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Promoting Press Freedom. . . and More

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

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.

However, at the policymaking level, it is important to have the U.S. president publicly commit to the ideals of press freedom in such a visible manner. Although the annual U.S. human rights review may ruffle diplomatic feathers, it also highlights human rights issues and gives them a weight few other documents can. Against this backdrop, a high-level commitment to press freedom can further legitimize efforts to promote open, independent media. It can also ensure that press freedom advocates in authoritarian countries know that a spotlight is shining on their efforts, as well as the efforts of those who would seek to stop them.

Of course, in the context of the broader effort to promote good governance, ensuring press freedom is just one piece of the puzzle. As then-Senator Obama noted on a 2006 trip to Kenya, press freedom must be "nurtured and cultivated and the citizenry has to value it." This last piece - a citizenry that values its press freedoms - is often neglected both conceptually and in practice. Without the demand for press freedom from the public, a thriving media is vulnerable to both attack and atrophy. Hence, the flip side of the press freedom coin is a media-literate public that demands accountability and thrives on open debate and discussion.


Photo Credit: Freedom House, Map of Press Freedom 2010


Scholars and other experts increasingly recognize the role of independent media in fostering democracy and development, but support for those struggling at the coal face is almost non-existent. Its about time senior actors in the international community stopped hiding behind the objections of governments that use censorship and repression to keep democracy in check. There would be an outcry is perpetrators of domestic abuse were allowed to carry on and provided government stipends So why is it alright to hand public funds to countries for development when their governments inhibit the very development we desire by repressing an independent media? Who will report on corruption, human rights abuses and even genocide when there is no independent media left? Its not as far fetched a scenario as it seems. Don't rely on foreign correspondents to do the job because they're mostly unemployed. The 750 US foreign correspondents at work 10 years ago are down to less than 200 and many of them are in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The trouble with relying solely on President Obama to take the lead (and the US already does an enormous amount of practical hard work to promote the media in repressive places) is that the journalists are often tainted as cats' paws of America. What about providing financial support to those skilled and thoughtful journalists who are being silenced, blackballed, thrown in jail and worse in countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, Cuba? Isn't there are moral obligation on international lending agencies, development agencies, multilateral donors etc to play a more pro-active role here? I understand that member governments are fiercely resistant to international organisations poking around in their political affairs. But when the media is under sustained attack (as it is in about 90 of the world's 192 or so countries) is it justifiable for international actors to turn a blind eye? And what's the evidence that giving vast amounts of public monies, aid etc to repressive regimes delivers the development we all seek? Is there a shred of evidence to show that repressive regimes ever allow civil society to flourish? International actors really need to face the music and provide solid support for independent media: offers one possible way of doing it and there are many other ways too. Nicholas van Praag's recent post has more:

Shanthi is absolutely right when she says, ' the policymaking level, it is important to have the U.S. president publicly commit to the ideals of press freedom in such a visible manner.' The nuts and bolts of media development remains the training, consulting, subgrants, and local advocacy and coalition building. However, our work has shown that strong public support for press freedom from the US, the EU, UN and others can make a difference. Elevating press freedom in this manner is important. At the very least it shows the brave local advocates that their cause is supported. In the best of cases, it can nudge governments forward and make them think twice about creeping repression of the press. No, it will not change the most diehard enemies of press freedom. But most media development work takes place in that gray middle ground, doesn't it. And there, strong statements by the US government can have a positive effect in most cases, if backed up by support for local actors and support for an integrated development approach that recognizes that good governance - with a strong civil society and media as both watchdogs and facilitators of public participation - are crucial pieces to economic growth, poverty reduction, and also what many governments seek - long-term stability.

Nobody questions that the U.S. president should openly commit to press freedom in a visible way. It would be quite a story if he didn't. But his words, like U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's bromides on press freedom are pointless if practical action is not taken to enable an independent media to operate. You can train, consult, subgrant, and advocate all you like, but if the independent journalists cannot make a living then there's a problem. Is there any real benefit in training journalists when they end up working in state media where censorship is the norm or commercial media where the pressures are just as great? Its pretty clear that governments around the world are moving quickly to use technology to censor journalists, so it seems myopic not to recognize the dangers. Its surely time for international organisations to step up and speak up for independent media.

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