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The Back-Handed Compliment

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Is it true that the news media - when free, plural and independent - promote effective, responsive and accountable governance? Working with Professor Pippa Norris of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, CommGAP has produced a major study making the case  for Yes as rigorously as we can. That study is now being prepared for the printers, and should be available soon. Yet there are times when I think; why do we need to go to great lengths to make what should be an obvious point?

And it reminds me of a point I made to a government Minister once. I said to him: the greatest compliment to the potential of the news media to promote good governance is paid daily by authoritarian regimes everywhere who always seek to muzzle the press. For, if an independent news media were not a potent force for accountability why are these regimes so afraid of having one? Okay, the compliment is a back-handed one but it is a compliment nonetheless.

What I did not say to that Minister is what I now add: that the real compliment is being paid to the power of public opinion. When authoritarian regimes muzzle the news media the real target is domestic public opinion. These regimes are afraid of what informed public might mean for regime survival. For, they don't need PhDs in political philosophy to figure out that public opinion is the basis of power and legitimacy, a point made here only last week via Hannah Arendt. It is point we have also made here in the past via David Hume, the philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment.

We have regimes around the world who seem to believe that if their citizens were to really know what is going on, and could  engage in open debate and discussion about government, about public affairs, goodness, that would be really dangerous....really dangerous! That is why I believe that the greatest argument for efforts to make the news media independent and plural everywhere we can is the determination of unaccountable regimes to muzzle the media. We should always remember that it is not the media they seek to keep down. It is their own citizens.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Terje S. Skjerdal


Submitted by John Strongman on
I am very encouraged by the richness of the blogs but equally a bit disappointed that there are no references to the role of women or women's groups – even though women have played a crucial role in resolving conflict and creating governance in places like Bougainville and West Africa. I am of the view that all the issues mentioned - budgeting for the poor, public will to fight corruption, public accountability, media strategies for social change and communications strategies supporting good governance would benefit from giving consideration to women's views and women’s roles. But looking at the summaries and policy briefs for the 3 recommended books (Governance Reform, The Missing Link, and Towards a New Model) recognition of women's roles and views would not seem necessary. Thus, I would like to pose the question, would all the work cited benefit from a more specific examination and recognition of the roles of women and women’s groups – or not

Submitted by Anonymous on
There is a new set of criteria that has just been presented in Mexico by Fundación Ecos, to evaluate the performance of governments leaving the tags of 'right' or 'left' out from the investigation. These criteria will assure that governments are working for the greater good, no matter what their political point of view may be. I want to think that journalists are capable to look at their own belly too, by creating a set of criteria to be applied to the performance of each journalist and each communication media, to set their behavior within the limits of what responsible journalism may become, to work for the greater good of the community. You can see the interview in We need to carry out such an study. We need to accept that governments are in fact doing wrong, but journalists without even trying, are helping them exert their violence, which is unacceptable. The power of molding public opinion can make the big difference when people who live with violence exerted upon them, and accept and hush, change their minds and begin rendering violence and violent behaviors (violent speech, free impeechment, demeaning behavior, non listening behavior), as UNACCEPTABLE. You have the power to influence your fellow journalist colleagues into accepting the realization of the study to create such set of criteria. Please do it. I have seen journalists so hungry for headlines that have turned a riot into a 'war' and have said people were killing each other when they weren't ... until they heard them! For this crazy happening, 15 people were killed, but the journalist cannot be held accountable because she was only doing her job. Right now, there is nothing but ethics for journalists to face their everyday job, and that has proven not to be enough. Thank you for reading me.

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