After Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack, the West quickly came together to provide Ukraine with the necessary goods, the sanctions regime and diplomatic support. Western leaders gathering at Schloss Elmau for the G-7 summit should now respond with similar urgency and determination to the much broader threat facing democracies around the world.
In particular, the crisis threatens to engulf independent journalism, leaving much of the world at the mercy of disinformation and oppression.
As Ukraine has shown, the struggle for democracy is an information war that is not just about tanks and artillery pieces. It’s a war that can be won. Before the invasion, the Kremlin’s sophisticated means of disinformation was considered as invincible as the legendary Russian land army.
However, opinion polls show that they have only been effective at home and in those parts of the world that have marginal or no access to independent media and other trusted sources of information, or where attitudes towards the West and towards liberal democracy were already ambivalent .
The relative honesty, improvisational brilliance and sheer energy of the way President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tells his version of events has proven more than equal to Moscow in Ukraine, most Western countries and beyond.
It has managed to stay one step ahead of what is perhaps the most sophisticated and ruthless disinformation machine ever created, at least for the time being. And they did so by filling the digital battlefield with real-time images, debunking Russian untruths before they were disseminated, and allowing international journalists broad freedom to report the facts on the ground.
America and its allies have also taken an unexpectedly proactive and candid approach to voicing their stance on President Putin’s Ukrainian adventure. Even before the Russian armed forces crossed the Ukrainian borders, Western intelligence services had predicted this.
They have since acted swiftly to debunk false Russian claims and timely present their own generally persuasive information as to the true state of the war.
Regardless of the outcome of this cruel and unnecessary conflict, Ukraine and the West have shown that in a fair battle between truth and self-serving lies, it is usually the truth that wins. A “fair fight” means that freedom of expression prevails and the existence of strong independent news providers allows the truth to be heard.
But in country after country, there is increasingly no fair fight. In much of the world, repression and the brutal economy of modern journalism have led to the weakening, and in many cases undermining and destroying, the independent media that citizens depend on for information.
Authority figures – whether old vested interests or new ethno-nationalist populists – know that democracy and the rule of law cannot develop without honest reporting and open debate.
For this very reason, President Putin has already begun to suppress the free media in the parts of Ukraine he controls. He has used a “special military operation” as a pretext to wipe out the few remaining sources of independent news and commentary in his own country.
But the trend goes far beyond Russia. Several surveys of the state of journalism around the world confirm that repressive media laws, harassment, arrests, detention and even the killing of reporters are increasing.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus, soaring inflation and the looming economic downturn have shattered the business models of independent news organizations everywhere, most severely in the Global South.
Together, these double pressures threaten what UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently warned against: a global “media death” would have profound consequences in areas of democracy and human rights for large sections of humanity.
That is why we, the authors of this essay, have agreed to chair a new international fund. It aims to help save and promote trustworthy, independent journalism around the world.
We are journalists from different backgrounds, one of us has recently won the Nobel Peace Prize and is at the forefront of fighting for independent news and freedom of expression in the Philippines, the other was a former head of the BBC and the New York Times.
But we both know what a difference great journalism can make to societies and the lives of individuals. We both know the desperate plight of the independent news industry around the world.
The International Fund for Public Interest Media (IFPIM) will collect donations from governments, philanthropists and the private sector and then give the money to promising news providers from around the world.
Funding will be independent of individual donors, and IFPIM will fully reflect the priorities and values of the journalists it seeks to help. We have already received a sum of money in the tens of millions and assume that we will award our first scholarships this summer.
Supporting IFPIM is just one way the international community can foster strong independent journalism around the world. However, the meetings of heads of state and government and the proliferation of conferences on peace and democracy are not enough.
A comprehensive attempt to combat the global poison of disinformation is necessary on the one hand, but not enough on the other. Not only does the public need to be protected from false information, they also need reliable access to a truth-based alternative.
To ensure this, Western leaders – including those gathered at G-7 summits – and all those who care about democracy must move from lamenting the sorry state of global journalism to practical ones take steps to improve it. That means action. And action in this case means money.
Maria Ressa (@mariaressa) is co-founder and CEO of Philippine digital news site Rappler and co-awardee of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Mark Thompson is a former CEO of The New York Times Company and former CEO of the BBC, and is currently an advisor to the Supervisory Board of Axel Springer SE.