Where are all the fellowships and grants for journalists in Asia?

You can look. But there's a dearth of Asian-led programs to support journalism. Here's why.

Each year, a host of universities, nonprofits and foundations offer fellowships and grants for journalists to brush up their skills, learn new ones, or fund exciting reporting projects. But Asian journalists often miss out: wealth from Asia is not being channeled into media development on anything like the scale seen in the U.S. and Europe.

U.S. fellowship database ProFellow has collated a list of some 40 different journalism fellowships for journalists, while Poynter Institute notes that during application season in the last quarter of 2017 alone, more than 85 fellowships were advertized. All of them were hosted by U.S. institutions.

By comparison, there is “a dearth of Asian-funded fellowships and grants” on offer to journalists working in the region, according to International Center for Journalists program manager Zainab Imam.

Philanthropic differences?

Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) executive director David Kaplan thinks there are differences between the way philanthropy is practised in the West and in Asia. U.S.-based organizations may distribute a large number of fellowships, but Kaplan says it’s not because Americans are naturally more generous. Rather, they have a strong economic incentive that encourages giving.

“U.S. taxpayers get a 100 percent tax deduction for donating to charitable and educational causes. This includes zoos, symphonies, churches, universities and non-profit media,” Kaplan says.

Such incentives attract wealthy donors and foundations to support programs from GIJN and others, including the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and ProPublica.

Kim Kierans, a vice president and professor for the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College, Canada, has worked with Konrad Adenaeur Stiftung’s fellowship program. She echoes Kaplan’s sentiments, adding it was possible that funding fellowships is just “not what rich people in Southeast Asia want to do with their profits.”

A matter of priorities

But private donations are not always the main driver for fellowships. Though governments in the West often bolster such programs, many in Asia lack the budgets to fund similar initiatives. Others are simply reluctant to pony up the cash to support reporters who may turn their journalistic skills back on unscrupulous politicians and civil servants.

“It’s not just about the money,” says Iman. “China and Japan, for example, are countries who’re doing fairly well economically. It’s about priorities.”

Despite some scattered minor improvements in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index Indonesia rose six spots to 124th in 2017 while Myanmar moved up 12 places from 143th between 2016 and 2018 most countries in Asia do not place well. China, for example, was ranked at 176th this year, while North Korea occupied the bottom of the scale at 180th position.

Kaplan says far too many Asian governments view the news media as an instrument of  control rather than the essential independent watchdog it should be. “This discourages investment in fellowships and grants to develop journalists’ skills and networks,” he says.

“Those who have the resources to fund fellowships may not value or wish to support a free media that provides diversity of opinions and gives a voice to those who have no voice,” adds Kierans.

The role of the state

Despite this, there are scattered examples of state-sponsored journalism fellowships programs, some of which are deliver via investment companies in Southeast Asia.

Temasek Foundation International, which was established by Temasek, an investment company set up by Singapore’s government, established the Asia Journalism Fellowship in 2009. Chief executive Benedict Cheong says journalists who participate in the program benefit from expanding their networks and through editorial collaborations or study visits to other newsrooms in the region.

In neighboring Malaysia, state investment arm Khazanah Nasional says nationally backed investment organizations have a responsibility to invest in capacity building programs. “Khazanah’s objective is to support the local journalism industry to developing better, well-rounded journalists, who would, in turn, be able to contribute to nation-building in a more meaningful manner through their writings,” says a spokesman. It has sponsored the Wolfson Press Fellowship for journalists at the University of Cambridge since 2012.

But the Institute of Journalists Malaysia has questioned the government’s role in enhancing journalism. And a Malaysian government official, who asked to remain anonymous, says the government does offer fellowships to journalists, but only to those who work for the government news agency.

Independent journalists do not qualify because, he says, “there was nothing in it for them [the government].”

Paul Niwa, assistant dean at Emerson College’s School of Communication in Boston, says that even if there was a diverse choice of fellowships available in Asia, “the source of funds are reasons why some journalists hesitate to apply for them.”

To circumvent this reluctance, institutions with strong reputations, such as the U.S. government-funded East West Center in Hawaii can bridge the gap, he says. Its annual Jefferson Fellowships, which are offered to print and broadcast journalists in the U.S. and Asia-Pacific, are well regarded.

Time constraints

Meanwhile, the dire state of many modern newsrooms operating on squeezed budgets and shoestring staffing arrangements means that many journalists are unable to take advantage of those fellowships that are available.

New Zealand National Press Club president Peter Isaac says the club was for many years charged with finding candidates for the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship. “But our candidates could not be sure that they would be allowed to take the time off, and then get paid while they took up the residential scholarship,” he says.

Professor Charlie Beckett, from the London School of Economics’ Department of Media and Communications, says other professions such as law and medicine view professional development as a routine part of career enhancement.

“But journalism is massively under financial pressure so editors can’t always spare the time to let their journalists do this,” he says. “Also, journalists fear that if they are out of the newsroom they will lose touch.”

Niwa, who has designed and overseen a number of fellowship schemes, says that some established publications in Northeast Asia are culturally inclined to both be supportive and financially able to back journalists who wish to take a sabbatical.

A feudalistic culture pervades many newsrooms, he says, inculcating a sense of loyalty that gives editors the confidence to let their journalists apply for long periods of leave. “Northeast Asia’s support of fellowships have a historical root, with the legacies of the World War II and the Cold War, so developing robust journalists was important to, say, Korea and Japan,” says Niwa.

A strong case

Kaplan notes that there is enormous wealth in Asia, and says he is confident that potential donors want to see better skills and higher quality news media develop across the region. “But someone needs to make the case to them. This applies not only to educational and professional development programmes, but to support of independent media generally,” he says.

He points out that public interest nonprofit newsrooms such as the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, South Korea’s Newstapa, Taiwan’s The Reporter, and IndiaSpend are proving, in various ways, that there is local support in Asia through grants, donations, memberships, and sponsorships for independent media.

Those who want to see more of these kinds of programs will need to educate potential donors about why these benefit society. There’s a strong case to be made.”

Susan Tam is a freelance journalist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has reported on global affairs for Al Jazeera English TV, as well as regional issues for the Singapore Press Holdings and The Star. Her freelance assignments have been for CNN International and Yahoo, and research for the UN offices in Malaysia. Susan specializes in social issues, policy developments and the retail sector. Follow Susan Tam on Twitter.

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