Independent public-interest journalism and CSOs collaborating for stronger democracy

Published: 9 December 2021

In many countries, both media and civil society organisations (CSOs) face the same challenges such as restricted access to information, smear campaigns, legal and practical limitations for accessing funding, as well as limited space for the exchanges of best practices – all a result of the shrinking civil space. Collaboration between journalistic organisations and CSOs can counter those trends, advance their work, have a powerful societal impact, and strengthen democracy.

While journalists need reliable sources, CSOs can provide them with the information they otherwise would not have access to. In return, CSOs benefit from the exposure that media can bring to their work as the public is still largely unaware of the importance of civil society organisation for healthy democracies. Civitates’ grantee partners foster such relations as though seemingly different both CSOs and independent journalism organisations have the same goal at heart: safeguarding the public-interest.

Defying restrictions together

Anna Wojcik, journalist at OKO.Press, a Polish independent investigative journalism portal, explains how they cooperate with CSOs in Poland: “There is a lot of knowledge sharing and mutual enforcement. At OKO.Press we aim to promote democratic values, covering topics such as human rights, equality, and rule of law on our online platform, and as such we want to highlight the voices of the people who we write about. These could be lawyers, judges, people from minority groups, and of course civil society leaders. CSOs are doing very valuable work for democracy and it is really important to give them a platform so that people can learn about their work.”

“Also, as the Polish government is not so transparent when it comes to access to information, they usually ignore requests from independent journalists. Therefore, to put pressure on a certain issue, it can be very effective when an NGO or CSO takes a certain case to court. We then communicate about that case if the government refuses to make it public. At the same time, we highlight court proceedings against NGOs and activists. This is how together we try to make visible how certain activists are being harassed to influence the discussion in Poland and the EU and make clear we have problems that need a policy answer.”

A two-way street collaboration

For PressOne in Romania, the aim is to support the democratisation of their country and help civil society grow. Adrian Mihălțianu, editorial director of PressOne sees collaboration with CSOs as a two-way street. “We don’t focus on what is wrong but want to show how matters can be mended by solutions that are already used by CSOs, communities, and local administrations. We often receive a lot of useful and expert information from CSOs.

Every time we see a problem, we try to find the CSOs and NGOs that are already working on that issue as they know much better than we do, what the best angle is to look at it. We interview them, and if we find out that we can do more, we do a field report, we film, or even develop a social media campaign to bring it closer to a larger public and contribute to making a bridge between them and the work of CSOs.”

Iva Taralezhkova, Chairperson of the Board of the Citizen Participation Forum – a network of over 100 Bulgarian NGOs working for an improved legal environment and effective citizen participation at local, national, and international levels, values the partnership with media in Bulgaria a lot. “Since working together in a coalition, we have been able to improve our relationship with the Bulgarian national radio. They have been quite active in covering our events and messages through broadcasting interviews with people in our coalition. They also participated in our last event, a national meeting on civic participation. The radio channel not only covered the event; one of their prominent journalists also acted as a speaker highlighting the necessity of even better communication between CSOs and media.

Another partnership although not formal is with a journalist from a Bulgarian national TV channel. Together we developed a very interesting and touching documentary showing CSOs in action during the pandemic, which was broadcast on national television twice. As a result, I was invited for an interview to a morning show on TV which I used as an occasion to discuss the significant role of CSOs in the pandemic and their role at large. This contributed a lot to our trust as we could see from the sociological survey that one of the coalition partners issued recently. It showed that while trust in CSOs has risen a lot, on the contrary, trust in the institutions and parliament has dropped.

I think that it is an advantage for media to get a different aspect on a niche or a problem from us. Several high-level journalists find us, CSOs, as a channel of information. They understand the added value of working with CSOs as we can talk about topics that governmental institutions won’t.”

Broader cooperation for better impact

For Andrea Menapace, Executive Director at the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights the real impact of working with media comes when they engage in a conversation with CSO leaders and then offer their platform to challenge assumptions of those in a position of power, with journalists being able to find new perspectives and new evidence, new and real solutions about the most pressing issues of our time.

“I also think that sustainable and lasting change will come from working with a broader range of stakeholders (political parties, unions, religious organisations and movements, business leaders, educators, sports and music celebrities, artists, etc.) to help more positive, progressive, and inclusive narratives become mainstream and allow new voices to emerge. Such a movement needs to be broader than a collaboration between CSOs and media, it needs to cross several sectors, at scale and over time.”