Grantee: Media Development Loan Fund
Ranking: 1st highest grantee, 2005 — 2009
Type: Social Investment Fund
About: The Media Development Loan Fund is a New York-based non-profit that “provides loans to independent news outlets in countries with a history of media oppression.” Founded in 1995, the fund provides low-cost capital and technical know-how to “help journalists in challenging environments build sustainable businesses around professional, responsible, quality journalism.” In 2005, the New York Times described the fund as a “loans without borders” program, quoting Serbian journalist and founder Sasha Vucinic:
The most effective time for the fund to enter a country, Vucinic said, is during the transition to democracy. “We want to be in places like Peru after Fujimori or Georgia after Shevardnadze, in the crucial months when a free expression can become institutionalized before the government gets annoyed,” Vucinic said. “That is when capital is crucial and when the country is most in need of an independent media.”1
Working in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Southeast Europe and the CIS, MDLF “helps essential independent news providers to expand their audience, improve their news products and become financially self-sustainable” and “provides leading journalists with the support they need to create lasting institutions for change.” As a business venture, and also as a philanthropy, the MDLF has seen success. Over the course of 15 years, they have provided more than $100 million in financing and grants to 77 media companies in 26 countries, while writing off only 2% of loans and investments.
Mission Statement: Media Development Loan Fund is a mission-driven investment fund for independent news outlets in countries with a history of media oppression. We provide low-cost capital and technical know-how to help journalists in challenging environments build sustainable businesses around professional, responsible, quality journalism. Working in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Southeast Europe and the CIS, we help essential independent news providers to expand their audience, improve their news products and become financially self-sustainable. MDLF provides leading journalists with the support they need to create lasting institutions for change.
Soros Funding: George Soros became the first donor to the Fund in 1995. Ten years later, Soros donated nearly $3 million to the MDLF (analysis of donations between 1995 and 2005 are forthcoming). He gave another $3,910,000 in 2006; $3,900,000 in 2007; $3,900,00 in 2008, and $1,000,000 in 2009, making the MDLF the single largest beneficiary of Open Society Institute funds during that time.2 Between 2005 and 2009, among the many hundreds of causes supported by the OSI, only the Drug Policy Alliance’s campaign to legalize street drugs in America approached the level of funding Soros provided to invest in independent media in unstable and developing countries.
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Addendum: The presence of the Media Development Loan Fund at the very top of OSI’s grantee list over the last half decade may surprise some. Soros rarely mentions the MDLF, although he credits it briefly with helping warm him to the idea of social investing in his 2011 book, The Philanthropy of George Soros: Building Open Societies:
[M]y foundations did get involved in social investing from time to time. In Bulgaria, for instance, the foundation became the largest book publisher. This raised serious questions about whether by subsidizing publishing we were actually preventing a healthy publishing industry from developing. To satisfy the ever recurring demand for supporting mass media, we set up a special operation, the Media Development Loan Fund. It has been very successful because it is run on business lines.3
Beyond the philanthropic subject of the efficacy of social investing, questions remain about Soros’ motives for subsidizing opposition media in countries where authoritarian governments — or authoritarian revolutionaries — are controlling information.