With the foundation recognized as a major supporter of independent journalism, its decision is bad news for independent media in an increasingly media-captured Europe.
The Open Society Foundations (OSF) is reportedly on the verge of a substantial withdrawal from the European Union (EU), according to the Hungarian service of Radio Free Europe, which cites a letter sent recently to every Hungarian organization benefiting from the foundation’s support. OSF was established by businessman and philanthropist George Soros.
In a momentous move, the OSF Board of Directors decided to effectively conclude the foundation’s operations within the EU, redirecting its resources to alternative regions across the globe.
According to Radio Free Europe, the leadership of OSF has outlined a “radical strategic change” aimed at maximizing the organization’s impact with its available resources. Moving forward, the organization will face significant limitations in terms of the resources that can be allocated within Europe.
The rationale behind this decision stems from the substantial financial investments made by EU institutions and governments in the realms of human rights, freedom, and diversity, areas in which the OSF is actively engaged. They state that in the future, they will only focus on Europe in relation to its role in “major global issues.” Concurrently, OSF is undertaking a comprehensive restructuring of its operation, slated for completion by 2024.
The withdrawal of the OSF from Europe will affect many organizations, including media outlets and media freedom activists, according to Marius Dragomir, the director of the Media and Journalism Research Center. “The impact of OSF in the media field globally is immense,” Dragomir said.
After a nearly decade-long stint with OSF, where he managed the foundation’s media research globally, Dragomir has been studying the impact of philanthropies worldwide. “By far, OSF has had the greatest impact [in the media], especially in difficult media environments,” Dragomir said. Ongoing research carried out by the center he is leading shows that almost all independent media in countries with high government control have survived thanks to OSF’s support. In certain instances, this support endured for over a decade. “It’s an incredible record,” Dragomir said.
He says that indeed, the EU has been pouring taxpayer money into the media in recent decades. However, access to EU funds is difficult, especially for small media companies in countries with high levels of capture, where most of the media is controlled by the government and their cronies. “EU funding schemes are incredibly byzantine,” he added. “Philanthropies are much easier to work with, and OSF in particular is truly flexible,” Dragomir said.
In response to the aggressive actions taken by the Hungarian government under the leadership of autocratic prime minister Viktor Orban, the OSF made the decision to relocate its headquarters from Budapest to Berlin in 2018. In a recent development, OSF has revealed its plans to undergo a comprehensive restructuring of its global entities, which will lead to a significant downsizing of its workforce by 40%.
With autocratic governments beefing up their control over large swathes of the media in an increasing number of European countries, support for independent media is essential. Attempts by the EU to protect media freedom in countries with high government control have led to no progress. Complaints against instances of government control of the media in Hungary, for example, have all been rejected by the European Commission. In the past two years, EU officials have been working on a new piece of legislation called the European Media Freedom Act, which aims to address media capture across Europe. However, experts do not expect the law to have any significant impact on media capture.
In this context, media donors play a key role. Although several donor organizations currently finance media outlets in Europe, the withdrawal of OSF from the European will undoubtedly leave a significant gap in the support for independent journalism.
Photo: World map on OSF website describing where their support goes today (photo MediaPowerMonitor)