Free Media Contribute to Good Governance, Empowerment and Eradicating Poverty

In the report of the High Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda, good governance is understood as a society’s ability to guarantee the rule of law, free speech and open and accountable government. In turn, freedom of expression is an essential pillar of governance more broadly, because this right enables as many citizens as possible to contribute to, as well as monitor and implement, public decisions on development. The importance of press freedom in promoting good governance is underlined by the increasing numbers of people who have access to an expanded realm of media platforms. As one study has noted: “Press freedom and good governance are not mutually exclusive. They support each other while promoting a country’s economic and human development”.

In particular, a free, pluralistic and independent news media, on all platforms, is important for facilitating good governance and transparency. Within the much-broadened media landscape, news media still remain central conduits for ongoing public assessments of the activities of government and other institutions that have developmental impact. Journalism is the act of bringing information and opinion into the public arena. It provides a platform for discussion across a range of issues pertaining to development, such as environment, science, gender, youth, peace, poverty and participation. Only when journalists are free to monitor, investigate and criticize a society’s policies and actions can good governance take hold.

Transparency is an issue in governance of great relevance to development and the role of news media in this. A lack of transparency ultimately feeds corruption which is one of the hardest issues that states have to face in the development process. Independent investigative journalism is an ally of open government and thereby enhances the effectiveness, and thence the legitimacy, of development processes. It is also significant to note that studies have shown that high corruption rates, more often than not, correlate to the low level of press freedom.  In the words of Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, Amartya Sen, “…in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.”

A society that is guaranteed access to public documents and public decision-making processes is able to bring conflicts of interest to light and empower citizens with information about development processes. This is greatly supported with a strong right to information law that enables the citizenry, including the news media, to easily access information in the public domain speedily, freely and readily. Freedom of Information laws are increasing around the world, but need improved implementation if they are to contribute to development.

Regulatory reform of media and defamation laws is a necessary step in the direction of good governance and development. Insult laws and criminal libel laws remain disproportionate in terms of international standards on legitimate limits of freedom of expression. Such restrictive laws artificially protect officials from being scrutinized by media or the public. They have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and are crippling to good governance in the long run. A thorough decriminalization of defamation laws is necessary in any regulatory reform process that seeks to shape development through enabling critical debate. Similarly, many media laws based on archaic colonial or dictatorial era laws are incompatible with public participation in the coming development decade.

Free, pluralistic and independent news media also contribute to empowerment, understood as a social, economic and political process that is a natural outcome of the public’s increased ability to access and contribute to credible information representing a plurality of opinions, facts and ideas.  This is a people-centered approach of special relevance to women, youth, and the marginalized as actors in the development agenda.
The High Level Panel report also advocates that people must be “central to a new global partnership”.  To do this, persons must be empowered with the freedom to voice their views and participate in the decisions that affect their lives without fear. They need access to pluralistic information and to an independent media, as well as enhanced capacity to participate social in media and crowd-sourcing. In this way, governments, businesses, civil society organizations and academia can understand, interact with, and respond to citizens’ needs in new ways.
One of the objectives of the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is the reduction of poverty, and while progress has been made, this goal will remain as a top priority in the post-2015 development agenda. Poverty is more than just a lack of resources; it is a lack of empowerment. An important step in achieving this development goal is making reliable and quality information available to the poor, and providing them with platforms for public voice. This applies especially to two groups that are generally disproportionately impacted on by poverty: women and youth.

Empower women. One of the recommendations by the HLP includes achieving gender equality and eliminating violence against women. Considering the smaller number of women in the media in most societies and the special pressures they often face, much needs to be done to promote gender equity within the profession. UNESCO’s Global Alliance for Media and Gender, launched in Bangkok in December 2013, is a significant step in this direction.

Empower youth. Youth are often the early adapter of technologies including information and communication technologies (ICTs). The use of ICTs by the youth has been a crucial element in the global political movement from the Reformasi movement in the late 1990s to the Arab Spring movement recently.  There is a need to ensure that youth’s voices, empowered by Media and Information Literacy, are heard in the development debates. 

World Press Freedom Day 2014 is a timely moment to deepen understandings about media and the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

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