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Learning from autocrats: The future centrality of media support

Article by James Deane

October 19, 2021

Learning from autocrats: The future centrality of media support

The autocrats playbook

“The playbook of “wannabe” dictators seems to have been shared widely among leaders in (former) democracies. First, seek to restrict and control the media while curbing academia and civil society. Then couple these with disrespect for political opponents to feed polarisation while using the machinery of the government to spread disinformation. Only when you have come far enough on these fronts is it time for an attack on democracy’s core: elections and other formal institutions.”[1]


This is the analysis of the annual 2021 Democracy Report published by V-Dem, the respected Stockholm-based think tank. It is one shared by most analysts assessing the prospects for democracy in the twenty-first century. Those intent on unaccountable power are targeting first and foremost the institutions they perceive as most effective at checking that power. At the top of that list are independent media. Those efforts are proving highly effective in part because authoritarians are prepared to invest substantial resources and long term political focus and in part because their task is made ever easier by broader trends that greatly favour their success.


A decade ago, there held a widespread assumption that a combination of technological and economic dynamics which dramatically decreased the cost of publishing and disseminating information would unleash fresh democratic energy and lend new wind to the democratic surge that had characterised much of the 1990s and 2000s. Despite the multiple and manifest benefits of increased access to the internet, in democratic terms the opposite has proved true.


Misinformation and disinformation has increasingly characterised what are now the dominant means through which much of humanity communicates. The business models that once sustained independent media and the generation of trustworthy information have eroded as advertising revenue has migrated online. The pandemic has wreaked further devastating damage on media revenues and has been widely acknowledged, including by the UN Secretary General, as a potential “media extinction” event.[2] Estimates for global revenue loss of newspapers alone have been put at $30 billion.[3]


Authoritarian and other non-democratic actors are using the emergency as just the latest opportunity to strengthen media that is favourable to them and destroy media that could hold them to account. Domestically, they are increasingly doing this by applying financial, as well as political measures by deploying government advertising in their interest, seizing or attacking the financial assets of independent media or making the cost of doing journalism ever more risky and expensive. Internationally they are financially investing in media favourable to their interests or taking other measures that weaken or delegitimise independent media.


Efforts to defend independent media by contrast are poorly resourced, highly fragmented and insufficiently effective. The UK has played a leading role in working to defend independent journalists and journalism through its Defend Media Freedom campaign and the founding of an important new Media Freedom Coalition consisting now of 50 governments and strong civil society engagement.[4] This has leant much needed diplomatic muscle and created important mechanisms for coordination of media defence efforts across government and civil society.


Despite this and other important efforts, such as from the UN and multiple NGOs (including my own), the steady march of political capture of media, the intensifying economic crisis confronting independent media, and the ever more organised and often fatal attacks on journalists and the media houses that employ them intensify every day.


The consequences of this – for democracy, for human progress – become increasingly obvious. Democracy ceases to function if power cannot be held to account or if the concerns of people are not articulated and reflected in public and political debate. Societies cannot respond effectively to the dangers and challenges that confront them. The epidemic of misinformation and disinformation that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic (part of what the WHO calls an ‘infodemic’) is the most obvious recent example of this. Humanity is faced with intense, complex and interconnected challenges chief of which is climate change. Navigating those challenges democratically and peacefully will be extremely difficult – and impossible if societies do not have access to information they can trust in forms that are relevant to their lived reality.


Autocrats have increasingly mastered this new information and communication environment. They have understood the sheer range of options they have available to them. They can control information their people have access to by co-opting and neutralising any media that is inconvenient to their interests. They can create so much confusion and distrust among people over what and what not to believe that any genuinely trustworthy source can no longer attract credibility amidst the polluted sea of misinformation and disinformation to which most people have access. They can use state power to intimidate, imprison or attack independent journalists or, increasingly to financially subsidise media that is favourable to their interests and financially punish those that are not. Appledaily in Hong Kong is just the latest example of how the financial seizure of assets is the increasingly popular tool in the playbook.


And a chaotic digital infrastructure that can so easily amplify and encourage misinformation and disinformation, bury trustworthy information and amplify the most extreme views in society is providing immense tactical advantage to those who depend for their power on a citizenry that has no reliable access to information that is independent of that power.


Those defending independent media are confronted with intensely hostile terrain, with much more limited tools and far more constrained financial and political firepower than those undermining it.  There are extraordinary, imaginative, courageous and determined efforts by independent media, as well as organisations that exist to support them, to confront these challenges but for some time now, independent media has been in decline around the world. No matter how smart, agile or determined media and media support organisations are, media keep weakening, information and communication spaces keep deteriorating, autocrats and others bent on co-opting power become stronger and richer. Independent media are increasingly forced to sustain themselves by disappearing behind paywalls or taking other measures that make them less and less accessible to the vast majority of people in society. As information inequality grows so too does the power of those in the best position to subsidise and finance media that is free to all – and that is increasingly state and political interests with power and money and the will to deploy both.


International donor responses have been at odds with both the scale and character of the threat. According to OECD DAC figures, donor funding to independent media stands at around 0.3 per cent of total development assistance, a proportion that has barely increased over the last decade. Total development spending in autocracies, meanwhile, has increased substantially (increasing by more than 150 per cent over the last decade to closed autocracies). Support to ‘state building’ in closed autocracies has increased by almost 200 per cent over the same timeframe. Total development support to democracies, on the other hand, has decreased.


There can be good reasons to spend development assistance in autocracies especially if that support makes them less autocratic and saves lives, but the results of that seem questionable. Given how effective independent media is at holding power to account, at least doubling or tripling the existing very small volumes of support to media assistance in this context seems more than justified.


There are solutions if there is will to back them

It is very possible to confront these threats.


The first step is to acknowledge the severity – in democratic and human development as well as security terms – of the challenge and allocate resources accordingly. The kinds of resources, political and strategic attention and long term commitment required to confront the challenge will not emerge unless the scale of it is understood. If, as so much evidence suggests, there really is a media extinction taking place and if, as evidence also suggests, citizens the world over simply cannot engage effectively in democratic life because their information and communication environments have become so dysfunctional, it is impossible to conceive that democracies will flourish or societies will prosper. Those intent on power and influence who are focusing their efforts so effectively on either co-opting media or rendering information and communication spaces dysfunctional for democratic discourse, will win.


Second, resource the response proportionately to the scale of the threat. This is not a marginal issue of domestic, foreign or development policy but it is treated like it. Some of the most severe effects are in low and middle income countries and yet, as highlighted above, media support constitutes an extremely small just 0.3 per cent of international development assistance is currently allocated to support to “media and the free flow of information”. While there is growing policy concern internationally focused on media sustainability funding sources more generally remain minimal. International funding support is poorly coordinated. The international community needs to make a clear, hard headed assessment of where it needs to put its resources if it is to resist autocracy and encourage successful democratic development. The autocrats have made their assessment and are succeeding. Democracy supporters need to make theirs. They have not yet done so.


It is in this context that the International Fund for Public Interest Media has been conceived, with the backing of the UN Secretary General, IPFIM is designed to greatly increase the resources available to independent media by providing a clear, independent, legitimate and efficient mechanism through which bilateral development donors, technology companies and others can channel resources. The Fund has a ten year strategy both to resource independent media and to develop systemic solutions to the current market conditions that are making it impossible to sustain media especially in low and middle income countries. A minimum $100 million has been set as an initial annual target. A clear exit strategy means that the Fund is not designed to be open ended. The initiative is attracting strong interest from many donors and is likely to be launched in late 2021.


Third, commit to the kind of long-term, coherent strategic intent that many authoritarians appear to have. Support to media is currently not only very limited in financial terms, it is also highly fragmented, projectised and short term. Very few independent media, especially with significant potential to reach large numbers and particularly in low and middle income countries, has a viable business model available to support it. Ensuring that independent and trustworthy media exist in the future will depend on a systemic approach capable of creating an enabling economic as well as political environment. Autocrats are playing a long game. Democrats, who find it inherently difficult to look beyond the electoral cycle, find long term approaches difficult. That needs to change if current losses are to be reversed. The International Fund – as a multilateral body with multiple sources of income and so more resilient against decisions taken by any one donor – provides one way of doing that. So too does more structured support to existing media support organisations and investment in better lesson learning and coordination. For example, BBC Media Action leads the UK Government supported Protecting Independent Media for Effective Development consortia, one of largest efforts to improve coordinated action and learning in media support).The resourcing of media and other forms of democratic support needs to be more sustained and strategic if it is to be effective in the face of authoritarian threats.


Fourth, integrate media and communication considerations much more effectively across foreign, diplomatic and development policy. This applies to health, the WHO has made clear how concerned it is about the ‘infodemic’ that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. It applies to climate change which has been, and will increasingly be, subject to intense misinformation and disinformation. The recently published report from the International Panel on Climate Change concluded that “because climate change affects so many aspects of people’s daily work and living, climate change information can help with decision-making, but only when the information is relevant for the people involved in making those decisions. Users of climate information may be highly diverse, ranging from professionals in areas such as human health, agriculture or water management to a broader community that experiences impacts of changing climate.”[5] And it applies across most of the international foreign, international development and security agenda. There are very few areas of human life or foreign and development policy which will not be shaped in the future by the character of information people have access to.


Fifth, focus on the public interest but support approaches that can take risks and innovate. The future is being reinvented fast and no one is suggesting that the past should be its template. There are few answers so far to the current business model challenge in media especially in low and middle income countries (which is why a long term strategy to address the issue systemically over a ten year period is a necessary part of the solution). ‘Traditional’ media have often been unreliable, sensationalist and controlled by very few in society. New forms of financing and defending the media will almost certainly look very different from those that existed in the past. That future needs to be forged by an effective multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder dialogue involving media, civil society, technology platforms, governments, international development banks, advertisers and the rest of the private sector.


Sixth, create more effective learning systems which can enable media support strategies to adapt fast to a complex and dynamic set of trends and that can provide clear practical guidance on what works and does not. The UK has invested heavily in evaluation and research in its international development support but has not always prioritised this in the area of media support.


This is a competition for the future – failure to act means losing that competition

Democracies cannot and should not compete with autocrats on their terms. They should learn and understand how and why autocrats are investing attention and money in controlling the media and why they are so successful in doing so.


The answer to autocratic co-option of independent media is not democratic co-option of independent media. The answer to the insistence by autocrats that media serves their interests is not to insist media serves democratic government interests.


The answer – the solution – is far more powerful than that. It is to support independent media that serves the public interest and provides publics with news, information, storytelling, and platforms for public debate that publics can trust and that reflect their priorities. The current international effort and system for doing that is simply insufficient.


The International Fund for Public Interest Media is just one solution to this crisis. There will need to be many others from effective regulation of technology companies to more effective reform of state media by countries committed to democracy to improving media literacy to tackling online harms and disinformation.


The business model that has traditionally supported media’s public function in society for much of humanity is disappearing. There is no obvious replacement for that business model, which is why autocrats are finding their work so relatively simple. So far it is only the extraordinary courage, resilience and ingenuity of thousands of journalists and others worldwide which has formed the resistance to full scale authoritarian takeover. They now need far more and far better organised support. If countries committed to democracy are to start winning, they need to confront authoritarians in areas they least want to be confronted, while also ensuring healthy media environments at home. Independent media needs to be at the core of that effort.


James Deane is Head of Policy at BBC Media Action and co-founder of the International Fund for Public Interest Media to which he is also a consultant. He has more than 35 years’ experience in supporting media around the world and in developing strategies to provide widespread access to trustworthy information and public debate. He was a founding member of the Panos Institute, another media support organisation, and has advised numerous governments and donors on media support issues. He is also chair of Global Voices, a citizen journalist network. 


[1] V-Dem, Democracy Report 2021, Autocratization Turns Viral, March 2021,

[2] International Fund for Public Interest Media, see website:

[3] Prof. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Federica Cherubini and Dr Simge Andı, Few winners, many losers: the COVID-19 pandemic’s dramatic and unequal impact on independent news media, Reuters Institute, November 2020,

[4] FCDO, Media Freedom Coalition: an overview,, July 2021,

[5] IPCC, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, August 2021,

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