Media and Good Governance
The relationship between media and good governance is the 2005 theme for the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day. On a day we celebrate the commitment and dedication of a particular individual to defend the right of freedom of expression, it is appropriate to examine the notion of good governance in the light of this right and its sister right, the right of access to information.
The United Nations Millennium Declaration represents the strongest unanimous and explicit statement to date of UN Member States in support of democratic and participatory governance. The declaration clearly articulates that the Millennium Development Goals must be achieved through good governance within each country and at the international level. It also states that Member States “will spare no effort to promote democracy and strengthen the rule of law” and goes on to resolve “to strengthen the capacity of all countries to implement the principles and practices of democracy and respect for human rights...”
Reducing poverty through achieving sustainable development is the key objective of UNESCO programmes and good governance is central to these efforts. Governance implies the ways through which citizens and groups in a society voice their interests, mediate their differences and exercise their legal rights and obligations. Good governance includes notions of greater participation by civil society in decision making, instituting the rule of law, anti-corruption, transparency, accountability, poverty reduction and human rights. Good governance links government to the notion of responsibility for and to the citizenry as opposed to the traditional idea of authority over a nation--legitimacy emanating from popular assent to and participation in government, which is concerned with the welfare of its citizens.
The role of the media in promoting good governance is clear. All aspects of good governance are facilitated by a strong and independent mediascape within a society. Only when journalists are free to monitor, investigate and criticize the public administration’s policies and actions can good governance take hold. Independent media are like a beacon that should be welcomed when there is nothing to hide and much to improve. Indeed, this is the concrete link between the functioning of the media and good governance--the media allow for ongoing checks and assessments by the population of the activities of government and assist in bringing public concerns and voices into the open by providing a platform for discussion. Instead, all too often governments devise laws and informal means of keeping their activities hidden from public view or only available to media favorable to their viewpoint. In recent years, many governments have tried to co-opt journalists by paying part of their salaries or by giving them certain kinds of access on condition that they will not report from other perspectives. If the media are to function in the public interest, governments have to protect the independent functioning of the media and allow various viewpoints to flourish in society.
Greater participation is crucial for good governance in two ways: greater participation by citizens in the decision-making process allows greater transparency and can help ensure that political decisions are adapted to the needs of the people affected by them. Second, greater participation is important for democratic legitimacy, which depends on the investment people have as citizens in their own governing.
The role of independent and pluralistic media in fostering participation is critical as the media report on aspects of the decision-making process and give stakeholders a voice in that process. Freedom of the media allows for the formation of a public sphere in which a wide range of debates can take place and a variety of viewpoints be represented. The citizenry can thereby use the media to express their assent or dissent or explore aspects of issues not considered through official channels. Government has a responsibility to allow the media to contribute to the participation process, especially in arenas where face-to-face participation is not possible.
2. Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings have certain basic inherent, inalienable and unassailable rights to which they are entitled by birth. Guaranteeing these rights to citizens is a precondition for a functioning democracy.
By reporting and denouncing cases of human rights violations, a free and open media can increase awareness among citizens about their rights and act as a reliable source of information on the basis of which civil society organizations and public authorities can work to bring down the incidences of arbitrary abuse. However, many obstacles often face journalists investigating cases of human rights violations: restrictive censorship, lack of fair access to official information, heavy fines or even prison terms. Ensuring freedom of expression and press freedom should therefore be regarded as a priority as they are rights that make it possible to advance and protect other human rights.
3. The rule of law
The rule of law is implied in the existence of law and other judicial systems within societies and is enshrined in the texts of the law itself. The rule of law can be understood both as a set of practices which allow the law to perform a mediating role between various stakeholders in society and as a normative standard invoked by members of society that demonstrate their assent to this principle. The rule of law is fundamental to the stability and smooth functioning of society. Only when the rule of law is respected can citizens have confidence in democratic process over the long term and invest in the sustainable development of their society. When the rule of law is not respected, arbitrariness and impunity dominate the political scene. The rule of law depends heavily on the development of an independent and honest judiciary and the will of any particular government to restrain itself and show respect before the law. The rule of law is best seen not as the given state of affairs of any particular society but as an ideal requiring constant instantiation and vigilance.
The media have a crucial function as the sector of society most able to promote vigilance towards the rule of law, especially through fostering investigative journalism, promoting the openness of court, legislative and administrative proceedings, access to officials and to public documents. The government has a key role here in protecting the independence and pluralism of the media, especially during critical moments of these processes.
4. Anti-corruption, Transparency and Accountability
Corruption is one of the hardest issues states have to face in the governance process. Corrupt practices rob governments of the means to ensure the best life for their people, while many in government may feel that exposure of corruption erodes their legitimacy. Journalists who investigate corruption often face severe reprisals as corrupt officials threaten their place of work, their families and their reputation. It is important for governments to take a firm stand against corruption and to protect both whistle-blowers and the media that report on corrupt practices in government. Legitimacy is only aided by a governance strategy that sees independent investigative media as an ally and not as a threat.
A current issue in many governmental reform processes is transparency. As state bureaucracies have grown into large, often opaque entities, practices of secrecy often cover the hidden struggles and interests of particular sectors and civil servants beyond their stated missions. In some cases, the social networks that link civil servants and the broader society lead to conflicts of interest in the practice of governance that are hidden by the secrecy of administration. Greater transparency in public administration allows for checks on these possible conflicts of interest and ensures greater legitimacy for the government. An independent media that is guaranteed access to public documents and to decision-making processes is able to bring possible conflicts of interest to light and assist the government in maintaining clarity in the execution of its directives. Positive expressions of an open relationship between the media and democratic governments include judicial protections for the media, inculcated respect for freedom of expression and access to information, support for national independent broadcasters and news agencies in the public service and the lessening of punitive restrictions on journalistic activities.
Closely linked to the issue of transparency is accountability. Where transparency focuses on the practices of public administration, accountability points to the responsibility for judging those practices and their effectiveness by various entities, including the public. Accountability includes a sense of moral accountability to the public with various kinds of sanctions guaranteed by the rule of law. While most forms of state government include internal regimes of accountability, accountability to the public is critical to the legitimating of a democratic society. In an atmosphere in which the public is free to examine the transactions of the government and to hold its representatives accountable for their actions, the public simultaneously takes responsibility for the functioning of their government through this form of participation.
Access to Information
Ensuring wider access to information, through the enactment of freedom of information legislation, ensures greater citizen participation in governance. This allows for maximum verifiability of information and allows all stakeholders to come to the table equally on important issues.
Governments should also explore ways to strengthen “e-governance” which provides media and citizens with direct access to administrative information and decision-making processes. Openness and transparency in the electoral process is also critical. Media coverage is a crucial component of elections and it is of vital importance that journalists be trained to cover the election campaigns and the elections themselves in a fair and impartial manner, giving equal coverage to the viewpoints concerned.
6. Poverty reduction
The Millennium Declaration adopted at the Millennium Summit, New York, September 2000, states as its first goal to reduce the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by one half by the year 2015 with a view to eradicating poverty. The eradication of poverty is indeed today a vital condition for global stability, democracy and peace. As long as the poor are excluded from participation in global growth, sustainable peace and development will remain out of reach.
An open and free media can play an important role in the fight against poverty. Firstly, by on the one hand increasing the accountability of both businesses and governments, and on the other allowing citizens to make better informed decisions, it promotes and encourages good governance, without which the battle against poverty cannot be won.
Secondly, by acting - as mentioned above - as a watchdog against corruption, it can help ensure that greater importance be attached to development issues in the allocation of resources, while at the same time strengthening the institutions responsible for promoting the overall development of society.
Finally, it can contribute to combating the exclusion and marginalization of the poor. This is important, for poverty is more than just a lack of resources; it is a lack of empowerment. Poor people are generally unable to participate fully in society and earn a living. Simply providing them with additional resources is therefore not enough to lift them from their deprivation. What they need are increased capabilities. Only then can they gain control over their lives and learn how to productively use whatever resources are available. Reducing poverty through achieving sustainable development is thus the key objective of UNESCO programmes.
Providing the poor with access to the media is an important step in achieving this objective: by supplying them with reliable information, it allows them to take well-informed decisions and make better choices about their lives; it also gives them the opportunity to express their views and have a say in the election of decision-makers, thus increasing the chances of a more efficient allocation of resources. Finally, a free media can contribute to the empowerment of citizens through educational programmes and public health programmes such as HIV/AIDS education campaigns.
7. Governance of the media
If we affirm that independence and pluralism in the media are in fact preconditions for democracy to flourish, it is possible for key elements in government to be committed to media that do not simply repeat what they would like to hear. A positive relationship between the state and media goes beyond pure laissez-faire to nourishing an independent and pluralistic mediascape. A current issue in many countries is the monopolization of media by powerful interests, whether private or public, which lessens the plurality of voices in the public sphere. Perhaps the most important expression of an open relationship between media and the government is the airing of unpopular viewpoints that may reflect tensions in the society. If the mediascape is not open and pluralistic, these viewpoints may leave the democratic sphere and foment violence.
Governance of the media also includes the dimension of governance among the different sectors and interests present in the media themselves. The implementation of a legal and regulatory environment that encourages freedom and pluralism in public information is often facilitated when governments and professional associations have access to comparative examples of media legislation, codes, and cooperation strategies for media development.
Associations dedicated to media accountability such as ombudsmen and press councils also have a key role to play in the governance of media. One important role they play is in encouraging discussion within the media sector about ethical practices and their professional responsibilities. They can thereby strengthen the media’s internal professional standards and increase public confidence in the reliability of the information provided.
In countries with emerging independent mediascapes, professional media industry associations can take the lead in assisting various media outlets to understand their role as independent media and encourage them to find ways to be economically self-sustaining. This should include both media as well as information services such as news agencies, community-based radio, web-based distribution and media production networks. Considering the smaller number of women in the media in most societies and the special situations they may face, professional associations should actively encourage training for women and greater gender equity within the profession.
These associations should also promote training among media professionals and broad education for those who wish to enter the profession. Such training should emphasize the values of independence, professional ethics, gender equity and the role of media in democratic societies. Such associations can sponsor debates that touch at the heart of the particular circumstances and challenges confronting the media in particular societies, while opening up wider discussions about the relationship between governance and media in the region and in the global context.