Grantee Spotlight: Reporters Foundation
Although independent journalism and access to objective information are pillars of a free and democratic society, journalists on-the-ground in Central Europe face grim obstacles. The region has experienced many challenges of democratic backsliding, exacerbated by the pandemic and the continued influence of the Kremlin, which aims to increase political polarization and weaken Transatlantic relations. As authoritarianism rises, attacks have increased against reporters and public trust in the media has declined. Despite these difficulties, the Polish-based Reporters Foundation—a National Endowment for Democracy grantee—defends the shrinking space of independent media in Central Europe and supports the integrity of investigative journalism against all odds. [Learn more about NED’s support for media freedom around the world.]
“The [Reporters] Foundation’s mission is to strengthen independent investigative journalism; to hold power to account; to report and follow up on wrongdoings; and to inform audiences what is happening in Central Europe,” says Anna Gielewska, the vice chairman of the Reporters Foundation—established in 2010–and head of partnerships and development at VSquare, the foundation’s cross-border network of journalists and English-language website that launched in 2017. Together with partners from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, Reporters Foundation’s core team in Poland expanded its audiences and became a leading regional authority on disinformation and malign foreign influence. [Read more about NED’s work in Europe.]
The Covid-19 health crisis further decreased access to reliable information as governments used the pandemic to tighten their grip on power. “The global health crisis has helped to curb media freedom and further contributed the spread of disinformation in Central Europe,” says Agnieszka Gmys-Wiktor, regional expert and senior program officer for Europe at NED. “VSquare has emerged as an important hub for investigative stories on key issues threatening democracy in the region. As the growing threat of illiberalism continues to loom over Central Europe, such joint efforts are becoming increasingly important.”
VSquare’s unique network of investigative journalists reported on vaccine diplomacy and disinformation around Russian and Chinese vaccines, and they collected and compared data from the Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia) on the prices of masks, ventilators, and public tenders for protective equipment.
“Polish, Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak governments and ruling parties’ representatives pursue and encourage verbal attacks in social media against journalists who reveal scandals, misconduct, and report on mishandling the pandemic response,” continues Gielewska on the challenges facing journalists in the region. “Investigative reporters also face a high risk of digital threats, such as cyber violence, hate speech, and surveillance to put pressure on journalists or to find out their sources. The government-friendly media (mostly government-controlled and state-owned) organize defamatory campaigns against independent journalists.” Legal threats also are growing against journalists accused of defamation, inducing many to self-censorship.
Despite such attempts to silence critics, the Reporters Foundation works to support and train journalists across the region to produce quality investigative reporting that best supports citizens. “We believe that a joint effort of journalists from different media organizations and countries of the region can better serve our societies,” explains Gielewska. “Our main goal is to provide citizens with in-depth, high-quality reporting and to promote investigative journalism as a public good. Independent initiatives such as VSquare are needed to carry forward journalism in the public interest and in defense of democracy and free, well-informed societies.”