A role for the media

Stabroek News
December 18, 1999

Reports in the CPU News, the newspaper of the Commonwealth Press Union whose members are newspapers throughout the Commonwealth, are a salutary reminder of the fact that the struggle for press freedom never ends. The free press is continually under serious threat in various parts of the Commonwealth from Malaysia to Fiji to Sri Lanka to Pakistan to Kenya to Zambia and, outside the Commonwealth, to Colombia, Mexico and elsewhere. The countries sometimes change as governments and conditions change. But in Commonwealth and other countries journalists and editors are continually under siege from governments and other interests who seek to prevent them from carrying out their basic task namely to report the facts as fairly and objectively as they can.

Journalism can be a dangerous occupation where vested interests do not want the facts revealed for one reason or another and journalists have been harassed, imprisoned and even murdered. It is good to remind ourselves both of the suffering of our colleagues in other countries and of the honourable and difficult task we have undertaken and the corresponding duty to carry it out with a high degree of professionalism and responsibility. To the extent that we fail to do this we betray our calling.

In an interesting speech in November to the World Press Freedom Committee in Washington Mr James D. Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, highlighted one of the important roles he feels the press has to play. Mr. Wolfensohn, talking about empowering the poor by giving them a voice, said:

"A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change"

"Studies at the bank show that the higher the level of press freedom in countries, the higher the control of corruption. Studies show, too, that there is a strong positive correlation between voice and accountability and measures such as per capita income, infant mortality and adult literacy. And yet we know from Freedom House that just l.2 billion people live in countries with access to a free press, that 2.4 billion live without a free press and 2.4 billion have access to a partially free press"

"What sets the poor apart from the rich is lack of voice. They feel they are not represented, they cannot convey their needs to authorities, they do not have the power to bring a searchlight upon conditions of inequity. Poverty is not just about money. Poor people want to be able to express themselves, to elect their own people and to gain access and representation.

" If you do not have the right to voice and the ability to expose issues, which is of course tied to the freedom of the press, you remove the right to equitable development. It is that simple. And each country needs to ensure this right from within. It needs to listen to its own voices to get the ideas moving that can change society".

To do our job well, in other words, we cannot limit ourselves to reporting what government ministers, business leaders, trade union bosses and other prominent figures say. We have to have our ear to the ground, so to speak, to be interested in what the ordinary people have to say and to allow them to voice their concerns. This is achieved partly through making letter columns widely available. But editors may have to do more than this to discharge this duty. They may have to make a special effort to understand and expose the problems of development from the standpoint of the poor, with particular reference to problems of unemployment, health and housing. That is the vista Mr Wolfensohn was seeking to open.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples