In recent months, it’s become more evident that journalism is a dangerous business. Yet, good journalism is crucial for good governance and for an informed citizenry. During the uprisings in North Africa and in the Middle East, journalists, professional and citizens alike, have been beaten, imprisoned, or gone missing for reporting (or trying to report) facts and stories from the ground. The sad truth is that the number of attacks on the press around the world is increasing. In fact, there has been a dramatic increase in the last decade.
Yesterday, U.S. president Barack Obama signed the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, which requires the U.S. State Department to specifically highlight press freedom issues in its annual review of countries' human rights. According to news reports, the annual human rights review will now explicitly identify whether countries participate in or condone press freedom violations.
What, if any, effect will this have on efforts to promote independent media around the world? Some would say that, at the nuts-and-bolts level, not much. Reforming and opening media sectors requires hard work, including coalition building, technical training, and sustained effort by multiple actors. Rhetoric and reports cannot on their own improve any individual country's press freedom environment.
CommGAP's latest book, Public Sentinel, outlines the role of the news media in governance reform, which is of course all about the roles of journalists in society and political systems. The book identifies three main roles - agenda setters, watchdogs, and gatekeepers - that journalists should, ideally, fulfill in order to strengthen good governance. Looking at a recent report on The State of Freedom of Expression in the Americas, all I can say to a journalist who indeed wants to uphold those ideals: Good luck, and be careful when you cross the street.
It is generally accepted that independent news media are one of the main building blocks for good governance. Ensuring media’s independence from the control of the powerful is a difficult task, however. While the media must maintain a critical distance from the government so as to maintain their objectivity in reporting the news, they also need to stay close enough to government in order to access the information they seek. The issues of distance and access are the two sides of the same coin, and they confront the government as well. On the one hand, the government has to protect both the privacy of sensitive information and integrity of important decision-making processes by keeping the media at bay, but on the other hand, government also needs to maintain an amicable relationship with the media so that the media would tell its side of the story and frame issues in the way it wants them framed.
With the new year, the UNESCO printing house has just come out with the copies of the paper “Press freedom and development: an analysis of correlations between freedom of the press and the different dimensions of development, poverty, governance and peace.”
It is satisfying to see brand-new books containing the study on which I’ve been working as part of a research project implemented by the Centre for Peace and Human Security (CPHS) at Sciences Po University, with UNESCO's support. And it is even more interesting to see some of the conclusions that the independent scholars reached in this research -- namely, that press freedom is positively correlated with good governance, human development, and democracy. This is, of course, one more argument to corroborate the theories on how a functioning public sphere contributes to peace-building and governance.
I was sent this report this week by one of my colleagues in the World Bank. It speaks for itself. And it reinforces the need for serious attention to be paid to the strengthening of the media as an institution of accountability in developing countries. Here's the press release accompanying the report.
There is a fascinating story in this week's edition of The Economist ('Calling the shots' May 3rd 2008 page 72). It is about the media in India. Apparently, some top Indian newspapers are signing 'private treaties' with businesses. According to the story, the newspapers accept payment for ads in the form of shares in the advertiser's firm. The magazines very legitimate concern is that this increasingly popular practice is exposing Indian newspapers to growing conflict of interest... The magazine also quotes an India media activist , Sevanti Ninan, and he says this practice will "grow and grow in a media which anyway has little notion of conflict of interest." The great danger in a situation like that is that headlines will be bought and paid for without the public knowing who is doing the paying. The integrity of the newspapers in question will be greatly damaged if this is revealed, but the real problem is that the public will not know the truth and public opinion will be manipulated by hidden puppet masters.