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Is Media Freedom at the Heart of Media Development?

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

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

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Submitted by Vipul on
This raises a bigger question. What if we drop the term "Media" from the equation and look at development per se. Most development agencies focus on development not in terms of freedom but in terms of poverty alleviation. It can be argued that in such cases development is about individual freedom and capacity. If that was the logic then really freedom in this case is equated with economic freedom and self sustainability. If we take the same argument forward and use that for media, media development is about building the economic capacity of media more than freedom of the media. Applying Western-based models of public sphere and watchdog role of media is questionable if it promotes dependence and is not grounded in sustainable outcomes. So, is Media Freedom at the Heart of Media Development? I guess, it is (in the same way , as freedom is at the heart of development).

Submitted by Howard Katzman on
The two approaches to economic sustainability stated, donor-driven and open market, are both top-down models. Either the external donor subsidises the media in order for their messages to be broadcast, or economic elites who can afford to transmit their messages. In both cases, the interests of the community is at the whim of decisions made by others. A third approach seemingly ignored in this article on sustainability is community media. Instead of basing the message upon who can pay for the message, it relies upon involvement within the community, especially volunteers. Ideas and services taking place within the community can be broadcast and shared with others. Fundraising is based upon how valuable the information is for their life, and then contribute money, time and resources to maintain this channel of information. Sustainability is thus based upon relevance to the community.

I write this as Founder and Editor of Radijojo World Children's Radio/Media Network, awarded by UNICEF and UNESCO. We are member of the World Association of Community Radios and the Community Forum Europe, UNESCO Power for Peace, UN Alliance of Civilizations network and others. Education, integration, inclusion, digitization, globalization: All this has tremendous effects on the generation that will lead the planet in 15-20 years: Today's children. But when it comes to support educative, participative media - the kids are simply out: Most media support programs ignore them, most democracy and exchange programs ignore them, most culture / media arts programs ignore them. As a result, it's the unpaid burden of volunteers, parents, educators to fill this gap, with wonderful and creative media produced by children for children. But (according to our observations in 10 years worldwide) 90% of these initiatives die after a short euphoric period since they cannot find sustainable funding. As a result, there is no sufficient tool to promote essential global issues like children's rights, a culture of peace and intercultural understanding, gender equality, awareness for climate change and environment etc. etc. We hold this to be nothing less than a global scandal. A scandal that causes billions of dollars for repair and "de-learning" programs dedicated to youth, young adults, adults that did not have the chance to grow up in a child-friendly, educative media environment and that are now missing education, intercultural and language skills, awareness for global problems, empathy - and did not have access to global networks of education and participation. We therefore hereby officially demand regular, reliable and pro-active funding for non-commercial, grassroots and participative kids media projects worldwide, as a consequence of the UN Children's Rights convention, recommendations of World Bank, UNESCO, OECD and others. G20 and UN should be in charge of assuring that about 0.1 percent of the Gross National Income should be spend on educational media based work of civil society groups working for and with children. Hundreds of millions of children would benefit from this - including to most marginalized in the poorest countries and regions. We hereby offer to share our experience and any other form of cooperation anytime, worldwide. Dipl.-Soz. Thomas Röhlinger, MBA Founder and Editor in Chief Radijojo World Children's Radio Network Initiator of the World Children's Media Foundation 0049 30 2790 7147

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