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Why Free Media Matters

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Posted by Mark Koenig on Friday, May 2nd 2014

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. It reaffirms a sustained global commitment to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the U.N.General Assembly in 1948.

What’s more, press freedom is crucial for development.

A growing body of scholarly research, such as work by Nobel Laureate economists Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, suggest that independent media can contribute to better governance and stronger development results. The data show strong correlations between media independence and basic social stability, improved governance and reduced corruption, better health outcomes, faster economic growth and fewer famines.

I see this in my work everyday – well beyond the single yearly date of praise for the important work of journalists (which, is nice, too). During my travels for USAID over the years, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, Mali, Namibia, South Africa, South Sudan, Tajikistan and others, I marvel at the amazing diversity of grassroots reporting at, for example, the local radio stations in these countries.

In the developing world, radio is often the primary way that communities stay informed both on current events, and on important development issues. USAID has supported community radios to strengthen their capacities in reporting, financial management, and equipment support. In turn, these radio stations help empower local journalists and citizen reporters to educate their fellow citizens about such topics as: preventing HIV-AIDS, malaria, polio and other diseases; managing scarce water resources; improving farming and animal husbandry techniques; business and economic reporting; strengthening local governance; gender equality and women’s empowerment, mitigating conflict and much more. Local radio and media cross-sector effects on local development are wide-ranging and impressive.

Afghanistan offers one inspiring example of rapidly emerging local media capacities. USAID has helped forge freer, more professional media since 2002. Once isolated, the Afghan people now enjoy unprecedented access to quality independent, local broadcasting, including the popular Tolo Television. Tolo was launched a decade ago by Afghan entrepreneurs with seed capital support from USAID. Today this network has grown to provide independent television service to two-thirds of the population.

Also with USAID support, a national network of over 50 Afghan-owned and operated radio stations emerged, reaching virtually all corners of the country. Millions of Afghan radio listeners tune in daily to the national radio news program, Salam Watandar, and enjoy other public affairs and educational programs. Afghan journalists receive training opportunities from non-governmental organizations such as the Nai Media Institute, while its sister organization, Nai Media Watch, monitors adherence to (and violations of) media legal protections for journalists.

As a result of diverse domestic media services, Afghan citizens have enjoyed wide access to professional reporting about all candidates during the current cycle of presidential elections. Lively media coverage helped inspire animated election discussions and high voter turnout in the first round of this important election to select a new president.

In Kenya and Afghanistan, USAID-supported data journalism projects have raised public knowledge – and public responses – to complex health and nutrition issues. These programs, which raise media capacities to cover these issues, often have resounding collateral benefits. One Kenyan data journalism fellow produced a lead television news story about malnutrition in northern Kenya that so captivated public attention that it resulted in swift reforms and increases in Kenya’s famine-relief programs — and also provoked reporting by many other Kenyan media outlets about food-related issues.

On May 3, we can reflect on the vital roles of freer media and more open information environments for enabling citizens as well as public officials to make better informed decisions. Spurred on by a digital revolution in media technologies, increasingly versatile mass communications outlets (blending broadcast, print, internet, wireless, and interlinked multi-media platforms) can facilitate the timely and inclusive sharing of information among all actors in a society, ranging from ordinary citizens to leading elites from all walks of life.

USAID joins a larger global community of several dozen public and private donor organizations in promoting freer media and more open communications environments. We currently support independent media strengthening programs in over 31 countries with an approximate annual budget of $40 million.

As we reflect on the past year, USAID welcomes the report by the United Nations General-Secretary’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, including its renewed calls for freer information access and more independent media. Goal 10 of the panel’s report observes that “people around the world are calling for better governance,” including more “transparent, responsive, capable, and accountable” institutions. Achieving these goals will depend on “ensuring people’s right to freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest, and access to independent media and information.”


Mark Koenig is Senior Advisor for Independent Media Development for USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DCHA/DRG).