Media in shrinking civic spaces

In our definition, the term shrinking civic space refers to a global pattern of repression against civil society organisations and independent media, whereby governments utilise different methods to shrink the space for those organisations to work in.

Free Press Unlimited helps independent media and journalists to continue operating under the most difficult conditions. Ever since 2011, Free Press Unlimited has gathered a wealth of knowledge on working in countries with limited press freedom. In that time we have seen the tactics that repressive leaders use to shrink the space for media to work in, change over the years. 

We still work in countries that are dealing with ongoing conflicts like Syria and Congo, but we see a worldwide trend of a shrinking civic space. The number of countries in the world that have very restricted or no press freedom at all increases every year, with 135 in 2024 compared to 128 in 2023. This more often calls for support in countries that are not necessarily in conflict, but where media freedom is significantly at stake. This requires Free Press Unlimited to expand and continue its work in Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans and increasingly also within the European Union.

Impact of conflict

When a country experiences conflict, this significantly affects the space for media to operate in. The opposing parties often pressure journalists to only publish their point of view, or even propaganda, and continuous fighting creates a very dangerous environment to physically work in. These conflicts also impact press freedom as journalists cannot freely and securely cover key events such as protests, incidents with militia, and affairs with armed forces, because it is too dangerous. 

For instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is highlighted as one of the countries with the most neglected displacement and humanitarian crises due to conflict, which leads to journalists suffering from threats, injuries when covering protests, and even deaths. Here, information is hard to come by, but of even greater importance. It can be life saving to know where fights take place or where people can go to for help. In these situations we help local media to continue operating as safely as possible under harsh circumstances, so information remains accessible for citizens. 

Demonstration in support of press freedom
Demonstration in support of press freedom.

What we do

In this theme we work with our partners to build and maintain a media landscape that is professional, ethical, and of high quality, in countries where media freedom is under high pressure. We help the media to keep holding powerholders accountable for their actions and keep reliable information accessible for the public. Sometimes this means we support the rebuilding of radio stations that have been destroyed during conflict like we did in the Central African Republic (CAR), and sometimes we help journalists to relocate so they can keep reporting from exile, such as our Exile Hub in Thailand for journalists from Myanmar

We see more and more media workers are being driven into exile. A trend which is likely to grow exponentially in the upcoming years. Free Press Unlimited works with exiled media from shrinking civic spaces across the globe to ensure they can continue to do their work. Because they are vital in ensuring independent and reliable information still reaches the wider populations. 

Another example is our years long work in Syria, where we have been active for over a decade. Despite the horrible conditions due to the war, we were able to support many great initiatives on the ground, so that they could survive and flourish. After years of work we could speak of a media landscape again. With the help of our peace building programme, media organisations have grown in their main aim: to provide reliable information to citizens inside and outside Syria. After the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria in February 2023, we helped our partners in that area to first of all stay safe, but then also to build up again and keep working to provide Syrians with information.

Legal pressure and advocacy

Besides conflict, one of the biggest threats to civic space, and to our democracies as a whole, is the increase of repressive legislation and legal pressure on journalists worldwide. It is escalating - especially after the start of the pandemic in 2020. In that year laws were introduced in 91 countries worldwide that significantly restrict the freedom of movement of journalists, also in democracies. Ever since, we have only seen an increasing authoritarian trend, with governments claiming more and more control over media through the judiciary, but also attempts from individuals and companies to silence journalists through court, in the form of highly demanding, unfair and made up charges. Advocating against these restricting laws, and for better legal protection of journalists, is an important part of our work.

For example, together with partners, Free Press Unlimited has continuously advocated for stronger EU legislation on the protection of journalists against SLAPP’s (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), after which the European Commission passed an anti-SLAPP law that better protects journalists against legal harassment.

Free from obstruction

Free Press Unlimited is committed to establishing an environment where there is space for independent media and journalists to work freely and without obstruction. Advocacy is crucial to create the legislative and policy measures necessary for press freedom, and a safe and viable work environment for journalists. It is important to promote physical safety for journalists through advocacy, to advocate against arbitrary detention and improper prosecution of journalists, and to campaign for the improvement of the current negative political climate towards journalists.

Because where press freedom is restricted, media have less space to work in, which means less access to reliable information for the public. This affects people’s lives greatly, and weakens democracies. That’s why we work hard to support independent media worldwide.

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