Platform uses crowdsourcing to fund journalism where press freedom is weak

Wendy Funes.

Wendy Funes was poring over judicial records when she discovered that the remains of human fetuses and newborns had been found in an indigenous area of her native Honduras. The journalist, who was reporting on another story at the time, requested access for more public information on this grisly finding but prosecutors turned her down.

Funes followed the dirt roads to the adobe houses of Honduras’  coffee-growing region to investigate in September 2016, funded by Press Start, a platform that crowdfunds independent journalism in countries where the press is not fully free. Residents of Lenca, a town of 16,000, told her stories about sexual violence committed against indigenous girls between the ages of 13 and 17. The attackers, some of whom allegedly had political ties, had gang raped the girls and were on the run. Some of their victims, meanwhile, were behind bars for ending the pregnancies that resulted from the assaults, or for infanticide.

Access to information is only one challenge facing journalists in the Central American nation, where violence and threats against reporters are on the rise since the 2009 overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya, leaving the country 140 of 180 countries ranked by Reporters without Borders in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. In recent years, dozens of journalists and other media professionals have been killed there. Many cases remain unsolved.

“Censorship is part of daily life for the press,” Funes says. “Killings, where (in the media) governments decide to advertise and the culture of bribes contribute to silencing journalists and hiding (the truth).”

Funes has led her share of investigations that were unwelcome by authorities. Police, she says, once threatened to plant drugs in her car as she investigated drug trafficking. And she faked her own death and bought her own death certificate as part of an exposé that led to reforms in Honduras’s corrupt Civil Registration Office.

Funes, who has worked in print, radio, and television, was undeterred by the threat of violence. But what first stopped her from investigating the violence against Lenca girls  was the lack of funds to finance her reporting.

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Press Start, a nonprofit, crowdfunding platform, worked with Funes to profile her on the site, create a video to launch her fundraising campaign, get her message out via social media and collect the donated funds for her. Her fundraising objective, the equivalent of $1,120, may appear small by Western standards. But it was, in keeping with the mission of Press Start, where I am the chair of the advisory board, enough to finance a series of stories of interest to a local community that might otherwise go untold.

Her series on sexual assault of Lenca women and girls prompted the Women’s Tribunal Against Femicide, a grouping of NGOs, to start advocacy work in the region, including counseling and legal support for victims, and to request help from UNICEF.  Funes left her newspaper job last year to found the investigative website Reporteros de Investigación (Investigative Journalists). Earlier this year, Index on Censorship presented her with a Freedom of Expression Award, which followed an award from PEN Canada late last year.

Press Start is an offshoot of Transitions, an NGO in Prague that runs journalism courses and publishes an online magazine about Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Its founder, US journalist Jeremy Druker, launched Press Start in 2016  with help from Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund. The National Endowment for Democracy provided funds to create the prototype for the platform.

“In part, Press Start is a response to our frustration with training,” Druker says. “We’ve had many smart, skilled journalists return to their home countries after a workshop, excited to put into practice what they’ve learned, only to find yet again that funding just doesn’t exist for the type of journalism they’d like to do. While we can’t solve the big financial question mark hanging over independent media in all of these countries, we can at least, with Press Start, create another income stream to fund some of the stories where the talent is there to do an in-depth inquiry or a proper investigation, but the money isn’t.”

Because a significant proportion of the media in countries where Press Start profiles journalists are controlled by autocrats or oligarchs, it is difficult for the independent media organizations that remain to attract a wide, paying audience, and it is challenging for journalists to be able to afford several days or weeks on a reporting project. So far, it has run campaigns of journalists from Argentina and Morocco to Moldova and Belarus.

Press freedom around the world is suffering. Freedom House, dedicated to expanding freedom and democracy around the globe, estimated in 2016 that only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press—a 13-year low. And the toll of journalists killed around the world continues to climb.

Other obstacles are less menacing but still throttle independent journalism. Institutions frequently refuse to provide journalists access to information and documents. In recent years Funes has appealed about 30 such denials. Restrictive libel laws are used to silence reporters critical of the government. Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy business people who often use the press to protect their own interests. And many newspapers rely on government advertising to survive.

With an increasing number of good causes chasing the few foundations and other moneyed donors, it seemed opportune to test the rising phenomenon of tapping the crowd. Seeking thousands of dollars to fund journalists full time via crowdfunding was a bridge too far. Rather, it was more practical to solicit small amounts for specific projects from diaspora communities, from those for whom particular journalist investigations resonate and from those within the network of the journalists themselves.

The candidates for crowdfunding come to Press Start either recommended by regional journalist organizations, which vouch for their independence and quality, or apply directly. The Press Start team of eight, spread across Prague, Sarajevo, Sofia, and Baltimore, works with journalists to get a profile up, maintain the site, and promote the fundraising campaign. Its advisory board members include current and former journalists and executives from The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Reuters.

Press Start has profiled 18 journalists from 16 countries, 11 of whom have thus far completed campaigns and reached their goals, funding projects on clean drinking water, substandard hospitals, missing persons, HIV/AIDS, and other topics.

One of them, Zaklina Hadzi-Zafirova, used funds raised via Press Start to travel across Macedonia and examine conditions in hospitals after years of investment in that sector. Despite that public investment, she unearthed poor conditions, including a grim finding that the number of infant deaths in Macedonian hospitals hit a five-year high in 2016. Her story was published on the website of Scoop Macedonia, the investigative journalism organization that she leads, and reprinted in several other news sites. The VRMO-DPMNE party, which ruled Macedonia for a decade, planted positive stories about the health system in friendly media the day Hadzi-Zafirova’s story appeared, she says.

Max Sarychau’s package on torture in Belarus appeared to have resonated strongly with his network and beyond. His campaign raised more funds than he requested.

“Violence, physical and psychological, is a common tool of law enforcement throughout the post-Soviet region, in interrogations in the first hours after detention or even on the way to the police station,” Sarychau writes. “In the absolute secrecy of the prison system, the accused face violence and the prospect of terrible detention conditions, including a lack of proper medical care. Although these conditions are standard, they are regularly used to coerce confessions or punish whistleblowers or political opponents. Some prisoners even die with no criminal inquiry ever made into their deaths.”

Chantal Flores wanted to explore the science behind the attempt to find and identify thousands of remains of those who “disappeared” in Colombia’s civil war and help bring closure to families and society after decades of violence.

At the two-year mark, there are lessons learned that may interest other organizations and journalists interested in raising funds a similar way:

  • Not all campaigns have succeeded. Some journalists set the fundraising bar too high.
  • A journalist should have as firm a commitment as possible from a reputable outlet to place his or her project. While reporting standards have not been lacking, personal blogs or sites without editor-gatekeepers do not adequately ensure quality.
  • Press Start vets project proposals before campaigns are launched, but it will likely become more involved in the editing process to ensure high standards of excellence and to help journalists place their work.

Although Press Start is a work in progress, its team hopes it can become a model for similar platforms in languages other than English. A network of crowdfunding sites for independent reporting could help fill in the gaps between foreign aid and foundation grants, and could serve countries where reformist NGOs have been chased out.

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Gary Regenstreif chairs the advisory board of Press Start. He is executive editor of financial information provider S&P Global Market Intelligence and former editor-at-large at Reuters.