Friday, November 04, 2005

Media Development Loan Fund Meetings in Prague

I am in Prague for meetings of the Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF) (photo of the managing director, Sasa Vucinic, speaking in Malaysia last year).

MDLF is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support independent media worldwide. By independent media, MDLF aims at assisting newspapers, radio, TV, internet, in the developing world and formerly communist world that present objective, factually based information. I am on the board of the organization – I have been chairing the board for the past few years.

There are a number of organizations that assist media and journalism worldwide – many of them work with journalists to improve their skills and product. MDLF is different because it focuses on the business side of media, in the belief that independent media requires financial stability as a business to stay in business. It provides financing in the form of loans and equity investments – some grants, but quite limited – and acts like a nonprofit venture fund, a private equity fund, investing in a portfolio of media companies in places ranging from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (this is where we started) to Latin America and Asia and Africa today. Our portfolio has gone from zero to about US$ 25 million today; we have invested over that time about US$ 55 million.

Our original funder was George Soros and the Open Society Institute – since the first days we have broadened our funding base to include many of the European aid agencies, among others (you can see all about the funding on the website).

We have a board meeting here in Prague on Sunday. During these two days, Friday and Saturday, however, we are holding a special tenth anniversary celebration. We have invited our clients, our funders – all sorts of folks have gathered here in Prague to discuss what it means to be independent media. Some of the sessions are conceptually oriented – what does citizen journalism mean? What should be journalist ethics in new media such as blogging? But in keeping with MDLF’s focus on the business of media, we will spend much of our time discussing how genuinely independent media – not owned by the government, the political parties, the local mafia – can stay financially sustainable.

I’m blogging (offline) from the meetings – Dan Gillmore, the former columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and now guru of blogging and citizen journalism, has delivered a talk on what participatory journalism means. One of our Malaysian clients, a sophisticated young man who runs a leading online news service there, Steven Gan of Malaysiakini, is responding to him. And Kostek Geberty, one of the great journalists of the samizdat journalism of Poland, and now part time on the MDLF staff, is raising questions about the limits of citizen-journalism, the stories that it can’t really cover. And the editor of Noseweek, in South Africa, is responding to him.

Not everyone here is thrilled with blogging and citizen journalism by any means. Kostek and most of the commentators are sharply challenging Gillmore and criticizing the new internet publishing, blogging and the rest, as merely opinion, often uninformed, rather than factual reporting in any depth. Yet part of this difference reflects a divide between regular journalism that happens to be online, for reasons of government pressure, financial pressures that make online publication much more efficient than actual paper publication, and blogging which is really just opinion.

I wish we had James Boyle and Glenn Reynolds here.

The journalists and media people here represent the best of the developing world media - many of them face enormous pressures. Some of them are financial and business pressures. Some of them face serious risks, personal risks. In Guatemala, our client Jose Ruben Zamora has to deal with thugs beating him up, threatening his family, trashing his offices - at the same time facing the financial pressures of how to ensure that he continues to have a printing press willing to print his newspaper, El Periodico. Our clients in Indonesia have to worry about radical imans stirring up trouble against them. Others, in the Russian provinces, have to deal with the local mafia, often controlling the local municipality, demanding bribes and extorting money. Not everyone faces those kinds of physical threats, but many do.

These are very thoughtful, smart people, and this is frankly the most important meeting of developing world journalists of the whole year. Yet MDLF remains virtually an unknown organization – for nearly all our ten year existence, we have deliberately remained under the radar screen, wanting the focus to be on our clients. In addition, we found that we were better able to assist our clients in places with difficult governments when we presented ourselves not as a political advocacy organization, but instead as a business-motivated investor. Over time, we have seen a need to become better known within the world of development agencies – which have gradually been realizing the importance of the free and transparent flow of information as a means of improving government and improving markets and improving the flow of goods and services in society to the poor people – within the world of funders and international NGOs. So we are seeking greater visibility.

Update, November 4, 2005. The next session today is on anonymous sources for investigative journalism - the discussion in so much of the media has been about Watergate's Deep Throat, on the one hand, and the Valerie Plame affair, on the other - our discussion, however, is about the use of anonymous sources by a variety of journalistic enterprises in places very different from the United States. The panel consists of Jose Ruben Zamora, editor of El Periodico in Guatemala, Yuri Fedutinov of Echo Moscow, Ljubica Markovic (Beta Press in Croatia), and Martin Welz (Noseweek, South Africa). Their issues with anonymous sources are far different from what it means in Washington DC or New York. Although the basic questions of reliability, corroboration, and whether you are being spun by the source remain the same.

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