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Updated: June 23, 2014 01:29 IST

Free media and good governance

A.S. PANNEERSELVAN
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A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
The Hindu
A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

Any modern society strives to fulfil its own mandate and uses remembrance, memory and commemoration as an effective checklist. Last week marked two important milestones for freedom of expression and a major global initiative led by the United Nations Organisation. The 2014 PEN/Pinter Prize was awarded to Salman Rushdie. June 19, 2014 marked the second anniversary of Julian Assange being confined to the apartment that houses the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. The Twelfth session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals was held in New York between June 16 and 20 to finalise the road map post-2015.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Harold Pinter gave a clarion call to speak up. He said: “I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory. If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us — the dignity of man.” Since 2009, the annual PEN/Pinter Prize celebrates a British writer or writer resident in Britain of outstanding literary merit.

Maureen Freely, President of English PEN and Chair of Judges, said: “This prize is English PEN’s way of thanking Salman Rushdie not just for his books and his many years of speaking out for freedom of expression, but also for his countless private acts of kindness. When he sees writers unjustly vilified, prosecuted, or forced into exile, he takes a personal interest. I think he would be the first to say that it was Harold Pinter who set the example in this regard: the engaged writer never sleeps.”

Access to information

The Guardian carried a moving piece by Slavoj Žižek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, to mark the second anniversary of Assange’s confinement. He wrote: “Is WikiLeaks pursuing an impossible dream? Definitely not, and the proof is that the world has already changed since its revelations. Not only have we learned a lot about the illegal activities of the U.S. and other great powers. Not only have the WikiLeaks revelations put secret services on the defensive and set in motion legislative acts to better control them. WikiLeaks has achieved much more: millions of ordinary people have become aware of the society in which they live. Something that until now we silently tolerated as unproblematic is rendered problematic.”

In this context, the ongoing work at the U.N. headquarters in New York is of immense importance. I am a steering committee member of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), one of the 200 organisations that welcomed the inclusion of media freedom and access to information by the United Nations in the post-2015 development agenda. Goal No. 16 of the current draft agenda for Sustainable Development is to “achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, rule of law, effective and capable institutions.” This includes sub-goals to “improve public access to information and government data” and “promote freedom of media, association and speech.”

Three obstacles

James Deane, my fellow steering committee member in GFMD and the director of Policy and Learning of BBC Media Action, sees three major hurdles in realising this important inclusion in the agenda. He wrote: “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… 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.”

Role of BRICS

Scholars like Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz have forcefully established the linkages between a free and vibrant media and good governance. Now is the time for BRICS, that powerful intermediate grouping comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, to take a lead in ensuring the due place for media in the development agenda. It is true that not all is good and benign about media. But, the failure of a few in the media sector cannot be the rationale for denying its watchdog role that ensures good governance and enables institutions to meet their goals and stated objectives. If BRICS gets the centrality of media recognised in the next set of Sustainable Development Goals, then it will mark a transformation that will signal the arrival of a truly multi-nodal global leadership.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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