."
Kronenburg is also looking further ahead and is engaged in advocacy efforts to give press freedom a bigger role in the Social Development Goals (SDGs), which will be revisited in 2030. "Change takes time, so you have to get there in time," she adds.
The role of BigTech
The digital sphere also plays a key role when looking at the road ahead. Kronenburg notes that media entities and journalists are incredibly dependent on social media platforms, the BigTech, which have basically taken away their revenue model. "On the other hand, you see BigTech doing very little when it comes to curbing online threats, and trolls and bots that are deployed against journalists."
An awful lot of journalists suffer from this, such as Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist buried in online hate. Kronenburg: "Nothing happens. They have the resources, and they have the technology to do so, but they just don’t do it." Another current example is Ukraine. "All the local media outlets along the frontline are blocked by Facebook and Google. They can't do anything at all. So what is left? Russian propaganda. And they keep saying that they are curtailing all these Russian influences, but that is mainly lip service. Show us by lifting those blockades first."
But addressing this problem is not something Free Press Unlimited, or any organisation, can do alone. "Everyone knows this problem, but what BigTech companies are saying is that these are all incidents. And they can say that because there is no large scale movement - yet - aimed at fighting them."
"On the one hand, you see that YouTube is working to encourage and support independent media groups in Ukraine by placing them higher in the search engine results, but at the same time, because YouTube is also owned by Google, they are blocking Ukrainian media that are on the frontlines."
The reason for this has to do with accountability. "They don't take responsibility, and that's because they don't have clear guidelines. Nor do they want to. Because the clearer your guidelines are, the more there is to have to act against. So they deliberately have very vague guidelines."
So this is where Kronenburg sees a task ahead for the entire international community. "We certainly cannot do this alone, we have to work together. Our advocacy department is already working very hard on this."
The power of the media
Among all this conflict, you would almost forget what you are doing it for, and that positive impact is also being made. Kronenburg recounts some moments where she experienced the power of the media.
Like the story of radio station Suara Surabaya in the city of Surabaya, Indonesia. "More than 20 million people suffered a lot from the floodings that occurred during the rainy seasons each year, and they had a big problem during this time with the collection of trash. Everyone was complaining bitterly. At one point, Suara Surabaya radio station announced: OK, people can come and complain, but only if they come up with a solution as well. And they monitored that very strictly. As a result, people’s opinions on the situation became not just one big lament to local politicians, but became solutions-oriented – and police officials and government agencies for example also started to participate. It became a discussion platform on how problems could be addressed."
"Now, with thanks in part to Suara Surabaya, the city of Surabaya has the best trash collection and processing system in Indonesia. It is one of the cleanest cities. They managed to solve the whole flooding system that way as well. With the help of citizens in the form of citizen engagement, and with the help of local media. I thought that was so inspiring."
Kronenburg also shares another example on a smaller scale, where a media outlet in Somalia made a big difference. "In Somalia if I remember correctly, a village was cut in half by a river. There were people living on one side and working on the other. The bridge was a few miles away, so the people from the village had to walk hours before reaching their workplaces. The local media reported on this with the help from one of our trainings, and then a ferry was delivered to transport people to and from. That made a huge difference, it saved those people many hours a day. That's how impactful a media outlet can be."
"Then you notice, journalists are real change makers. They can bring about change, if they fulfill their role in a good way. And that, of course, is what we work for every day."
Kronenburg further emphasises the importance of local media outlets. "Local media groups have an enormous influence on their immediate environment, which is why they are so indispensable. An example of its impact is when you look at the USA, where there is almost no local media anymore. Statistics show that when local media disappeared there, corruption in municipalities increased. There was no one left to hold them accountable."
"The media in Ukraine is still standing, they are still functioning under such incredibly difficult circumstances. That's very special."
What you do it for
Kronenburg is reminded almost every day of the positive impact of Free Press Unlimited's work, which continues to drive her. "I meet journalists who still express their gratitude for help they received, even if it was 10 years ago," she says.
"Last week I received an update that we supported 876 journalists in Ukraine. Then I think, wow, we just managed to do that in half a year! We sent 150 bullet-proof vests, 150 emergency medical kits, we helped journalists deal with trauma, provided training in war reporting. These are fantastic, concrete things that have impact, and the media is still standing there, they are still functioning under such incredibly difficult circumstances. That's very special. I mean: if those people can do it, who am I to say I don't believe in it anymore?"
Hope in the midst of an up-hill battle
When asked what else she would like to pass on to people reading this, she stated: "There are also so many good people in this world. You sometimes forget that when you only read and hear about misery, and are working in it yourself. Take Pakistan and Afghanistan, two countries at war with each other, and yet Pakistanis helped Afghans flee their own country after the fall of Kabul. And some even did so whilst risking their own lives. That gives hope."
This helps to give perspective, especially given all of the misery and suffering that unfortunately occurs almost daily in our work. "Sometimes you feel like it's an uphill battle. What are we doing it all for? But when you hear stories like this, it gives you hope that you can win it, because there are also so many good people doing good things too."
Finally, she mentions her understanding that we are not alone. "There are people out there who get it, the importance of what we do. And the great thing is that we now have a network of so many amazing hard-working people, a gigantic network. That's something to be really proud of."
"So lastly I would like to add: become a part of this network! Take action, join us." And that can also be by donating money, she adds with a smile. There it is, the million dollar question.