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Last Updated: Friday, 15 July, 2005, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
Funds sought to help free media
By Kevin Anderson
BBC News website

Sasa Vucinic, BBC
Vucinic: Wants to help free media flourish

In 1995, Sasa Vucinic went to billionaire George Soros and asked him for a half million dollars to start a media fund.

After running Radio B92 in Belgrade in the early 1990s, Mr Vucinic had come to appreciate the value of independent media.

Although Mr Soros was deeply sceptical, he finally handed over the money to "give him a rope to hang himself with".

Mr Vucinic told the audience at the TED (Technology, Design and Entertainment) conference that millions of dollars later, his Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF) is helping foster free media in 17 countries.

"83% of the people do not live with free press," he said. "They don't know what goes on in their countries."

Cash call

From the late 1980s Mr Vucinic watched the freedom of the press slowly slip away in Yugoslavia while he worked at the country's only independent radio station.

"We were operating in a hostile environment. The government only wanted to make your life miserable," he said.

Typewriter, BBC
Less than 20% of the world's press is free to print or say what it wants
By the early 1990s, the government was threatening B92's advertisers, and it found it difficult to pay its bills.

"It was painful for me. Yugoslavia was falling apart. We watched this slow motion downfall, and we had the ability to understand that," he said.

B92 wanted to keep an archive of what was happening, but the station had to save money almost any way it could which meant it recycling tape by copying over old recordings.

He sought help from a media assistance organisation to bring two plans to fruition: one modest, one ambitious.

For the small plan, Mr Vucinic said: "I just wanted [it] to help us get those damn tapes."

The ambitious plan needed a million dollar loan to see B92 through what would be difficult years.

He detailed the situation to the media assistance organisation's representative who, after the end of his presentation, had only one question: Was the station paying royalties on music broadcast?

In the end there was no organisation that would give B92 the kind of support that it was looking for. "In my defence, there was no Google at the time," he said.

Press freedom deficit

Which is why, in 1995, he pitched his idea of a media fund to George Soros.

George Soros, AP
The free media fund is backed by George Soros
Mr Vucinic didn't see it as a charity. He thought that these fledging media companies needed access to capital.

George Soros told him that his idea wouldn't work but that he would give him the money anyway.

Armed with $500,000 Mr Vucinic took on his first project, a Bratislavan newspaper that was being forced by its government to travel 400 kilometres to print the paper.

The newspaper wanted a printing press, but he found when the newspaper made their presentation that they had problems apart from government pressure.

"Their numbers didn't make sense," he said.

MDLF bills itself as a venture capital fund than a typical development agency as it wants to help businesses become sustainable, said Mr Vucinic.

Drawing on lessons learned at B92, Mr Vucinic believes only when these media organisations have their own resources and are economically viable can they truly be free.

And far from failing as George Soros thought it would, Mr Vucinic said 97% of their payments come back on time.

He wants to do more, but that means he needs more money.

To help raise funds, he wants to sell Media Development Loan Fund bonds.

He asked the audience: "If investors are willing to fund the US deficit, why wouldn't investors want to fund the press freedom deficit?"

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