Press Freedom and Development in Africa (Guest Post)

Council on Foreign Relations

Author(s): John Campbell | Asch Harwood

Author(s) note: This is a guest post by Asch Harwood, CFR Africa program research associate. Follow him on Twitter at @aschlfod.

The National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and Internews hosted an excellent discussion on “Can media development make aid more effective?”, which I was able to catch part of via a live stream on the CIMA website. You can watch it here.

The speakers’ discussions of the impact of media on economic growth, political stability, and governance were of particular interest to me. Two of the speakers, Tara Susman-Pena and Mark Frohardt, presented an invaluable tool they helped build, the Media Map Project, where you can “explore, interact with, and analyze data on media and development.” It is a one-stop shop for all the data you could hope for on press freedom, and worth checking out.

In addition to presenting the Media Map Project, Tara Susman-Pena discussed some statistical work (PDF) showing a correlation between a free press and political stability, good governance, and economic growth. A freer press, by increasing transparency, can have a positive impact on “development.”

This got me thinking about how press freedom in Nigeria, or lack thereof, has impacted, political stability, governance, and development in that country. The Nigerian press is considered generally free. (Freedom House gave it a “partly free” rating.) There doesn’t appear to be any significant systematic oppression and the country has a multitude of newspapers, television channels, and radio stations, as well as relatively high levels of Internet and mobile phone penetration (recent raids on CNN and BBC notwithstanding). A few western news outlets have correspondents stationed in Nigeria, and Diaspora-run news services based in New York and London, like Sahara Reporters, have mobilized their connections at home to report breaking news (and often have information that cannot be found in the Nigerian or international press).

Bigger challenges to press freedom revolve around elite media ownership, underpaid and under-trained journalists, and concentration of media in Abuja and Lagos. Nevertheless, compared to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, at the very least, Nigerian coverage is thorough enough to conduct open source analysis, which has made our media-driven Nigeria Security Tracker possible.

But what about the political stability that should accompany press freedom? Recent fuel subsidy strikes and major attacks in Kano as well as daily violence by Boko Haram have put the country on shaky footing.

The third speaker, Brookings senior fellow Daniel Kaufman, provided the answer–more transparency accompanied with impunity will not “deliver the goods.” Media freedom, while necessary, cannot guarantee stability without other important conditions. For example, Kaufman singles out the rule of law, which arguably is weak in Nigeria.

This has implications for the impact of social media, which, by virtue of its role as an alternative means to communicate and transmit info, often gets credited with enabling uprisings around the continent. Without other essential conditions, such as the rule of law, media freedom, even when enhanced by social media, cannot alone deliver better governance. But it clearly is a necessary component.

h/t Daniel Morris