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French Version

Free media empower the poor, spur development

"To reduce poverty, we must liberate access to information and improve the quality of information"

A free press can reduce poverty and boost economic development in poor countries but the success of newspapers, radio and TV stations in spurring development depends on their independence, quality, and their ability to reach a wide audience, says a new book published by the World Bank.

Free and independent media can expose corruption in government and the corporate sector, provide a voice for the people/citizens to be heard, and help build public consensus to bring about change, states the book, The Right to Tell—The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development. They can also help markets work better by providing reliable economic information, from small-scale vegetable trading in Indonesia and Ghana, to global foreign currency and capital markets in London and New York.

“To reduce poverty, we must liberate access to information and improve the quality of information,” World Bank President James D Wolfensohn says in a foreword to the publication. “People with more information are empowered to make better choices. Free press is not a luxury for just rich countries. It is at the heart of equitable development. Institutions such as a free media that support transparency and the empowerment of the disenfranchised are essential.” The new book draws together 19 chapters from a wide range of authors including Nobel Prize winner and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, Irrational Exuberance author Robert Shiller, and Nobel Prize-winning novelist (and a journalist in his early years) Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Writers from the developing world also describe the challenges faced by the media in specific countries, including the former Soviet Union, Thailand, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Zimbabwe—and illustrate the media’s potential as a catalyst for change and growth.

Roumeen Islam, an editor of the book and a manager at the World Bank Institute, says the study will be of interest to policymakers, non-governmental organizations, journalists, researchers, and students. “The important question for decision-makers is what types of steps might be taken to establish and maintain free and independent media, that can promote better economic performance,” says Islam.

“This is a concern for all countries, rich and poor.” Governments can expand the reach of the media, says Islam, by enhancing competition, reducing restrictions on the entry of new media, establishing a balanced regulatory framework and encouraging and participating in innovative ways to reach people. The book provides evidence on media performance and regulations in countries around the world and highlights what type of public policies and economic conditions might hinder or enhance the media in supporting economic development in poor countries.

Contributors explore the role of the media as a watchdog of government and the corporate sector, the media’s power to influence markets, its usefulness as a transmitter of new ideas and information, and its ability to give a voice to the poor. They also tackle the potential harm an unethical, or irresponsible press can cause and the impact of insult laws and other policies that hamper the operation of a free press.

In his contribution, Nobel laureate Stiglitz argues for transparency in government and says media is essential in promoting good governance. Stiglitz points to previous work at the World Bank and elsewhere that has shown how requiring companies to report their pollution levels in the media can be an effective way for curbing pollution levels. “Free speech and a free press not only make abuses of government powers less likely, they also enhance the likelihood that people’s basic social needs will be met,” says Stiglitz.

“Improvements in information and the rules governing its dissemination can reduce the scope for these abuses in both markets and in political processes. Many of the decisions taken in the political arena have economic consequences. Also, better and timelier information results in better, more efficient resource allocations.” Former Wall Street Journal reporters Timothy Carrington and Mark Nelson write that media in poor countries are being increasingly recognized as a “development good” capable of contributing to improved government accountability, more efficient markets, and more information-rich societies.

But Carrington and Nelson, who now work at the World Bank Institute assisting media managers and journalists around the world to improve the quality of their news organizations, stress that media are in essence a business and their survival depends on often shaky economic environments, especially in poor countries that do not have the advertising to support them. “Countries from Albania to Zambia are beginning to recognize the importance to their economic future of developing more knowledge-based economic systems,” they write.

“They want to find ways to develop the incentives, the policies, the education systems, and the technical expertise that will allow them to take advantage of the enormous changes wrought by the rapid spread of communications and information technologies. Such countries need to understand that focusing on creating free and professional media —and learning to live with criticism—is a good place to start.” The book also takes on the timely issue of corporate governance.

Alexander Dyck of Harvard Business School and Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago say free and independent media can complement weak and unenforceable national corporate governance laws by providing information to the public and prompting companies to improve their behavior. They argue that media play a role in shaping corporate behavior by driving politicians to take action, prompting shareholders to scrutinize managers’ actions, and affecting managers’ and board members’ reputations in the eyes of society.

“Media are important in shaping corporate policy and should not be ignored in any analysis of a country’s corporate system,” says Dyck and Zingales. “The reputation that decision-makers seem to care about is not just the reputation in the eyes of current and future employers, but more broadly, their reputation in the eyes of the public at large, that is, their public image.”

The chapter by David Stromberg of Princeton University also sheds light on how mass media may enable remote rural populations to have a greater voice in the political process and to affect change. Radio, in particular, can reach voters in many parts of the developing world, such as in Africa or India. If those voters are more informed, they may in turn be more likely to vote, and more likely to support politicians who further their interests.

In the United States in the 1930s, for example, more relief funds went to areas where a larger share of the population had radios and where more people voted. “The innovation of radio and television changed the political strength of different groups by affecting who was informed and who was not,” says Stromberg. “Today, the spreading use of the Internet is likely to have a similar political impact, creating both losers and gainers.”

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