The Free Press and Poverty

Ms. Coronel is the executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, June 26, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

Can a free press eradicate poverty?  That seems a tall order, too much to ask of the mass media in developing countries and of underpaid and overworked journalists who have to cope with threats to their lives and safety.

But at the annual conference marking World Press Freedom Day, development experts invited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Unesco) said that there is a correlation between free, independent and pluralistic media and poverty alleviation.

A free press that provides access to important information, they said, empowers the poor. “Through the spread of information — about initiatives, politics, or circumstances — people feel more ownership over the events and currents shaping their lives,” said a Unesco paper. “An empowered person is able to press for the resources and opportunities she needs.”

Unesco cited that poverty most frequently correlates with gender: in many parts of the world, the poor are mostly women. The media, it said, can indirectly empower these women, by stressing their rights and the benefits that are due them and other marginalized groups. The media can also act as a platform for articulating the plight of the excluded and providing voice to the voiceless.

Increasingly, said Unesco, international organizations, development agencies and government donors are realizing that the poor must have a voice in development strategies designed to assist them. The success of aid strategies rests on the communication between aid donors and aid recipients.  Thus free and independent media are seen as key to ensuring the flow of information between communities that receive aid and the donors that give it. Without them, development efforts could founder.

Moreover, by acting as a watchdog of government, the media ensures that public money is well spent and that the poor benefit from public funds. “Independent media offer the greatest challenge both to acts of corruption as well as the social norms surrounding corruption, which make it permissible and expected,” said Unesco. “In the fight against corruption, there is no more efficient or effective weapon than a free press.”

Daniel Kaufmann, director of Global Programs and Governance at the World Bank Institute, provided empirical proof of this contention, presenting graphs that showed that the countries that have a free press also scored lower on the corruption scale.

Pippa Norris, the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, showed a similar correlation between press freedom and higher levels of economic development, democratization and good governance. In other words, countries with a free press also tend to be richer and better governed.

There were, of course, “outliers,” like Singapore which ranks low on the press-freedom scale but ranks high on the good-governance scale.

Drawing on available indices, Norris constructed models based on indicators of good governance across countries. “The models show,” she said, “that countries where much of the public has access to a free press usually have greater political stability, rule of law, government efficiency in the policy process, regulatory quality and the least corruption.”

What the academics, however, failed to demonstrate was that this was a causal correlation—that a free press results in both wealth and non-corrupt governments. But Norris argued that “it remains plausible, as many other studies suggest, that improving democracy and good governance will ultimately contribute towards the eradication of poverty, particularly by making governments more accountable and responsive to human needs.”

The correlations may be compelling, especially to free-press advocates, who believe in the reforming and developmental possibilities of the media. But so far the academic evidence falls short of proving a causal relationship.

Moreover, as we have seen in the Philippines and elsewhere, a free press operating in a competitive media market is driven not so much by the need to inform and reform, but to make plenty of money.

There is, of course, the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking work, which shows, among other things, that famines have never happened in countries that enjoy democracy and a free press. Sen also showed that information is crucial to the poor and the excluded asserting their rights and demanding better governance.

As James Deane of the London-based Panos Institute so dramatically put it, “At its heart and put simplistically, unless the media is able to play the role of guardian of the public interest, unless that public is seen as the whole population of developing countries and not just those who constitute a market for advertisers, but those who have most to win or lose from development debates; unless these things happen, people will die.”

In short, unless the media is reformed, it cannot be a reformer. Unless the media provides a forum for the development debate, real development will be hampered. An entertainment- and ratings-obsessed media cannot help alleviate poverty. It can only provide distractions to the poor.

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