Journalists overcome obstacles through crowdfunding and determination

By Jessica Jerreat on April 27, 2015 11:01 AM ET

The rubble of a school bombed by the Sudanese government in 2012. To set up a news agency to cover the conflict, humanitarian worker Ryan Boyette used crowdfunding. (AP/Ryan Boyette)

During South Africa's Boer War, at the turn of the 20th century, a determined news organization relocated reporters, copy editors, and printing presses to the front line to ensure accurate reporting. In the Warsaw Ghetto, during World War II, a literal underground press, established to counter Nazi propaganda, required the nightly movement of cumbersome printing equipment to evade capture.

Throughout history, innovative journalists have devised ways to overcome logistical obstacles, censorship, and other impediments to reporting the news. Today the adaptation is likely a backpack containing a laptop and satellite phone with access to the Web, where blogging and appeals for funds help ensure the dissemination of independent news.

Such innovations are essential. Journalists have been imprisoned in China, Iran, and Eritrea, and bloggers in Vietnam, Cuba, and Russia have been placed under surveillance and, in some cases, jailed. Reporters and photographers covering civil wars from Syria to Sudan are systematically targeted by governments and terrorist groups. Journalists worldwide are vulnerable to lawsuits, cyberattacks, politically motivated firings, withdrawal of advertising, kidnappings, and murder.

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Crowdfunding--an online appeal for donations and backers--is one way to ensure independent and investigative reporting in countries with repressive laws governing advertising and funding, or where violence has prompted conventional news organizations to retreat from the field. In China, where the Communist Party-run government suppresses and jails independent voices, crowdfunding has provided a crucial way for journalists to work outside state-controlled media.

Chinese journalist Liu Jianfeng, with 14 years' experience at three mainstream publications, made an appeal for financial backing on the social media site Weibo in July 2013. In return for 250,000 yuan (about $40,000), Liu promised to provide his subscribers with up to six investigative pieces per year. Realizing that he had a readership hungry for details on underreported issues such as government land grabs, but with no employer willing to risk supporting his investigations, Liu decided that a solo project was the only way forward.

"I didn't want to work with my hands tied anymore," Liu told CPJ guest blogger Yan Cong in February 2014.

Although Liu fell short of his target sum, he managed to raise enough money to support himself while he reported. His base of donors also provided an immediate readership. The first report he produced, about a land dispute in Shandong province, garnered more than 1,000 subscribers in addition to the 2,472 hits it attracted on his website, Yan reported.

For Liu, crowdfunding proved that an audience existed for independent reporting in China, and his experience and reputation as a journalist gave credibility to his work. "Both sides in the story read the piece, and agreed it was executed with objectivity," he told Yan.

Nuba Reports, a Sudan-based team of reporters and editors covering the conflict in that country, also used crowdfunding--to support the investigation of claims that the government was bombing and attacking citizens. A conflict waged between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North in South Kordofan state has endangered tens of thousands of citizens living in the Nuba Mountain region, and movement has been restricted for journalists, aid agencies, and U.N. personnel. According to 2013 figures from conflict watchdog International Crisis Group, more than 700,000 people have been displaced by the fighting as government forces bomb villages suspected of housing rebel fighters.

With limited coverage of atrocities, civilians caught up in the fighting began documenting what was happening on their own. Such amateur coverage sparked the idea for Nuba Reports, which was founded by humanitarian worker Ryan Boyette and freelance photographer Trevor Snapp in 2012. Boyette and Snapp saw the documentary efforts of those who were most affected by the violence as evidence of the need for a credible news outlet.

"Using cell phone cameras and whatever was available, they tried to show the world the war that was engulfing the region," Snapp told CPJ.

Snapp and Boyette turned to crowdfunding to pay for the purchase of professional-grade cameras and to develop a website. "We launched a crowdfunding initiative on Kickstarter and managed to raise $40,000," Snapp said. "Because all of the staff were volunteering we were able to launch a website, conduct training, and get gear to our remote team of aspiring filmmakers. The reason we launched with Kickstarter is that it was the only option. We had no resources, and the war was getting worse."

Even established, mainstream media outlets struggle with the costs of maintaining expensive bureaus in remote or dangerous locations, but Nuba Reports was able with $40,000 "to prove that it was possible to get a sustained flow of news and information out of a war zone," Snapp said. "Our website provided the only on-the-ground perspective of the conflict, and our videos offered a verifiable way to understand what was happening."

In addition to the dangers of frontline reporting, Snapp said the group has received death threats and its website has been hacked several times, including after the publication of reports about alleged government bombings. (The Sudanese military has denied bombing in the Nuba Mountains.) "Doing this kind of work is dangerous, and the government has consistently shown their willingness to torture and detain journalists in Sudan. We live with this near-constant threat," Snapp said.

CPJ has documented multiple cases of journalists being detained and attacked in Sudan. In one case, in 2012, critical freelancer Somaya Ibrahim Ismail Hundosa was abducted in Khartoum; she was whipped and had her head shaved by a group she believed to be National Intelligence and Security Services agents. She had been questioned by agents over her reporting two days before being kidnapped, local news reports said at the time.

Although crowdfunding helped get Nuba Reports up and running, Snapp concedes that it may not provide a sustainable financial model. "This is dangerous work," he said. "You can't compromise things like security. You can't just say, 'Sorry, no funds for digital security this month.' But people's generosity was critical to making all this possible, and it showed that people in the U.S. cared about this faraway conflict, which was inspiring." The success of the outlet's initial foray into conflict reporting attracted funding from other organizations, which made it possible for Nuba to expand, pay salaries to its staff, and continue to report on the conflict. The outlet has four journalists in the Nuba Mountains who use teams of as many as four observers trained to collect raw footage of breaking news. A small team of reporters also works in the Blue Nile region and collaborates with a network of journalists inside Sudan.

Turning to social media for funding has also helped independent outlets grappling with increasingly repressive governments, including that of Hungary, which has imposed a series of restrictions on the press. After coming to power in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán pushed for the passage of a media law that raised concerns in the European Union about how regulators for the proposed Media Council would be selected by Hungary's parliament. The law also drew criticism from Neelie Kroes, the then-EU commissioner for the digital agenda and a vice president of the European Commission. In a June 2012 interview with Budapest weekly Figyelő, she said that the law "only addresses 11 of 66 recommendations made by the Council of Europe without guaranteeing the independence of the Media Authority or clarifying all ambiguities."

Orbán's government has also used the allocation of state advertising and a tax that increases with an outlet's profitability to put pressure on independent news outlets. In June, the government of Hungary banned Norway Grants, a $17 million fund from the Norwegian government for civil society groups, to the detriment of investigative news outlet Átlátszó, a beneficiary that uses freedom of information requests to hold the government to account. Undeterred by the sudden cut in its financing, Átlátszó turned to its readers for help and managed to raise enough money to cover the shortfall.

The nonprofit outlet started in 2011 in response to what its founders saw as a lack of independent reporting in Hungary. Its reporters look in depth at issues that include election fraud, misuse of public funds, and claims of government control of the media. Editor-in-Chief Tamás Bodoky told CPJ in October 2014 that the outlet's frequent freedom of information act queries led the government to pass a law to stop "excessive requests" for information.

"The government handles the media as a propaganda tool ... Commercial media companies become more and more cautious [and] journalists are forced to avoid sensitive topics," Bodoky told CPJ. "The result is a very limited freedom of the press in Hungary. There are many taboos, many important stories that remain untold, and numerous corruption cases go undisclosed, even if there are whistleblowers who provide evidence."

Since its founding, Átlátszó has moved from a free blog platform to a website staffed by four reporters, a full-time and a part-time editor, three lawyers, and numerous freelancers. The website receives 500,000 unique visitors each month, Bodoky said. Átlátszó turned to its base of supporters in June 2014, when it switched to a crowdfunding appeal. In the first few months of using financial aid from supporters, the site attracted 1,500 subscribers, Bodoky told CPJ.

Crowdfunding may not cover long-term running costs, and its use for covering journalists' expenses is still in an experimental phase, but there are indications that when governments cut access to information, some readers are eager to fill the void, even if that means financing independent reporting to access stories being left off the agendas of the mainstream press.

A vacuum of independent reporting is helping drive strong blogging communities in Vietnam and China. In both countries the Internet provides a platform for reporting and documentation of vital issues such as land grabs and anti-China protests in Vietnam and minority rights and corruption in China, beyond what is issued by state-run outlets. In Vietnam there is a push for legitimacy for bloggers and attempts to confront the government about the harassment they face. Although most write under pennames, many gave up their anonymity in 2013 when the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers campaigned against press harassment. Through the network, 130 bloggers signed a petition calling for legal reform.

Despite the risk of arrest, harassment, and surveillance, Vietnam's bloggers are undeterred. Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who writes under the name Me Nam (Mother Mushroom), told CPJ: "It was ugly what was happening in our society. My blog asked: Why must we agree with the government on everything? Why can't we have different opinions?"

Even when they have been imprisoned, bloggers have voiced support for a free press. Among the more prominent bloggers, Nguyen Van Hai, who wrote under the name Dieu Cay (Peasant's Pipe), was imprisoned from 2008 to 2014, during which he was at times held in solitary confinement, was limited to restricted visits from his family, and waged a hunger strike. Hai, who had blogged about disputes and concerns over Chinese intervention in Vietnam, was jailed on anti-state charges.

Despite his suffering, and being expelled from his country after authorities released him, Dieu Cay remains determined to push the cause for bloggers and access to independent reporting in Vietnam. In a speech at CPJ's International Press Freedom Awards after his release in 2014, he asked: "Why were we oppressed with such harsh sentences while all we did was merely express our aspirations peacefully on the Internet?" He added, "Information technology has given us a new tool. We use blogs, Facebook ... to exercise our right to freedom of the press and freedom of speech."

For journalists facing surveillance by governments or militant groups, and whose lives could be endangered if their identities or locations were revealed, advances in technology have offered some protection. Partly in response to revelations about the reach of National Security Agency surveillance programs in the United States, companies such as Apple and Facebook have developed ways to protect those using the Internet and mobile devices to communicate. Apple's latest software operating system has automatic encryption, and at the end of 2014 Facebook announced a secure Tor connection that enables users to log in without giving away their username or location. The Tor Project has become a vital tool for journalists, providing them with a level of anonymity when contacting sources, filing stories abroad, or gaining access to information and news that has been blocked by the firewalls of repressive regimes. By hiding the user's location and browsing history, the free software enables independent journalism in places where the government has tight control over the Internet and media.

Whereas some journalists need to hide their locations, GPS technology has also been a vital tool for Nuba Reports, which uses the positioning of its on-the-ground reporters to validate accounts of bombings and other atrocities. The reporters film interviews with witnesses and evidence of bombing and use GPS locators when uploading the files to remotely based editors.

"This is a way to prevent bias in reporting and also legitimizes out stories," Snapp said. "Sudan has constantly denied bombing civilian areas; however, our database of thousands of bombs dropped with GPS coordinates is a powerful piece of reporting that says otherwise."

Snapp added that beyond creating short news films about the impact of the war on civilians, "We were able to verify found footage that showed a student who was detained and tortured. Our team hiked three days across dangerous territory to find him." On another occasion, Nuba journalists combined statements from residents of a town that had been razed with found footage of a "match brigade"--a group Snapp said had been ordered by the Sudan government to burn villages in the region. The outlet's content has been used by international outlets including The Associated Press, Reuters, France 24, BBC, All Africa, and Voice of America, he said.

"Nuba Reports is a bold experiment in how we cover conflicts when foreign reporting has almost disappeared and local people are the ones who can and will cover the news for us," Snapp said. "Only one or two journalists have visited South Kordofan in the past year--so a war affecting hundreds of thousands of people, with massive running tank battles between larger armies and an intensive bombing campaign, would literally not be covered if we weren't there."

Jessica Jerreat is CPJ's senior editor. She previously edited news for the broadsheet press in the U.K., including The Telegraph and the foreign desk of The Times. She has a master's degree in war, propaganda, and society from the University of Kent at Canterbury. CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Nina Ognianova, and guest blogger Yan Cong contributed to this report.

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