Author: James Deane, May 8 2014       This year's World Press Freedom Day celebrations will focus on whether issues of media freedom can realistically be integrated into the post-2015 framework that will replace the current Millennium Development Goals.  Unesco [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] hosts a conference on the issue on May 4th and 5th in Paris.

Some thoughts follow on the prospects for and obstacles to their inclusion, heavily informed by a panel BBC Media Action organised with the OECD Development Assistance Committee [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development DAC], the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID [United States Agency for International Development], the Global Forum for Media Development and Deutsche Welle Akademie. The panel took place at a big interministerial shindig the Global Partnership for Effective Cooperation two weeks ago in Mexico.

First - a word on why anyone should pay attention to the role of media in the post 2015 development framework.

Much is already written on this, but the most succinct and compelling case was made by the UN High Level Panel Report on the post 2015 development framework.  The report urged a set of 12 new universal goals, the first of which is to end extreme poverty by 2030. Of the 11 other goals one is designed to "ensure good governance and effective institutions" key to which, the report contends, is to "ensure people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information". It also suggested a commitment to "guarantee the public's right to information and access to government data".

Obstacles remain

These recommendations have been seized upon by organisations like my own and there has already been advocacy by others.  Huge obstacles remain, three in particular:

The first is the vanishingly small number of governments who actively want any mention of media in the framework. Countries like China, India and Brazil, see a “governance” goal as distracting attention from core development concerns and suspect the West of wanting to impose conditions on development assistance.  The governmental champions for this issue appear as thin on the ground as a coat of paint.

The second obstacle is that of measurement.  Any goal featured in the post-2015 framework needs to have indicators against which to measure progress.  Creating a universally acceptable measure for “access to independent media” will be difficult.  This is an issue that I, among others, will be speaking on at the Unesco meeting.

The third obstacle is that “media” has a bad reputation among development actors, a reputation that is not restricted to totalitarian regimes. This is partly a result of so few development agencies having departments who support the media and partly a product 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.

People like me argue that this kind of co-option is precisely why truly independent media working in the public interest, rather than governmental or factional interests, need support and should be better integrated into development priorities.

Governance and media

It was this issue, and the prospect of integrating media into the post MDG framework, which formed the focus of the Mexico panel.

Erik Solheim, chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee argued that the importance of media to development was not in question.  “Media is extremely important, that you need media to put leaders to account, to discover corruption and so on. This is obvious”.  But, he went on, “if you look around the world today, while there is a huge number of decent good media, there is also a good amount of media that makes it more difficult for us to live together - more difficult for Christians to live with Muslims, more difficult for Muslims to live with Hindus, more difficult for Hindus to live with Sikhs [and we see this in many places]. We need to take this issue to heart.”

Nancy Lindborg, USAID’s Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA), made a strong connection between why USAID was supporting independent community media in Sudan to efforts to prevent ethnic conflict.  “We have often very quickly invested in supporting the revitalization of community radio people I met a couple of weeks ago in South Sudan said, people don’t want to get engaged in ethnic war. They are hostage to the messages they are receiving right now.”

She argued that some of South Sudan’s leaders were preaching hate. ”We are trying very hard to put another narrative out there, but it is just very difficult when you have such a collapsed environment. So the urgency in any of these conflict environments, alongside the humanitarian immediate approaches is to as quickly [as possible] stand up the media capacities.”  She insisted that “USAID takes an approach that sees democracy, rights and governance as central to the development agenda. And that included media, media is the bloodstream that moves information around and enables citizens to be active and informed participants. It’s both programmatically integrated as well as focused on [building media] capacity - it is absolutely central to our approach.”

Social contract

David Hallam, the lead for the UK Department for International Development [United Kingdom DFID] for the post 2015 process stressed why the UK believed that freedom of the media was such an important part of any future development strategy.  “The reason we think this is so important is that it goes back to a fundamental belief that the social contract between the citizen and the state is central to state stability, and 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.”

Hallam also argued that, fundamentally, issues of governance were what people around the world were asking to be included in the post 2015 framework.  “I’d suggest looking quite closely at the My World survey. This is an opportunity for people around the world to vote about what they think are the most important things to prioritise in the post-2015 development goals”, he said. “So far about 1.6 million people have voted - and the findings are really interesting. The top four issues are education, health, jobs and honest and accountable government. Honest and accountable government comes above food security, water, climate change, environmental issues, and I’m not saying any of those issues aren’t important, but consistently around the world, the fourth issue is honest and accountable government - and media has a central role in promoting that.”

Weak democracy - weak media

Nor is this an issue confined to the West. The vast majority of signatories to the Global Forum for Media Development’s (GFMD) petition on this issue came from organisations in developing countries.  Jaime Abello Banfi, Director General of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation for Journalism in Colombia and a GFMD steering committee member, reinforced this arguing that media freedom, as well as the ethical conduct of the media were key concerns in Latin America.  His organisation works to promote ethics in journalism and ethical debate “I think that media is like life, with good and bad sides,” he said, “media reflects the country, and if there is corruption in the country then there will be corruption in the media. If there is weak democracy, then media will be also weak”

Ultimately, there was a consensus in this panel that the role of media was of increasing importance if future development goals were to be met.

“There can be no doubt about the centrality of media in the development debate”, said Erik Solheim of the OECD DAC. “We would be very happy to provide a space for that debate, to invite as many stakeholders as possible, certainly donor agencies and our members but also media from nations where there are difficulties.” He also argued that development agencies should be more concerned when journalists are attacked, arguing that “we should support all those brave journalists, including your Al Jazeera colleagues Cairo.  Peter Greste from Al Jazeera is a really great journalist; he and his two colleagues are in prison in Cairo just because they wanted to promote the best sort of journalism.”

The final word went to David Hallam of the UK’s Department for International Development (which provides support for BBC Media Action’s work), who argued that if media were to be reflected in the post-2015 development framework, it would need a stronger advocacy effort.

“There’s quite a strong movement for a goal in the post-2015 development framework on good governance and effective institutions, and within that for a target on free media”, he argued, reflecting that British Prime Minster, David Cameron had co-chaired the UN High Level panel report. “We all have a role to play: for those of you in governments, what are you doing to make sure that your representatives in NY are arguing strongly for this goal and target? And for those of you who aren’t in governments, what are you doing to ask your government whether they are supporting this goal in NY? So there is a real opportunity here if we can secure this as part of the next development agenda, then we can start to make sure that development agencies, governments, international organisations, are really focusing on support for a free media internationally.”

The Mexico panel suggested there is more support for this issue than is sometimes assumed and case from around the world for access to independent media to be integrated into the post 2015 framework is building.  Next week’s Unesco conference promises to strengthen it further - but there is clearly a very long way to go.

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Image credit: BBC Media Action

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