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Emerging Voices: Elana Beiser on Freedom of the Press and Development

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
December 19, 2012

Tunisian journalists protest in Tunis as part of a strike to pile pressure on the Islamist government they accuse of restricting freedom of speech after a revolt toppled the country's autocratic leader last year, October 17, 2012, (Zoubeir Souissi/Courtesy Reuters). Tunisian journalists protest in Tunis as part of a strike to pile pressure on the Islamist government they accuse of restricting freedom of speech after a revolt toppled the country's autocratic leader last year, October 17, 2012, (Zoubeir Souissi/Courtesy Reuters).

Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Elana Beiser, senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She discusses the importance of press freedom for development and how it could fit in a new set of global development goals.

As successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) begin to take shape, many supporters of development agree that democratic governance should be part of the plan. Big questions remain about what, specifically, to target in the interest of achieving that broad goal, and how to measure progress. Freedom of the press is a good place to start.

Democratic governance is roughly defined by the UN Development Program (UNDP) as institutional responsiveness to the needs of ordinary citizens; access to the judiciary and public administration; and capacity to deliver basic services. Such objectives cannot be achieved and sustained without independent media that are free to inform the citizenry, uncover abuses, and report on institutional failures or the people affected by them.

Unfortunately, in many countries the press remains far from free—and indeed, under attack. The motive behind attacks on the press— intimidation—is what creates the broader media climate. A person who jails, harasses, sues, threatens, beats, or shoots at a journalist is not only trying to silence him or her, but also sending a warning to his or her colleagues: keep quiet, or else.

Inaction by government perpetuates this frigid environment. CPJ tracks prosecutions in murder cases and publishes an annual Impunity Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalist killings in relation to each country’s population. Essentially, it’s a measure of political will to protect journalists—and it inevitably highlights countries, such as Pakistan and Russia, where government actors are implicated in some journalist murders.

When the press is free and independent, by contrast, it can serve a range of essential societal objectives. These include chronicling progress toward all development goals and holding leaders to account for promises they have made to promote education, environmental sustainability, gender equality, health, and poverty eradication (to take examples from the MDGs). Had the media in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Syria had the freedom to report—without fear of reprisal—on pollution, corruption, and people excluded from economic growth, the Arab Spring may have come as less of a shock to the international community.

How would press freedom be measured within the development goal framework? My organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), offers one model. CPJ uses a case-driven approach to compile a mosaic of press freedom violations in each country. We document journalist detentions, prison sentences, physical attacks, lawsuits, legislative changes, censorship, Internet blocks, newsroom raids, abductions, threats, escapes into exile, and deaths, including murder. Regarding the latter, we disaggregate the data by gender, news beat (politics, crime, corruption, conflict), medium (print, Internet, television, radio), job (camera operator, broadcaster, reporter, editor, blogger), and suspected perpetrator (government official, criminal group, military, or paramilitary).

A recent UNDP paper highlights four potential approaches to an MDG successor goal for democratic governance: national targets with national indicators, regional targets with national indicators, global targets with national indicators, and global targets with global indicators.

As for the idea of using national indicators, relying on national governments to quantify the independence and freedom of their own press corps is a non-starter; repressive authorities have a fundamental conflict of interest in reporting their own acts of repression. For instance, Turkey says it is committed to free expression but holds more journalists in jail than any other country; the government denies that any are behind bars because of their work, but CPJ’s close examination of the evidence shows otherwise.

As for regional targets, the UNDP paper notes that existing regional charters could facilitate agreement. But regional bodies tasked with supporting freedom of the press and other human rights can be vulnerable to the angry whims of members resistant to criticism. Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, for example, is pushing to severely weaken the mandate of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (the human rights monitoring body of the Organization of American States) and the special rapporteur for freedom of expression, who has denounced Correa’s criminal libel lawsuits against newspaper executives and noted that some Ecuadoran laws contradict international standards on freedom of expression.

That leaves us with a global approach to targeting and measuring press freedom—and this is only fitting. Freedom of the press is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And as CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon has pointed out, our age of globalization has rendered local information vital to the whole world. Pollution of water and air by American businesses doesn’t stop at U.S. borders. Substandard Chinese manufactured goods could be exported anywhere. A website taken offline by a denial of service attack originating in Vietnam is inaccessible to all. Many governments may resist being held to international benchmarks on press freedom, but this and other aspects of democratic governance are more than ever a global development concern.

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