What’s media assistance about anyway? Actually, there’s not really a straightforward answer to this question. I realized that when I listened to Daniel Kaufmann of the Brookings Institute earlier this week at an event hosted by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and Internews. Kaufmann’s answer was that media assistance is about media freedom. A free media is a necessary, although not a sufficient condition for successful media development.
Media freedom for Kaufmann means the absence of undue influence from the state and private interests. Arguing that this kind of freedom from vested interests should take center stage in media development is a normative approach. It certainly has a lot of merit if we assume that development is about freedom. But there are other aspects that are crucial in media development.
First, there is economic sustainability. There are two approaches to sustainability in media development: some proponents argue that certain media outlets don’t really need to be sustainable and can be dependent on donor money as long as they contribute important services to society, such as distributing emergency information or social messages. Others argue that media development should first and foremost aim at making a media outlet independent of donor money and create an open market for the media as a sector. Both approaches don’t automatically have any effect on media freedom. It’s hard to argue that the media is truly free when it’s financially dependent on an outside agency that tends to tie certain demands to the funding and then pulls out, leaving the media outlet to die. Chances may be better if it’s possible to create an open market and make media outlets self-sufficient, but then there’s the danger of economic interests determining the work of the media outlet.
Another goal of media development is professional capacity. If we assume that the media should act as watchdog on those in power, then journalists must be able to do so. That requires very basic skills of fact gathering and writing, but also advanced skills of investigative reporting. Journalism training is, incidentally, the most funded area of media development. But does it produce media freedom? In and of itself, not really. Journalism capacity, whether it’s high or low, works within the constraints of the system. If the system isn’t free, a well trained journalist won’t make it so. However, thorough watchdog journalism can over time contribute to generating public demand for more accountability and freedom from the state.
Regulation is another aspect of media development. Is it here that media freedom can be promoted most effectively? It is here where issues of freedom of speech are on the table, and libel laws, licensing regulation, censorship etc. It’s also the area that could be most difficult to work on – trying to achieve regulatory changes promoting press freedom in an authoritarian country is less likely to get anywhere than projects on economic sustainability or professional capacity building. But it is a fact that the best journalists in the financially most stable media outlet will not make much difference if the government can just shut down the outlet on a whim and censor everything that is being produced.
If we assume that a free and independent media is a cornerstone of a free and accountable state, and if we assume that freedom and accountability are necessary conditions for successful overall development, then yes, media development should be about media freedom. But it can’t be all about media freedom – for the media to fulfill their role in the public sphere they must also be economically sustainable enough to survive and work, and journalists must simply be able to do their job. Kaufmann said it best when he states that media freedom is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for successful media assistance.
Picture: Flickr user IsaacMao