BRUSSELS - How Journalismfund Europe grew from an idea at a funeral table into a professional journalism organisation with international acclaim: 2 December 1997, Brussels. Up-and-coming TV journalist Pascal Decroos is on his way home from VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster, when a motorist driving against the flow of traffic crashes into his car.
Pascal doesn’t survive the crash and dies aged 33. Days later, at the funeral reception, Pascal’s business partner puts forward the idea of some kind of initiative to commemorate the talented journalist. Two decades later, that idea has grown into a highly regarded journalism organisation supporting hundreds of journalists across Europe and the world. This is Journalismfund’s story.
It’s hard to describe just how special Pascal was. He had an endless fascination for people in social systems. He could get through to them in a way that others could not.
Everyone who knew Pascal, everyone who had ever worked with him agreed that he had something unique, something extraordinary. Kurt Vandenberghe, a childhood friend of Pascal and Journalismfund Europe co-founder and former board member, explains. “It’s hard to describe just how special Pascal was. As a friend and as a journalist. He had an endless fascination for people in social systems. He wanted to figure out how those systems worked, while never losing sight of the human beings behind them. His charisma allowed him to get people talking that nobody else could get a word out of. But he didn’t take anyone’s claims at face value, he always dug deeper.”
When the idea is proposed for an initiative to keep the memory of Pascal alive, all his family, friends and acquaintances are on board from day one. They agree that Pascal and all the things he stood for as a journalist mustn’t be forgotten.
The moment Pascal’s closest friends and family sit down to discuss for the first time how to turn the idea into a reality, they immediately agree that investigative journalism should be at the core of the new initiative. What is also clear from the very beginning is that at least part of the focus should be on young journalists. Barriers for beginning journalists were high even when Pascal himself started. He was keen on giving talented starters opportunities whenever he could. Furthering that principle is no more than obvious to the organisation’s founding fathers.
When the idea is proposed for an initiative to keep the memory of Pascal alive, all his family, friends and acquaintances are on board from day one.
The social climate, too, shapes the scope and objectives of what would later become Journalismfund Europe. It is the end of the 20th century. There is a growing distrust of “the establishment”, of government systems, institutions, multinationals. A suspicion towards anything that represents the vested interests. In Belgium, specifically, the disastrous way the mid-nineties cases of child rapist Marc Dutroux and his victims were dealt with caused uproar amongst citizens and eroded institutional trust nation-wide. There is a strong desire in society, in Flanders as in the rest of Europe, for ways to gain insight into the dynamics of the political and economic forces that were at play. So the idea of a fund supporting the kind of journalism that looks beyond first impressions comes at exactly the right time.
And so, with Pascal’s ethics and values in mind and the zeitgeist on their side, Pascal’s friends and family set out to make the idea a reality. Several meetings, brainstorms and discussions follow, and before long they realise that for their initiative to be viable, they need goodwill from at least two sides: the government and the media.
Window of opportunity
They reach out to the media through the connections one of them has with editors-in-chief at several of Flanders’ biggest media corporations. During a meeting in a Brussels restaurant aptly or inaptly called The Ultimate Hallucination, it quickly becomes clear that the media players in Flanders are moderately sympathetic towards a possible investigative journalism initiative. Simultaneously, Pascal’s friends try to get a foot in the door at the Flemish government, where they go from cabinet to cabinet, from minister to minister, to pitch their idea. There is some bluff involved. A bunch of youngsters with no relevant experience who want to honour their friend by changing the world. Eventually, they manage to touch some ground. Kurt Vandenberghe remembers it vividly: “As it turned out, some people in Flanders’ then Minister-President Luc Van den Brande’s cabinet were very fond of the idea of an investigative journalism initiative. That was in 1999. It had taken us over a year of smoothing, lobbying, coaxing, but finally, there was this window of opportunity.”
Together with the administration, Van den Brande’s cabinet gets to work on a Ministerial Order, which will grant the initiative the financial support it needs to get going. But then, in June of 1999, there are elections in Belgium. Elections that Luc Van den Brande’s party end up losing, which means he will have to give up his post as Minister-President. Suddenly, the work that Pascal’s friends have put into their plans, the evenings of brainstorms, the hours spent convincing people, the money invested organising dinner meetings, it all threatens to have been for nothing.
As time runs out, they launch a final push. Thankfully, they have the enthusiasm of the people in Van den Brande’s cabinet working for them. It is thanks to them that they succeed. But only just: Van den Brande ends up signing the Ministerial Order on his very last day in office as Minister-President. Et voilà, with that one stroke of the pen, the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism is born!
We were one of the first in the world. Apart from the American Fund for Investigative Journalism, there was only the Dutch Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten, which is where we got the main idea.
First in the world
The fact that Van den Brande and his team were so enthusiastic until the very end of their term has to do not only with the social climate but also with the idea itself and its innovative character. “We were one of the first in the world”, recalls Kurt Vandenberghe. “Aside from the American Fund for Investigative Journalism, there was only the Dutch Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten, which is where we got the main idea. But both those organisations worked differently from what we proposed.” Pascal’s friends have taken as a blueprint the EU’s research and innovation financing model. Working with calls for proposals, clear eligibility criteria and an anonymous evaluation for example. And setting up a firewall between the organisation’s management and the people who evaluate the applications. They have transposed European funding practices to a fund on a Flemish level.
And it works. With a 7,500,000 Belgian Francs subsidy, about 186,000 Euros, the young organisation sets out as a small player in a big landscape. Kurt Vandenberghe looks back on those first few years: “It wasn’t easy. Our subsidies were never structural but on a year-by-year basis. The Flemish government didn’t want to give us a blank cheque just like that – and rightly so – so we had to prove ourselves every year. We had to be transparent, had to be honest with them in what we could and couldn’t do. And we did. We managed to successfully get across the ideas we had for the future and the impact we generated. Throughout the years we built a relationship of trust with the Flemish government. They have supported us every year since that first Ministerial Order in 1999.”
To serve democracy
What also helps in those early years is that the young organisation is seen as a true citizens’ initiative, which it is. Pascal’s friends are determined to never have any stakes in the media powers that be. Board members with media experience are attracted, but only if they are able to leave their professional affiliation at the door. It is crucial that the Fund is there to serve the public interest. To serve democracy. Independently.
It is those fundamentals, things like independence and serving the public interest, which were also at the heart of Pascal’s work, that will guide the organisation like a compass in all the years to come. After the groundwork, the pioneering first few years and the years of consolidating its reputation and credibility, the Fund is ready for growth. A first employee is recruited in addition to the director, a sister organisation is founded with the same values but a different mission: bringing academic research closer to the public. Gradually, the Pascal Decroos Fund gains its place in the journalism landscape in Flanders. It supports ever more articles, documentaries, books and radio broadcasts.
But as the years progress, it slowly but steadily reaches a plateau. “That’s the moment you have to have the guts to question yourself and see what will be next”, says Kurt Vandenberghe. For him, the other board members and everyone else involved, it is obvious what that next step is: looking abroad. After almost ten years of stimulating investigative journalism in Flanders, it is time to cross the border. “We saw that investigative journalism in Flanders would soon be pointless if cut off from what was happening on a European level. Our societies had become so interconnected by that point, that it was nearly impossible to leave the European or global context out of consideration when investigating stories, even seemingly specific Flemish stories.”
Pascal’s persona might have become less visible in Journalismfund’s external activities. But as far as the internal workings are concerned, he is still very much with us.
In 2007 the Fund ventures outside Belgium’s borders for the first time with its project Wobbing Europe. Two years later, in 2009, it officially launches its European cross-border grant programme, seed-funded by the Norwegian Fritt Ord. After that, things move fast. The first supported European cross-border story is published, Open Society Foundations and Adessium Foundation support the Fund’s European activities for the first time, the Dataharvest conference is thought up and organised until eventually, in 2013, the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism officially changes its name to Journalismfund.eu and in 2023 to Journalismfund Europe.
Things will keep moving towards the international level from there. Journalismfund Europe will grow into a global player in journalism with contacts in the Americas, Africa and Asia, an organisation run professionally by a team of six people. Over 6,000,000 Euros will be invested in investigative journalism, more than 1,400 journalists will benefit from Journalismfund Europe’s grant programmes. And counting…
“Pascal’s persona might have become less visible in Journalismfund Europe’s external activities throughout the years,” Kurt Vandenberghe contemplates. “That is inevitable considering the journey this initiative has taken. But as far as the internal workings are concerned, he is still very much with us.” And indeed, Pascal’s charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent will forever be an inspiration to Journalismfund Europe.
Find a timeline of our history here.
By Rafael Njotea
Brussels, 2 January 2020