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Eric Chinje: Press Freedom, Governance and Improvements in the Human Condition

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Eric Chinje: Press Freedom, Governance and Improvements in the Human Condition

Photo Eric ChinjePhoto Eric ChinjeEric Chinje currently leads the Global Media Program at the World Bank Institute (WBI) and, in that capacity, has launched the IMAGE (Independent Media for Accountability, Governance and Empowerment) Network and Academy to build a corps of development journalists in the Bank’s client countries.  Here, Eric argues that mass media has a central role in determining the human condition.

 

Mass media play a central role in determining the overall human condition.  Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East underscored the veracity of this assertion.  The full array of media technologies was deployed in countries from Morocco to Bahrain to mobilize citizens, inform the world, and change the narrative on politics in a region known for its autocracies and dictatorships.  The fact that media put the spotlight on events in these countries not only energized the central actors in the drama but also gave the rest of humanity a new reading of the universal creed on the basic rights of humans everywhere.

This is what the world must celebrate as we mark another World Press Freedom Day: the demonstrated ability of the press to turn the tide on even the most entrenched dictatorships on the planet!  Information technology has changed who can gain access to and deliver information, as Steven Livingston of George Washington University points out.  The number of mobile telephone subscribers in the world is fast approaching 5 billion, with the majority in countries that do not have a tradition of transparency and press freedom.  With a mobile phone in hand and the full range of apps available to them, citizens are no longer silent consumers of the news and information product.  As they blog and tweet and feed information to the more traditional mass media for global dissemination, they deny dictators control of the most powerful tool in their arsenal: access to information.  And, as Riz Khan of Al Jazeera points out, “reporting is hard to manipulate when the information can be on television, radio, and the Web before anyone else can get their hands on the message.”

Dictatorship is synonymous not only with political, social and information control but also with impunity, inequity, corruption and, ultimately, poor governance.  Media have contributed to the improvement of governance in several countries, the World Bank’s Sina Odugbemi notes, “especially through their ability to expose corrupt deeds and speak truth to power.”  Democratic governance is important for maximizing fundamental freedoms, human choice, self-determination and development – outcomes that are essential to the quality of the human condition and which are invariably absent in a dictatorship. The antidote to dictatorship is, without doubt, a free press.

The theme of this year’s Press Freedom Day – “Silence kills democracy but a free press talks” – must serve as a reminder to all, in this season of change, that the deeper aspirations of all human beings is for a better quality of life.  Media, in the role of arbiter of the public dialogue and disseminator of the knowledge and ideas that fuel growth in society, belong in the development space and deserve to be allowed to effectively play that role.

The World Bank has often emphasized the important role of free media in good governance and economic development.  It has, in this regard, developed a program, the Independent Media for Accountability, Governance and Empowerment (IMAGE) program, to help strengthen the capacity of media professionals to generate and sustain an informed public debate on key aspects of development, including ensuring the transparent use of public resources for development.

When journalists have the capacity and the space to inform, governments become more transparent and accountable, and citizens emerge as informed stakeholders in the development of the nation.  In this manner, a free press becomes both a facilitator and guarantor of economic development and improved living conditions for the billions who still live in poverty the world over.

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