If not journalists, then who will save democracy?

“First they came for the journalists… We don’t know what happened after that.”

This riff on the famous confession by Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller about the silence of German elites about Nazi aggression was popularized by Rappler co-founder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa in a FRONTLINE documentary titled “A Thousand Cuts” last year.

Ressa has become an urgent, internationally recognized voice for press freedom in the face of rising authoritarianism in the Philippines and worldwide, as the Duterte government has put her and her team through hell for Rappler’s watchdog journalism.

Ressa — a self-proclaimed “canary in the coal mine” — addressed the International Journalism Festival in 2019, which due to COVID was the last time this convening was held before its return earlier this month.

In a detailed presentation, Ressa visualized how digital propaganda campaigns including coordinated attacks on journalists and civic leaders had come to dominate the Filippine information landscape, noting that the tactics originated in Russia.

“You have to go back to Putin. If you think about it, the first targets of Russia weren’t us, the international community,” she said. “The first targets were its citizens, who got used to it, then Ukraine. I’m hoping that like a virus we’ll find a vaccination for this. We as people have our weaknesses and this stuff manipulates us. What we’re seeing is a global dictator’s playbook and social media is crucial to it.”

Three years later, Ressa’s prescient speech still echoed throughout the halls of Perugia and through the keynote of Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, who was initially blocked by the Modi government from traveling to deliver her remarks.

“I don’t have the luxury of staying silent because my country and my people need me,” said Ayyub, an investigative reporter who has documented Hindu nationalist violence against Muslims and who throughout her speech was attacked on social media by right-wing accounts locking in on the event’s hashtag.

The International Center for Investigative Journalism called the attacks Ayyub has endured in recent years “chillingly similar” to those targeting Ressa.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seen as a bulwark against rising global authoritarianism, provided new urgency in Perugia, where a declaration of support for independent media in Ukraine was signed by more than 185 organizations.

“This nascent, new-found and rekindled recognition of journalism’s value among the public and policy makers is fragile,” the statement reads. “Ukrainian reporters and international journalists reporting from Ukraine have earned a window of opportunity. The greatest leaps of progress are often made in times of crisis. We, collectively, cannot afford to squander it.”

Adding to the urgency was a recognition that not only are authoritarian politics winning the day worldwide, but the economics of independent media have also grown worse.

UNESCO painted a grim picture of collapse in a report called “Journalism is a public good” published earlier this year:

Over the past five years, approximately 85 percent of the world’s population experienced a decline in press freedom in their country. Even in countries with long traditions of safeguarding free and independent journalism, financial and technological transformations have forced news outlets, especially those serving local communities, to close. With readership and advertising markets moving online, advertising revenue for newspapers plummeted by nearly half in the ten-year period ending in 2019. The subsequent COVID-19 pandemic and its global economic impact have exacerbated this trend, now threatening to create an “extinction level” event for independent journalism outlets.

And the evidence shows that when independent journalism goes away, it is replaced by toxic, politically motivated misinformation that spreads virus-like across social media, as in the cases of Maria Ressa and Rana Ayyub.

Ressa is one of the co-chairs of the International Fund for Public Interest Media (IPFIM), which seeks to raise a billion dollars for public interest media from governments, corporations and philanthropic institutions while ensuring the editorial independence of newsrooms that receive its support.

She and co-chair Mark Thompson, formerly a media executive with the BBC and New York Times, argue: “The great political and cultural battles that free media face everywhere can only be won if we first stabilize and future-proof its economics.”

Nishant Lalwani, managing director of Luminate Group and co-founder of IFPIM, elaborated in Perugia:

“Today news organizations are dying out all over the world and we have to stop that from happening. Otherwise we have serious issues with autocracies encroaching and democracies dying out,” Lalwani said. “Many funders have realized that having healthy information ecosystems is no longer a matter of holding power to account or public debate, but now it’s a matter of national security, it’s a matter of the health of populations, it’s a matter of resisting the spread of autocratic practices to democracies around the world.”

The IFPIM effort already has backing from the United States, Taiwan, Switzerland and Sweden along with philanthropic donors such as MacArthur Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, National Endowment for Democracy and Luminate.

It joins a global push to support independent media and protect democracy that includes The GroundTruth Project’s Report for America and Report for the World programs.

A growing level of comfort among journalists in directly tying their work to more equitable, more democratic societies seems to be born of the necessity of the moment.

Wendi Thomas, founder of independent news site MLK50 based in Memphis, Tennessee, said in Perugia, “If it’s not journalism who’s going to save democracy, or be part of saving democracy, who’s going to do that? It’s not like there’s a whole bunch of institutions rushing to the fore to fill in that gap. On a day to day basis, it’s like OK, when’s the story going to be done? That’s my day-to-day question, can they hurry up and finish it, we’ve got deadlines. But in a more macro sense, yes I think we’re trying to save democracy.”