Journalists at the Frontline of Democracy

Two powerful examples of how USAID stands in solidarity with local media who are working to confront authoritarianism

USAID
USAID
May 3 · 5 min read
The Venezuelan daily “El Nacional” showing an empty space with the word “Censured” in red on its front page, at a newspaper stall in Caracas in August 2010. In April 2021, the regime filed a $13 million lawsuit against El Nacional for defamation of a top-ranking official. This was another example of how the regime is censoring independent media while draining its resources. / Juan Barreto, AFP

In a world facing a deepening global democratic recession, USAID’s support for a free press recognizes the role of independent journalists telling the stories of citizens at the frontlines fighting for democracy.

Journalists and the media are the first to be attacked by governments that are autocratizing.

These attacks are typically the first step in a series of events detailed in a study by the USAID partner V-Dem Institute (“Autocratization Goes Viral”) on how autocratization unfolds around the world. After attacking the media, governments then attack civil society, seeking to “polarize societies by disrespecting opponents and spreading false information.” Finally, they employ efforts to undermine elections, at which point a government consolidates its autocracy.

On World Press Freedom Day, we turn the spotlight on local media and journalists that USAID supports, who work in parts of the world where they are acutely confronting authoritarianism. They bear witness so that in our interconnected media system, we see stories, struggles, and aspirations that we can identify with wherever we stand on this planet.

Belarus: We Are in This Together

Dr. Artyom Sorokin (center) hugs his relatives after being released from custody in Minsk on March 2. He and a Belarusian journalist were sentenced to jail on that date after being found guilty of disclosing the medical records of a protester who died after being detained at one of the post-election rallies that swept across the ex-Soviet country last year. Journalist Katerina Borisevich, 36, was sentenced to six months in jail while Sorokin, 37, was released, but will have to serve two years in prison if he is found to have committed any crimes within a one-year period. / AFP

In August 2020, Belarus held presidential elections, widely condemned as fraudulent, in which its president Alexander Lukashenka sought a sixth term in office and claimed victory. Belarusian citizens continue to take to the streets in the largest anti-government protests in the country’s history, pressing for Lukashenka’s resignation. The protests have been accompanied by extreme police brutality, systematic violations of human rights, and widespread detentions to crush all signs of dissent.

Belarus’ Euroradio.fm, posted a story that went viral about a taxi driver who rescued a protester fleeing the riot police. The police went after the Euroradio.fm reporters documenting the incident, forced them facedown on the sidewalk and made them delete the footage; but the footage — “by magic or a miracle” according to the journalists — got out. Their story went viral online, and resonated around the world — it was picked up by BBC, CNN, Meduza.io, Reuters, and other global media.

A film clip from the Belarus’ Euroradio.fm viral story about a taxi driver who rescued a protester fleeing the riot police. / Euroradio.fm

After the protester fled the country, Euroradio.fm followed up with the taxi driver. He said he wanted to help the protester, though was tased by the police during the rescue, and his car ended up with dents, misaligned wheels, and shattered windows. But he, in turn, got help — a service-shop fixed the car up for free.

The story gives a glimpse of Belarusian society coming together in their struggle for democracy. It also tells us of the precarious position of the journalists getting the story out. According to reports, from August until this past February, independent journalists in Belarus were subject to at least 62 cases of physical violence, around 400 arrests, and 11 imprisonments. The list continues to grow, and many journalists are compelled to work in exile for their own safety.

A picture taken Feb. 25, shows United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on screens as she speaks on Belarus via video-link during a session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The United Nations rights chief decried the systematic repression of demonstrations in Belarus, voicing alarm at recent legislative moves enabling harsher penalties for peaceful protesters and the media. / Fabrice Coffini, AFP

USAID has supported millions of Belarusians in their efforts to build a democratic society since 1999. This has included providing access to more objective information about domestic and international issues, and helping independent media partners respond to the evolving challenges of reporting under the Lukashenka regime.

Venezuela: Shining a Light on Crime and Corruption

Across a landscape of repression and frightening challenges, Venezuela’s independent journalists play a vital role in the fight for democracy and better days.

The investigative report, “Venezuela, the Smuggler’s Paradise,” which won the Gabo 2020 Award, traces the blood gold trade. Informally mined gold from Venezuela’s southern jungles by corrupt military forces, gangs, and Colombian guerilla groups keeps President Nicolás Maduro’s illegitimate regime in power. The report details the environmental impacts, terror inflicted on indigenous populations, links to guerilla groups, illegal trafficking of the gold and circumvention of sanctions that has kept Maduro’s rule funded despite Venezuela’s nearly five-year economic crisis.

Graph charting how autocratization unfolds in select countries with data from 2009–2019. / V-DEM

Like much high-risk investigative reporting, this was achieved through a collaboration of local journalists with international partners. This is the practical nature of reporting on transnational crime and corruption: it takes a network of journalists to fight a network of criminals. But also, collaborative investigative reporting offers security in numbers, and shields vulnerable local journalists based in Venezuela. That security is much in need.

Maduro has ratcheted up the pressure to silence independent media and keep news coverage under constant control. Venezuelan journalists are subject to arbitrary arrests and violence from police and intelligence services; broadcasters routinely have their frequencies stripped; the internet is often blocked; media get hammered with lawsuits; newspapers are cut off from newsprint supply.

According to local NGO Espacio Público, just last year, 17 news websites and 18 local radio stations were forced to close.

This void in traditional news organizations has become filled with legions of youth. They are generating award-winning journalism, and finding creative ways to tell stories with big impact. USAID supports independent media, such as these Venezuelan journalists, as a key mechanism of rebuilding democracy.

Demanding Accountability

Squarely in the crosshairs of authoritarians or would-be authoritarians, journalists occupy a precarious position. And yet, as citizens inevitably demand accountability, want the world to bear witness, or have their stories be told, reporters’ work remains vital to us all.

A clever sign carried by a young protester in a photo that went viral.

Much of what we know about what is happening in our world is due to their efforts. We celebrate these investigators and storytellers.

About the Author

Josh Machleder is the Senior Media Advisor for the Center for Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.

U.S. Agency for International Development

Stories of USAID’s Work from Around the World

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