Social Justice and COVID-19: Interview with Antonio Zappulla, CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Kenneth Kwok

How the Thomson Reuters Foundation has leveraged its unique blend of media and legal skills to strengthen the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Accurate and balanced news coverage has always been critical to informing public opinion, acting as a watchdog, and holding authority to account. In the age of COVID-19, this is more important than ever, with millions of lives depending on a free-flow of accurate information. In addition to protecting media freedom, the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres has stressed how the global response to the pandemic must protect human rights and the rule of law.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation (“TRF” or “the Foundation”) – the corporate foundation of Thomson Reuters, the global news and information services company – possesses unique expertise which combines the power of journalism and the law to advance media freedom, foster more inclusive economies, and promote human rights.

In this interview, Mr. Antonio Zappulla, CEO of the Foundation, talks about how he has led the rapid mobilization of the organization to respond to the current health emergency.

KK: Thank you, Antonio, for taking part in this interview. The Foundation’s mission to “build global awareness of critical issues faced by humanity, inspire collective leadership and help shape a prosperous world where no one is left behind” is extremely pertinent given all that has happened in 2020 so far. The world right now is a very different place to when we last met six months ago at the World Economic Forum in Davos. How have the Foundation’s original 2020 plans changed with the onset of COVID-19?

AZ: It’s worth giving a bit of background here first. Since the Foundation was established in 1983, it has launched journalistic programs and services in direct response to major global events. For instance, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2004, we created Aswat Al Iraq, the country’s first independent news service. We did the same in Egypt in 2011, and Myanmar in 2015.

The COVID-19 crisis has been no exception. It has meant that we have had to reassess priorities and change gears extremely quickly to respond to the crisis with relevant initiatives that leverage our media and legal expertise – all while working remotely. Together, we have stepped up under incredibly challenging circumstances to identify what core elements of our services were needed and figured out how to deliver them differently.

For example, our news team is now reporting daily on how COVID-19 is impacting human rights, our journalism training has moved online and is helping reporters in Africa and Eastern Europe to report on the pandemic, and through our global pro bono legal program, TrustLaw, we’re facilitating free legal support to NGOs and social enterprises at a time when their resources are most stretched.

I also made the difficult decision to put Trust Conference – our annual human rights forum – on hold this year. In its place, we’ve launched a new YouTube series, TC | Talks, to explore how COVID-19 is reshaping our lives and our societies. In our debut episode, Joel Simon – the Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists – spoke about the COVID-19 crackdown on press freedom.

KK: I am glad that you mentioned NGOs and social enterprises, because while everyone is very focused on flattening the curve and finding a vaccine, both of which are very important, it is a fact that many at-risk communities have been further marginalized or de-prioritized during the pandemic. How is the Foundation helping to support them?

AZ:This pandemic has certainly exposed and exacerbated inequality, structural problems and discrimination, and it’s vital that these issues are addressed, rather than overlooked, so that the world’s most vulnerable are not pushed even further out to the margins of our societies. And this is exactly what the Foundation is leveraging its media and legal expertise to try and achieve as part of our COVID-19 response.

Taking our media work first: as I mentioned, our global news team is shining a light on the impact COVID-19 is having on people, society and human rights – in particular on those around the world who struggle to live freely and are unable to live fairly. Our reporting has explored topics ranging from how coronavirus restrictions are increasing health risks to LGBT+ people with HIV, to how the virus is hitting workers in some of the world’s lowest-paid sectors, to those often overlooked by society or already denied their human rights.

In addition to the Crisis Reporting Hubs we have created to equip journalists in the Global South to report on the pandemic, we’re also empowering reporters around the world to accurately and safely report on sensitive issues through our journalism training. For example, in June we ran an online course for reporters covering LGBT+ rights in sub-Saharan Africa – a part of the world where many countries criminalize same-sex relations, and where the pandemic has intensified discrimination against LGBT+ communities.

And through TrustLaw, we’re working closely with NGOs and social enterprises to facilitate dedicated and tailored pro bono support during these challenging times. Through webinars, free legal health checks and a curated repository of legal resources, we are working to ensure that these organizations have the answers they need to keep their vital operations up and running.

KK: Now, let’s get a bit more personal so our readers can get to know you a bit better. If you look back on your career so far, what do you believe are some of most your defining or pivotal moments? 

AZ: I began my career in journalism. I was an intern at ANSA, the leading Italian wire service, during 9/11. At the time, I was 20, shadowing reporters on the foreign desk. When flight 174 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, it was a quiet afternoon in Rome, with several reporters at lunch, and others on holiday. I worked for 20 hours that day. I got offered a contract position two days later, and I had yet to finish my degree.

I continued to study for my journalism degree in the UK, while working full time at ANSA in Rome, surviving on five hours sleep a night. I then left ANSA to join Bloomberg as an anchor for its Italian TV station. I was 22, waking up at the crack of dawn to present four hours of live news every morning, with markets moving and reacting to breaking news. When you are live on air, you are forced to make decisions in split seconds, remain composed, and listen to the instructions of your producer and your director.

Prior to being CEO of the Foundation, I was Director of Communications, and later, COO. Those roles also taught me a huge amount about keeping the organization agile while maintaining its global presence and high-caliber output. Has this background proven handy throughout this crisis? You bet.

KK:  I know that you are also very active in advancing LGBT+ equality and inclusiveness. Can you tell me a little more about this?

AZ: I grew up in Italy, with zero LGBT+ role models or news coverage. I was scared that coming out would mean that I would have never have a successful career and that I would lose my friends.

I was lucky enough that my studies took me to London, where my first boss was an openly gay woman; her boss an openly gay man. It goes without saying that I felt immediately at ease. But I was lucky: the TV industry is very well known for its diversity and acceptance.

I was committed to using my skill set and influence to drive change, and saw a clear gap in the market for a digital platform offering fair, accurate and balanced LGBT+ news. In 2018, I founded Openly – a global LGBT+ news and information platform powered by the journalism of the Thomson Reuters Foundation – for this very purpose.

The Foundation’s work in promoting LGBT+ rights goes beyond Openly. For example, through TrustLaw we connected LGBT+ rights NGO Equality Illinois with the international law firm Kirkland & Ellis, which produced legal research used to advocate for the ban of conversion therapy for LGBT youth in Illinois.

This is a case in point as to how the Foundation is using the combined power of the media and the law to help shape more inclusive economies and societies, and I’m so proud to be leading a fantastic team that’s driving this systemic change.

About the Author

Kenneth Kwok, Founder and CEO, Global Citizen CapitalKenneth is the Founder and CEO of Global Citizen Capital, an impact-oriented healthcare, biotech, logistics, technology and education focused multi-family office investment venture based out of Hong Kong. Kenneth has worked 15 years in the finance industry, serving as the CIO to a large Chinese listed conglomerate as well as a financial professional at UBS AG and Deutsche Bank.

He is passionate about social impact work through his Better Together Foundation, which supports youth entrepreneurship related initiatives across Asia, and about health and well-being through his Co-President role at Asia World Anti-Aging and Well-Being Association (“AWAWA”). He is a UN SDG Accelerator Labs Mentor as well as UPenn/Wharton alumni interview chair.

Top: Antonio Zappulla speaking at Trust Conference – the Foundation’s flagship annual event – in 2019. Image courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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