A few weeks I had a chance to return to Nicaragua for a brief visit. The Fundacion Chamorro  invited me to talk about the role of the state in processes of media reform. As usual, I learned a great deal by talking to old colleagues and new friends about ongoing efforts to strengthen media democracy in the country.
What’s going on in contemporary Nicaragua shows the potential of smart media aid to be effective, if it dovetails with local needs and promotes wide-ranging efforts. It’s not just what donors think is important. It is what local activists with vast experience believe is necessary (and Nicaragua, to put it mildly, does have substantive experience with reform). It’s not simply about targeting one set of challenges. It is taking a broad, multilevel perspective on the challenges of media systems.
Nicaragua’s media system suffers from the typical problems found elsewhere in the region: the double whammy of presidential discretional management and collusion between government and big business. Media ownership is not transparent – the grapevine is filled with rumors about who owns what. Critical journalism remains under siege. The executive has too much political and economic influence over media performance.
What are local media activists doing with support from international donors?
Structured training with follow-up - With the support from various donors, local organizations are intelligently addressing several deficiencies. Rather than persisting with a scattershot approach to media training, partners and universities are trying to offer better structured and long-term programs that link theory and practice. People are serious about having follow-up mechanisms to monitor what actually happens after students graduate. They are guided by the premise that the goal should not be “number of diplomas”, but rather, the impact on stories and overall coverage.
Targeted funding through grants and advertising - Programs also offer funds for media and journalists. Frequently, the problem is not that journalists don’t know how to produce quality journalism. Rather, they lack the financial support to actually put their skills to practice. Offering modest ($2500) support for specific projects can make a significant contribution for under-resourced and under-staffed news media. Likewise, funds for “independent” media can also make a big difference, particularly for news organizations in financial dire straits due to the economic crisis or the lack of official advertising (due to their critical position vis-à-vis the government). These funds are basically targeted to buy media space to promote democracy and citizenship.
Liberate journalism projects - Another initiative is aimed at supporting independent journalism. Just as it is happening elsewhere in the region (like the cases of IDL  in Peru and FOPEA  in Argentina, to name a few), organizations are producing top-quality journalism outside conventional newsrooms. What this funding does is to free up reporters from the typical pressures found in large news organizations in ways that promote the kind of journalism that drives scores of people into the profession. Certainly, the question is whether this journalism, which generally delivers news through online platforms (websites, “social” media), can become a true alternative to mainstream news in countries with persistent digital divides. Some are working hard trying to get agreements with radio and cable television to expand their reach.
Network, network – Local actors are also busy trying to strengthen a network of local radio stations, which remains the only medium with real national reach. This requires understanding what local radios need to collaborate in both production and dissemination of information and news (from equipment to funding for reporting). Radio networks that support quality information and popular communication are not the past; they remain the future.
Legal advocacy – The legal challenges are too numerous to describe here. Despite recent gains, many legal problems affect the health of media democracy. For example, Nicaragua passed a law allowing access to official information in 2007, yet the law is not enforced, as a recent study has documented. The problems are many: from lack of funding in government agencies to respond to requests to lack of knowledge among citizens about their rights.
Nicaragua shows valuable lessons for international media assistance. In a country that, for decades, has been saturated with short-term training as the panacea to solve all media troubles, donors should take a systemic approach. Don’t insist on tried-and-true training. Don’t follow boilerplate aid. Instead, zoom out to see media systems as a whole. Identify points of entry to promote wide-ranging changes. Equally important, listen and be sensitive to the needs of local actors. In Nicaragua, a range of individuals and organizations with different political trajectories and ideological sympathies are collaborating in common projects that are designed to link media performance to key principles of good governance. That’s smart aid you can count on.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Kaide