For years, democracy around the world has been in retreat. Dictators have made every effort to reassert their hold on power, including attacking independent media. When movements for democracy emerge, the media sector often needs to reform to ensure the success of democratization. Adopting new legislative protections for critical journalism, strengthening public service broadcasting, improving market conditions for independent media—these processes can be complicated and progress is not always straightforward. Reform efforts can easily stall, and media advocates face strong headwinds as they contend with entrenched political and business interests vying for control of the information space.
The latest report from the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Media Reform amid Political Upheaval: Lessons from Burma, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tunisia, and Ukraine, explores how media sector advocates can advance a vision of progressive reform during democratic transitions and how the international community can best support them. The report, written by Tarik Jusić and CIMA Deputy Director Heather Gilberds, demonstrates the importance of support for media during democratic transitions and highlights the key role of civil society as a driving force for a media reform agenda. Other key takeaways include:
- There is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for supporting media in times of political opening. Local ownership of a media reform vision and cross-sectoral collaboration are key, and priorities need to be set based on the needs and capacities of local reform groups.
- Early gains are critical to the success of a media reform movement. Given the often volatile and frequently short-lived nature of these openings, seizing opportunities quickly is crucial. These early wins can have long-lasting effects, even in the face of authoritarian retrenchment.
- Political openings can be volatile. Sustained support is necessary even when reform windows close. Authoritarian legacies leave a lasting mark on institutions and political instability can lead to long periods of stagnation or regression. International support that is long-term and driven by a deep understanding of the threats to a free and independent media, as well as levers of progress, is critical to helping reformers advance their aims.
The report includes five case studies examining media reform during past and current political openings in Burma, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tunisia, and Ukraine:
In Media Assistance in Burma’s Reform Decade, Jane McElhone explores the years-long efforts of grassroots movements in Burma to push for media reform, and provides recommendations on how to support independent journalists and media reform advocates as they adjust to the post-coup reality.
In Media Reform during Ethiopia’s Political Transition, Henok Fente’s examination of Ethiopia’s post-2018 media reform experience underscores the importance of context-sensitive media support, especially in divided societies contending with the lingering effects of an authoritarian past.
In Sudan’s Brief, Fragile Reform Window (2019–2021), Mary Myers and Lina Yassin argue that continued investments in Sudanese media institutions may pay dividends under a future civilian regime.
In Tunisia Media Reform: A Volatile Process, Fatima el-Issawi charts Tunisia’s media reform journey in the decade since the country started its democratic transition, from the early gains to the stagnation that marked the past few years, and provides recommendations for how the media development community can work with local advocates to prepare for the next reform window.
In Long-Term Investments Pay Dividends in Ukraine, Antonina Cherevko and Maksym Dvorovyi highlight the importance of sustained media support throughout Ukraine’s long, often rocky path to democratization and discuss how media assistance actors and foreign donors might improve the climate for independent journalism in Ukraine in the future.