The media and the responsibility to make the world a better place

It’s hard to fault the UN High Level Panel Report on the post 2015 development framework. Starting with a commitment to end extreme poverty by 2030, it supports the setting of 12 new universal goals to create a better world – including one on “good governance and effective institutions”.

This particular goal recognises the vital contribution of the media and civil society to equitable and effective development. It calls for measurable improvements in “freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information” and a commitment to “guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data”.

Combined with global support for tough investigation of cases of intimidation and violence against journalists and human rights defenders, the strategy will go a long way to support freedom of expression rights for independent journalists in some of the world’s most dangerous corners.

But what will this proposed compact between state, citizens and the global development movement expect in return from the independent media? Despite its often contrary, passionate, partial and inexperienced contribution, the independent media is justly recognised as central to the success – or failure – of strategies to drive democratic, equitable social and economic development.

Small wonder that development actors, south and north, democratic or less-than, want the media to meet the challenge by being more ‘professional’ and ‘accountable’.

One of Europe’s driving forces in media development, James Deane of BBC Media Action recognises that the “media” has a bad reputation among development actors, “partly a product,” he blogged this week, “of the growing co-option of media by political, ethnic, factional as well as governmental forces and the sense among some development people that too much media does harm.”

He quotes David Hallam, speaking for the UK Department for International Development, who says the social contract between the citizen and state is central to state stability and that state stability is central to development. “The way to build the social contract between the citizen and the state has to involve a free and independent media that can enable that contract to be built up.”

All the media understands – not least in post-Leveson Britain – that greater ‘professionalism’ and ‘accountability’ will be imposed on them when they cannot deliver it themselves. But it’s not the media’s duty to deliver Hallam’s ‘social contract’ between citizen and state, only to recognise its core role in its delivery, and to treat that power of agency with appropriate respect.

Open dialogue on what people want as priorities for their communities in Kigali, Rwanda
Kigali community groups share views: UNDP/Wikimedia 

We need to recognise that the media is more than a tool for development, but also that a truly free media isn’t instrumentalised easily or well, for any purpose.

Placing such expectations on the independent media, especially if couched in words like ‘responsibility’ and ‘professionalism’, open the door to new impositions. Many governments already think that ‘state stability’ would be better served by a less combative free media, usually for reasons that have little to do with development agendas.

Development agencies will have no difficulty in persuading the independent media of the shared benefits of promoting access to information and guarantees for the public’s right to information and access to government data. It will be harder to persuade them that basic freedoms and rule of law – freedoms that should be theirs by right – should be made conditional on measurements of ‘professionalism’ and ‘accountability’, however their governments choose to define it.

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