A light against the dark instincts that undercut democracy

When you look around the world, polarization and post-truth politics seems to be lurking in many corners. And fueling these dark instincts, a global phenomenon that undercuts one democracy after another keeps reappearing: the erosion of fair and independent journalism.

We are continuing to push back against these trends by stepping up our efforts to restore trusted, independent journalism where it is needed most. This week we’re kicking off our push for newsroom submissions for our Report for the World program to expand our support in the countries where we’re already present and expand our help for independent news organizations to new frontiers.

Our Report for the World team is seeing these trends of polarization and post-truth peddled by populist authoritarians first hand through the eyes of the newsrooms we support.

In Brazil on January 8, the supporters of the far-right populist leader Jair Bolsonaro stormed Brasilia, the modernist capital of the country, ransacking the seat of government and denying the election results that ushered Bolsonaro out and elected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the left leaning trade unionist known simply as “Lula.” The riot, which mirrored the January 6 attacks on the Capitol in Washington by election deniers in support of what was tantamount to a coup attempt to reinstate Donald Trump as president, presented the ugly face of out-of-control populism.

In India, the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a populist leader stirring the coals of Hindu fundamentalism among the Hindu majority and stoking the flames of intolerance against the Muslim minority has been captured in a newly released documentary series by the BBC that is resonating from London to Delhi and spurring a reflection on Modi’s populism and its threat to democracy. The deep polarization in India feels all too familiar in America where far-right politicians use religion and culture wars to divide and thwart the ideals of an inclusive democracy.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin continues to marshal forward his populist vision of restoring the Russian empire with his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and what has now become a year-long war of attrition with no end in sight. Putin deploys his campaign of misinformation and disinformation to kick-start Russian nationalism and is once again using the old Soviet playbook of repression by locking up those who dare to express dissent.  Important voices like those of the journalists at our host newsroom, Ukrainska Pravda, are on the frontlines pushing back against Putin’s disinformation, and, as I shared this week on PRX The World, this courageous newspaper is a lens through which we can see the struggle for democracy in Ukraine, and understand the essential role of a free press in any society.

In every one of these countries there has been a steady erosion of independent journalism which in turns helped to fuel the populist nationalism backed by Bolsonaro, Modi and Putin.

The picture is undeniably bleak, but there are glimmers of light where newsrooms are serving their local communities by documenting the tyranny of authoritarian leaders and standing for truth. These quiet expressions of dissent often take the form of impactful local journalism that can push back from the inside and try to keep democracy vibrant.

Having more local reporters on the ground, covering undercovered topics and standing for truth can make a difference, as we saw last week in the extensive coverage of our corps members about the factors that led to the Bolsonarista insurrection, the nuanced reporting around education and gender that our corps members do in India, the continuing coverage of migration in Mexico and the investigations on corruption in Hungary and Nigeria, among others.

Preethi Nallu, our global director at Report for the World, shared how we are planning to keep expanding our efforts:

“To match the high journalism standards that our current corps members have set, we launched a new call for applications from independent media anywhere in the world with public service-oriented missions.” Nallu added, “While aiming to strike geographic and thematic diversity, we hope to form our first relationships in the Middle East and North Africa, Southern Africa, and Southeast Asia.”

Supporting news organizations in places where freedom of the press is under attack is vital, as we saw this week with the news of the acquittal of Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa and Rappler, her news organization, of tax evasion charges. Former Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte arrested Ressa on trumped up charges to punish her and intimidate other journalists that exposed the dangers of his populist regime by revealing the human rights violations behind his “war on drugs.”

“Today, facts win, truth wins, justice wins,”said Ressa after the acquittal. There are many others like Ressa around the world. Journalists who show that it is possible to push against the anti-democratic wave with persistence, conviction and a commitment to their communities.

Help us reach them by supporting us. If you know of a news organization anywhere in the world that can benefit from having a reporter covering a vital beat, encourage them to apply to Report for the World. The deadline is February 20.