Swiss journalist Daniel Wermus writes on the establishment of IRIN, a former UN humanitarian news agency, in Geneva as a new – and independent – media organization.

Life and death – can there be an even more crucial topic ? Nevertheless, disaster fatigue is severely undermining international news coverage. Ebola, ISIS, Ukraine, Syria, Central Africa, South Sudan, Libya, Gaza and a host of other subjects, not even including the world’s forgotten crises, notably Sri Lanka, Tibet, Haiti, are all making it increasingly difficult for journalists to follow. Many have to be parachuted in and are then pulled out to report elsewhere.

How should the press deal with all these issues, plus find new angles, or embrace all those countless appeals for international aid and funding ? Even the United Nations cannot keep up. Then add all those journalists kidnapped or executed, plus growing competition with questionable citizen journalists who are now dominating the net but often with information whose credibility cannot be verified. And all those football players and movie stars roped in by the aid agencies to help them place issues into the media forefront, often having little to do with the real issues at hand, but nevertheless achieving celebrity rather than issues’ coveage.

So perhaps IRIN, the international humanitarian news agency previously funded by the UN, notably the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), has stepped in at the right time, but as an independent media organization. For the past 20 years, it has covered 70 countries, sometimes producing coverage as a UN entity that did not necesssarily please internaitonal humanitarian organizations. IRIN will begin its new identity headquartered editorially in Geneva but also with an office in London as the international news capital.

With 35 editors and 165 correspondents, most of them local and operating from the field, often in places such as Somalia where few other journalists would venture, IRIN represents a unique news source. Present before, during and after crises, it was one of the first to speak about Darfur and Boko Haram, in English, Arabic and French with films and photos.

A blessing in disguise, its ejection from the UN will now permit an autonomy which it could only dream about before. It can now focus on what works and what doesn’t in the international aid business, or investigate the way aid is blocked politically, or explore sexual trafficking and the involvement of the UN’s blue helmets. These are all issues that need solid reporting rather than just screaming headlines.

So what about aid fatigue ? The need remains to scrutinize the humanitarian industry which is worth some 22 billion dollars a year, most of provided by taxpayers. Geneva is perhaps one of the best locations to follow the world’s humanitarian actors and to focus on a new journalism that may be able to help prevent future crises through more informed reporting.

But who will pay it ? The new IRIN is seeking to establish relationships with the New York Times and The Huffington Post, but also emerging new media from India and China, which are in fact taking over in Africa and Asia where western mainstream media have largely pulled out, or at least reduced their coverage. IRIN’s budget in 2012 was 7.6 million dollars. Some of it will be funded by donors, but the agency’s white knight in armour has turned out to be a Hong Kong-based philanthropic Jynwel Foundation of the Asian billionaire Low family which has pledged 25 million dollars over the next 15 years. But diverse funding is crucial in order to retain real independence. As we all know, real information that makes a différence costs !

Journalist Daniel Wermus is a Geneva-based associate editor of The Essential Edge.

 

 

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