Thomas Jefferson once said: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
A traditional press freedom argument is that access to free information and a free press is a basic human right. This is certainly the case, but beyond the argument that press freedom is moral and a self-evident good thing, there is compelling evidence that a strong, independent and free press is a powerful ally to socio-economic development and reduction of poverty.
Many people have long argued that a free and unfettered press plays a highly positive role in accelerating economic and social development. One is Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Economics laureate, whose work has established a link between an active free media and the avoidance of famine and other disasters. When Mr. Sen was invited to address the World Newspaper Congress in Belgium in 2002, he said: “It is not at all hard to see why uncensored and active news reporting helps to prevent famines. Even though hardly any famine ever makes the ruling group suffer directly from it, the stigma and disgrace resulting from adverse press coverage impose direct costs on the rulers, and when combined with a functioning democracy, this can make it impossible for the incumbent government to withstand scrutiny or to be reelected.”
The link between press freedom and economic development has also been explored by the World Bank, which released a report in 2002 entitled “The Right to Tell – The Role of the Mass Media in Economic Development.” The report is a serious and substantial contribution to the research, analysis and arguments on the positive role of a free press in economic development and the reduction of poverty. Its 19 chapters by a wide range of experts 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.
To make it pertinent for a country like Morocco which is seeking human development by all means, the study is opportune for at least two reasons. Firstly, a free press helps remove the conditions of poverty, controlled information and the lack of public debate in which ignorance and extremism breeds and prospers. Secondly, the World Bank report puts another nail in the coffin of the idea, propounded by numerous autocratic governments, that economic and social development is somehow obstructed by the existence of a free press or that it is a higher priority that justifies the postponement of free information and free expression until a satisfactory level of economic development has been achieved.
As World Bank former President, Jim Wolfenson says: “Free press is not a luxury. It is at the core of equitable development. The media can expose corruption. They can keep a check on public policy by throwing a spotlight on government action. They let people voice diverse opinions on governance and reform, and help build public consensus to bring about change.” The Bank’s report concludes that free media help markets work better, that they facilitate trade and that they are important for human development. It also makes powerful arguments in favour of freedom of information laws and against state ownership of the media–not as philosophical concepts, but as the basis of clear evidence that free access to information and the predominance of private media accompany and encourage economic development. To cite one finding, the report says: “In countries with higher state ownership of the media, we observe inferior school attainment, enrollment and pupil-to-teacher ratios. Health outcomes, such as life expectancy, infant mortality and malnutrition are also worse in countries where the government owns more media outlets.”
To make it short: Press freedom pays.