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What is the link between press freedom and development?

Menelaos Agaloglou
By Menelaos Agaloglou

Menelaos Agaloglou is the Head of Geography and Economics Department in the International Division of the Greek Community School in Addis Ababa. He is a researcher of the Center of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (CEMMIS), part of the University of Peloponnese in Greece. He has taught Conflict Resolution and English in the University of Hargeisa in Somalia and Social Studies at the Ahmadiyya elementary school in Sierra Leone. He has travelled throughout western, central and eastern Africa and carried out a research for a British NGO in Sila Village, Mauritania. He completed his Bachelor degree at Queen Mary, University of London on Politics with Business. His MSc Degree on Globalization and Development was completed at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He speaks English, French and Greek.

Posted on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 11:41

Two months ago, Oxfam reported that some villagers in Chad were digging up anthills to gather grain that the ants had stored. African nations are usually placed at the bottom of any list measuring economic activity and human development. Lack of Democracy and rampant corruption denies the continent any chance of progress. As James K Boyce and Léonce Ndikumana put it: “In most financial scams, the victims simply lose their money. In Africa, some lose their lives”. Despite a lack of basic social services military forces are often well financed. Poverty is man-made and some people bear responsibility for this human tragedy that continues to ravage lives in the 21st century. It is not by chance that the continent, except very few exemptions, is still ruled by authoritarian and hybrid regimes that place serious restrictions on information available to their citizens and the free operation of the press.

A free press can promote democratisation and economic development on the African continent. It can be a crucial instrument for socio-economic development in the same way that investment, infrastructure and education are. According to the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, an enlightened and developed society of free and independent individuals cannot be created unless all its members have their freedom of expression. More recently, Amartya Sen observed that there has not been a famine in a democratic society. Worth noting is the 2008 “Press Freedom and Development” UNESCO’s report which concludes that: “all the findings confirm the importance of press freedom for development”. A free press always has a positive influence on poverty and on governance. It holds government accountable and makes their actions transparent and expands participations in the political decision making beyond a small inner circle.

Specific findings from the report note that: No country in the world has a free press and a high percentage of its population living below the poverty line. The weaker the constraints on the press the more developed the country will be. No country has a low GDP or High Inequalities and a free press. Free press has a positive influence on the provisions of social services for the public. No country has a free press and a very high percentage of people with no access to safe water or a high percentage suffering from malnutrition. Improvement in press freedom is associated with a drop in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy at birth as well as general increase on the health status of the population. By allowing debate and different opinions to be heard the country becomes more stable, less violent and more democratic.

External debt versus capital flight

The continent has been undergoing the process of democratisation for about 20 years now. This process has been imposed from abroad and it is not sound. It has resulted electoral democracies, whereby authoritarian regimes hold fake elections and create political parties that only serve the interest of the dictator. According to Democracy index: 29 out of 52 countries on the continent (including North Africa) live under Authoritarian regimes, 14 countries live under Hybrid regimes and 8 countries live in Flawed Democracies, and only the citizens of one country, Mauritius a small island, live in a full democracy. One can conclude that meaningful democracies are seriously lacking in the continent.

In most financial scams, the victims simply lose their money. In Africa, some lose their lives

It is high time that more emphasis is placed on the links between extreme poverty, authoritarianism and corruption on the continent. The local media should emphasise who is gaining and who is losing from the effects of Globalisation and liberalisation on the continent. Although Africa has witnessed some growth in the last few years, the economic growth was not being distributed along all segments of the population. Very high rates of unemployment and inflation make everyday life extremely difficult for slum dwellers in big cities and lack of investment on infrastructure, irrigation and agriculture makes survival a dodgy business in many rural remote areas.

Some people gain, especially the ones close to the regime, at the expense of others. Whilst much has been written for the huge unpayable debt of African nations, there has been little discussion in local newspapers about capital flight out of Africa. Sub Saharan Africa has experienced an exodus of more than $ 760 billion in capital flight since the 1970’s, a sum that surpasses the region’s external debt of $ 175 billion. More should be done to identify looters and accomplices and to repatriate stolen funds. The region needs justice and not charity. Money sent to the continent as aid is misused by leaders who spend it on weapons, enrich themselves or invest on few prestigious projects in the capital city. Little is being spent on social services such as education, health care and pensions. The region remains among the top for on-going conflicts, and a vast percentage of the population dies yearly from preventable, most of the time water borne, diseases.

Blame it on something

Despite all the malfunctions of several African governments the press has remained silent. I have worked in three different countries in Sub Saharan Africa, where I tried to follow the news as much as possible via local newspapers and the radio, as a teacher. But I found it sad that most journalists preferred to play the government’s game and blame outsiders. Sometimes these outside factors included past events like colonialism, which is being blamed for most misfortunes on the continent. I am the last person not to agree that colonialism was wrong and brutal but that does not explain the current situation on the continent. Lebanon, Greece, Vietnam, India , Libya, Philippines, Bolivia and Argentina, as well as many other countries in Asia and Latin America, have being colonised in the past and are doing relatively well. Another popular blame among journalists is climate change. In recent times, the list is being enlarged with China and Global Terrorism. Sometimes, it is a cruel bad war leader such as Kony, Bemba, Shankow or Taylor. In some cases it is a foreign or neighboring government. I remember long discussions on Sierra Leonean radio about the negative influence played by the Liberian government and Nigerian troops during the local civil war. There was no analysis of the Sierra Leonean government’s policies since the 70’s, and there was no serious criticism about the lack of democracy in West Africa.

It is not by chance that the poorest region of the world is also the most authoritarian region. The government has an interest in remaining strict and brutal since it can only remain in power by so doing. Press freedom in Africa is blocked as a result of a general lack of democracy. The 2010 “Press Freedom in Africa” report published by the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) focused on the control of the African media by the state. It concludes that for the year 2010 “12 journalist have been assassinated, five killed accidentally, 34 jailed and hundreds continued to be threatened, intimidated, attacked, wounded, and forced to into exile”.

Free communication of thoughts and opinions is among the most precious of the rights of man

It is essential to examine closer what exactly happens to those who criticised their government for the misfortunes of their societies and were not comfortable in blaming colonialism, the Chinese or Islamists.

Parents, bosses and children

In Angola Alberto Cravus Chakussanga was shot down by unidentified individuals. Chakussanga’s radio had been very critical of the regime. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a journalist is killed every year, Patient Vhebey Bankome was brutally murdered by assassins in military uniform. In Somalia three journalists lost their lives in criminal conditions and Eritrea remains, globally, the biggest prison for journalists. Currently the Eritrean state holds more than 20 journalists in prison, some of them having been in jail for close to 10 years. In Rwanda, Jean Leonard Rugambage was shot as he was preparing to publish a critical article on the government. In Nigeria three journalists were murdered in cold blood and in Burundi one journalist faces life imprisonment for expressing his views about the dangers of Al-Shabaab to Burundi, after the deadly terrorist attacks in Kampala, Uganda. Both Uganda and Burundi sent troops to Somalia in support of the transitional government, which Al-Shabaab has been fighting tooth and nail to overthrow.

Most local newspapers and radio stations on the continent have failed to report on corruption and abuses perpetrated by the government because they are afraid for their lives.

I don’t think that the ills of the continent will be overcome without a strong indigenous movement that will demand democracy on the continent similar to the one that currently shapes the future of the Middle East. With current upheavals in the Arab Countries, southern Europe and in some areas of the United States, it is time for Sub Saharan Africa to demand more.

Currently, however, democratic values are not so strong among African populations. A research conducted by Afrobarometer in 2009 that tried to find if democrats were emerging in Africa, illustrates that “a solid majority (60%) sees their government more like a parent and their own role as children rather than bosses” and less than half believe that citizens should be held responsible their governments. The report concludes that the development of democratic citizenship among Africans is still relatively weak. Nonetheless, it should not be taken in its pessimistic approach that nothing can be changed in the region, although, after living for so long under authoritarian states, most people have become apathetic and afraid of politics. Additionally political knowledge is not widespread among the population. And for their survival many rural residents depend more on family members or on International non-governmental organisations, which tend to depoliticise their poverty and precarious situations, rather than their own governments.

Know what they do with your money

With more people having access to one kind of a media or another, the press can play an active role in re-politicising poverty among locals. Instead of searching for white heroes in NGOs and demons of the past the press should spread political knowledge. The press should be active in the struggle against corruption, nepotism, tribalism and it should promote democratic values in any way it can. It should report human rights abuses perpetrated by the state against civilians, corruption, misuse of aid and criminal links between governments and international multinationals that are grabbing anything they can from the continent. The press should report on how well the political and economic elite live in the capital city at the expense of the majority. It should highlight where the elite send their children for studies and how they spend their weekends. By so doing Africans will understand the injustices and the cruelty of the elite. More access to information is more likely to make them want to change the political situation rather than hoping for more charity.

Freedom of the press and access to information is a human right. Article II of the Universal Declaration of Human and Citizens right stipulates that “the free communication of thoughts and opinions is among the most precious of the rights of man, every citizen, may speak write and print freely”. Freedom of the press is linked with all aspects of development in a positive way. A free press is related to higher GDP; higher human development measured by the Human Development Index (HDI) and a more equal and fair society. International conferences and donor –recipient meetings should pay more attention to the precarious situations brave African journalists face. Any progressive human being who understands poverty to be a human crime should emphasize, with all his or her strength, the need for more freedom of press in Sub Saharan Africa. This will eventually lead to a more democratic and more economically prosperous region.

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