Shelagh Gastrow
Shelagh Gastrow

Press freedom and philanthropy

Philanthropy has spearheaded major movements globally including the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the hospice movement and now the fight against Aids. In the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, it was not government or business that acted fast, it was the non-profit sector. This sector is supported by philanthropy and we underestimate the role that it plays in all sectors of society.

Unfortunately it was at this time that the non-profit sector came under attack from Mtikeni Sibande of the ANC who directly accused “white-run” NPOs of posing a threat to the country’s national security. In the middle of all the crises affecting the country, he chose to add fuel to the fire by referring to “unknown whites”, “instruments of imperialism” and the need to alert our own security establishment about them. Clearly the funding of these organisations, often from the pockets of ordinary South Africans, would also come under scrutiny. This attack resonated with recent criticism of the media by members of the ANC and the proposal by an emotional Polokwane conference for the establishment of a media appeals tribunal.

It is interesting to me what parallels the two sectors have. What do the press, philanthropists and the non-profit sector have in common? In many ways we share the same values and commitment to public benefit. Journalists are potentially watchdogs and in many cases rely on the non-profit sector to provide the data, the research and knowledge of a range of areas to enable them to provide the nation with news.

Both the media and the non-profit sector have emerged from situations where they have challenged, questioned or stood up against state power and have in the process become influential and even powerful. Attempts to rein in the media could impact on individual freedom. Attempts to rein in civil society organisations could also affect individual freedoms. While I do not perceive at this stage any hard attempts at either, the fact that these issues emerge within ruling party debate and there is no reaction on the part of ANC leadership to seriously defend these freedoms, means that we do need to be awake and to monitor what is happening.

How then does philanthropy relate to the media? Philanthropy as a topic is rarely covered, although the myriad organisations that the media writes about or quotes from, rely on philanthropy to survive.

For the media, private philanthropy offers a fertile source of stories that can provide greater insight into the important roles philanthropy and the non-profit sector play in society. Let us look at some great news generated by philanthropy as detailed in an article on the website of the Council for Foundations:

  • Emergency 911 begun by a foundation in 1966 that provided grants to 32 states in the USA for regional emergency medical services. This was eventually taken over by government.
  • Major medical achievements funded by philanthropy that have changed human health fundamentally: the pap smear (the Commonwealth Fund), the polio vaccine (The Sarah Scaife Foundation in 1948), and the yellow fever vaccine (the Rockefeller Foundation funded a 30 year effort to eradicate the disease.)
  • Sesame Street, now reaching 16 million viewers, funded by the Carnegie Corporate of New York in 1966.
  • White lines on highways — the Dorr Foundation of New York in the 1950s.
  • Philanthropy and the non-profit sector address many of the issues that make daily news — Aids, xenophobia, gender issues, ground-breaking research, community development, feeding schemes, youth projects, universities, environmental issues, human rights etc. Yet despite the philanthropic sector’s involvement and the impact they make, there is a lack of awareness on how philanthropy operates and the critical role it is playing in South African society. While we perceive people who operate in the non-profit sector as activists, in many ways philanthropists are the second-tier activists, playing their role to promote change in a different way.

    We do not know if any major newspapers or other media have a journalist dedicated to the non-profit sector and philanthropy. We presume that core areas of coverage are government at all levels, business, education, women, medicine, health and fitness — even shipping, but not the non-profit sector which includes philanthropy. There is a need to build greater trust and communication between journalists, civil society and philanthropy to develop an understanding of each other’s needs, roles and operations.

    This therefore brings me to philanthropy’s role in press freedom. Press freedom is enshrined in our constitution and it is meant to be guaranteed by the courts and the state. However, there is no doubt that it is coming under pressure.

    Who then will put their energies behind press freedom? Obviously the press itself, through its own corporate structures or through an organisation such as SANEF, will engage on this issue. Individual journalists may play a role. Independent media in Zimbabwe survived through philanthropy and the doggedness of courageous journalists. Our press freedom in many ways depends on civil society organisations to act as watchdogs and advocates for such freedom.

    Let us look at who they possibly are:

  • Freedom of Expression Institute
  • Media Monitoring Project
  • Legal Resources Centre
  • Media Institute of Southern Africa
  • Institute for Advancement of Journalism
  • National Community Radio Forum
  • University Departments of Journalism
  • Various human rights groups
  • If we analyse their funding sources, it is evident that a great deal of support comes from abroad. That makes us vulnerable and dependent. If, at any stage, the government decides that international donors cannot fund South African organisations, or if, at any stage, international donors no longer choose to fund in SA, this resource could collapse. It is not healthy to be totally dependent on external resources.

    If an independent and free media that is crucial to democracy is to endure, this will depend on the development and maintenance of multiple sites of power other than the state. These can emerge from South African civil society (funded by philanthropy) and from an independent press. How do we wean South Africans from a charitable paradigm towards a more strategic philanthropic focus that will analyse our democracy and explore where funds could be strategically spent?

    South Africans themselves, if they are serious, should be supporting their own civil society organisations and institutions, including media organisations and those that support human rights. We are not doing this, and our lack of attention to the strategic detail could come back to haunt us in future.