The price for government subsidies

Every few months someone asks me why Zwijgen is geen optie (“Silence is not an option”, read more about it here) hasn’t applied for government subsidies. It’s a good question. Because the choice, even though I’m not always so sure it has been the right one, has been a crucial one for this project.

My business partner and dear friend Tom and I spent hours and hours checking out all possible government subsidies and came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t for us*. I’ll try to summarise why. Keep in mind: this is by no means an argument for other organisations to choose the same route.

(1) Time allocation: looking for subsidies, preparing the necessary documentation to earn them and do all the necessary reporting afterwards to keep them from being taken back, takes up a huge, huge amount of time.

(2) Operational flexibility: the time between filling in the necessary forms to get the subsidy and filling in the mandatory reporting to receive all the money easily stretches multiple years. For an organisation like us: tiny, young, still in search of sustainable income, that way of working could’ve easily been a death sentence. If by month two we realised that what we promised in month one is not what we should be doing, there wouldn’t have been a way to chance course without being penalised for it.

(3) Freedom of speech: I’ve noticed the restrictions (or ‘guidelines’) for getting government subsidies have grown stricter and stricter over the past few years. Our government is not afraid to retract or threaten to retract their funding when they don’t like what a subsidised entity is doing, muzzling and killing small players in the process.

Reading back, I guess my argument boils down to freedom. During the past years, I found there to be – at this point in time, and maybe to my own displeasure – more freedom to make the content choices we want without support from our government.

I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a more specific way I can define that freedom. If it’s so important, it would feel better not to be so vague about it. And maybe if I could define that freedom, I could better defend it? Even in a context of government subsidies?

But the freedom I seek, is the freedom not to define.

Specifying what and how and why we choose certain guests, topics or questions would be unfair. I regard the freedom to change our minds in any of these aspects as on of the most important aspects of my work. This freedom is rightly matched by the freedom the ZIGO patrons have to start and stop paying whenever they want, and limited only by our ability to make ends meet by the end of every year.

After five years I can honestly not imagine different conditions under which a project like “Zwijgen is geen optie” could exist. Neither can I imagine more difficult ones, freedom truly has a cost. But at this point in time and for a project like ours, government subsidies are no way to pay for freedom.

*To be completely honest: we did apply for a government subsidy once, successfully. The amount granted was so laughably small in comparison to the size of the project, we decided to rewire the money.

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