Danish Democracy program accused of non-transparency

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (R) and his Danish counterpart Anders Samuelsen are pictured during a joint press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin on December 13, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / dpa / Kay Nietfeld / Germany OUT
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (R) and his Danish counterpart Anders Samuelsen are pictured during a joint press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin on December 13, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / dpa / Kay Nietfeld / Germany OUT

By Rahim Rahemtulla

On May 2, 2012, the Danish Foreign Ministry conducted a tender for a contract worth 50 million Danish kroner ($6.9 million) to administer a four-year media and democratization program in what it called its Eastern Partnership region.

This included, among other nations, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine and Turkey. The project was won, seven months later, by Danish consultancy firm NIRAS in partnership with BBC Media Action, the charity arm of the taxpayer-funded British broadcaster. Documentation of the contract is available on Tenders Electronic Daily (TED), the European Union’s online public procurement database.

The program which grew out of the contract, known as MYMEDIA, is now coming to an end.

(Editor’s Note: Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner and editor Olga Rudenko are regional coordinators for a MYMEDIA program called Objective Investigative Reporting Project in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. The Objective program, which ends in January along with other MYMEDIA programs, spent more than $100,000 on nearly 50 investigative reporting projects in the three nations since 2013.)

No new tender has been held for the next round of Danish government funding. Staff at MYMEDIA and at the news outlets it has supported say the decision on how to spend future grants has already been made and they were not given a chance to make their case for continued funding.

“What normally happens in Denmark is that there is an open and transparent tender process,” Michael Andersen, the director of MYMEDIA, told the Kyiv Post. “Different projects apply with their budget and their plans. We won in 2012, so of course we expected, according to Danish law and tradition, that there would be another tender now. The Danish Foreign Ministry decided that there shouldn’t be a tender.”

A job well done?

Since its launch in 2013, MYMEDIA has supported journalists across the Eastern Partnership.

The project’s remit includes goals such as promoting dialogue between the media, government and civil society and assisting investigative journalism.

By all accounts, MYMEDIA succeeded in meeting its targets. Checks on the quality of the work were routinely carried out by BBC Media Action, whose reports were passed on to NIRAS and eventually the Danish Foreign Ministry, which wanted to be ensure the money was going to good use.

Ellie Haworth, a project head at BBC Media Action who worked with MYMEDIA, told the Kyiv Post that while standards varied, the BBC’s overall assessment was “positive.” It was her impression that the decision to stop supporting MYMEDIA was unlikely to have been taken because the organization failed to fulfill its objectives.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with the quality of the work,” she said.

For Andersen, the absence of a new tender process is more than a missed opportunity; it also touches upon a question of values.

“The Foreign Ministry hasn’t explained to us why there’s no tender,” Andersen said. “This is very unusual in Denmark and Scandinavia in general. We consider this to be rather problematic considering this is a media and democracy project where we go to places like Ukraine, Belarus and Turkey and part of our remit is to talk about free media and transparency and openness. The only thing that was said was that it was a political decision and they couldn’t tell us anything more about it. That was it.”

In-depth reporting

Among MYMEDIA’s recent projects was the Kyiv Post’s eight-part “Oligarch Watch” project, a series of in-depth reports profiling Ukraine’s wealthiest individuals, including Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

According to Andersen, Danish Ambassador to Ukraine Christian Dons Christensen was summoned to the Presidential Administration for complaints about the Oligarch Watch series.

Christensen, in a statement to the Kyiv Post, did not refute Andersen’s claim that the Presidential Administration criticized the project. He said he could not comment on specific conversations, but that criticism of content produced by organizations supported by Denmark would be met with “a clear reference to the Danish arm’s-length principle, by which we would never interfere in the journalistic content of independent media.”

Limited resources

MYMEDIA was conceived as part of a wider Danish foreign policy which Copenhagen calls its “neighborhood program” which seeks to boost economic development and strengthen human rights. From 2013 to 2017, according to public documents, the program was allocated one billion Danish kroner ($140.3 million) to support “priority countries.” These were Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo.

In contrast, during the next phase of the neighborhood program, which will run from 2017 to 2021, Denmark will reduce its focus from seven to just two nations: Ukraine and Georgia. In a statement, the Danish Foreign Ministry told the Kyiv Post that this is due to budget cuts.

However, according to the ministry’s own publications, the amount of money Denmark will spend on media remains practically unchanged.

Within the new program, money has been set aside for media support, but the focus on two countries has left several organizations, until now working with MYMEDIA, without funding.

This includes outlets in Turkey and Belarus, countries ranked, respectively, 151st and 157th out of 180 nations in the 2016 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.

Andersen, who is Danish, said regardless of his role at MYMEDIA, he cannot understand as a citizen how his government could take such a decision at a time when press freedom faces multiple threats in those countries.

“The Danish Foreign Ministry very, very shockingly has decided to cut 100 percent of the funding for free media and independent media in Belarus and in Turkey,” he said. “I am at a loss to explain how Denmark can decide right now not to support Turkish media. Some of our partners there are going in and out of prison.”

The Danish decision not to support independent media in Turkey happens amid harsh crackdowns on news media, with 150 journalists imprisoned since a July coup attempt.

Andrew Finkel, a journalist in Turkey, said that “MYMEDIA was an early grantor for P24. It believed in us when we were merely an idea. In the just over three years that followed, P24 has grown to be one of the main exponents of independent media in Turkey and a source of support for young and mid-career journalists who find themselves excluded from the government mainstream.”

The Objective program “supported some really excellent projects. It is beyond belief that anyone should cut such a successful project, particularly now in Turkey when journalists are being fired and arrested. It helped fill a tremendous void and helped to keep the light of honest journalism alive.”

Tough decisions

Belarusian journalists wrote to Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen expressing hope that Belarus, which has lived under the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. “will still be on the list of countries whose independent media receive support from the government of Denmark.”

Among those now faced with an uncertain future is ARU TV, a web-based news outlet which has worked with MYMEDIA since 2014.

Led by Belarusian Pavel Marozau, ARU TV brings analysis and satire to Russian-speaking audiences to combat Kremlin propaganda. Marozau, who has received political asylum in Estonia, said the channel’s reach averages 2 million viewers a month.

“As I understand, our results were quite good and our colleagues results were quite good but due to something – I am not sure if it is a lack of political will or just some bureaucratic game – they have decided to limit their efforts to just two countries,” Marozau said.

He said Denmark’s move to exclude Belarus and Turkey makes little sense given the stated aim to foster democracy. He believes Copenhagen succumbed to pressure from leaders in other countries.

“I think it looks like the logic of bureaucrats in U.S. and E.U offices,” he said. “If we are dealing with (Belarusian President Alexander) Lukashenko or (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan and we want something from them, but they say no because they don’t like what’s being written about them in the free media, then it’s better not to create conflict and decrease the level of support for the free media. That way these leaders don’t face hard questions or challenges,” Marozau said.

For ARU TV, the search for new sources of financial support has begun. Marozau, having worked with various donors over the past 15 years, is no stranger to the world of government grants. “We’ll have quite limited funds. As always, to find alternatives you need time, especially with public funds,” he said.

Decision ‘still in process’

In a statement, the Danish Foreign Ministry said the formulation of a new program to support independent media in Ukraine is “still in process” and has yet to be approved.

It states that collaboration with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency to support two Kyiv-based news outlets – Detector Media and Hromadske UA – is “foreseen” and that a final decision, still to be taken by the ministry, is “of course entirely unrelated to any editorial content supported by MYMEDIA, in which Danish authorities would never intervene or interfere.”

Andersen told the Kyiv Post that apart from the lack of transparency, the inclusion of Hromadske and Detector Media was another surprise.

“We have worked with many, many extremely strong organizations in Ukraine and I’m surprised none of them got a look in,” he said. “They were just simply excluded. That’s a big surprise because we have a great deal of proof of the extremely good work they’ve done.”

Both Hromadske and Detector Media told the Kyiv Post they have held talks with Danish representatives but that no decisions or agreements regarding funding have been made.

Courtesy: Kyiv Post