The Development Imperative of Free Speech

It was just last week, the week of the Press Freedom day, when we learnt that India (and the entire world) had slipped down the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, the Freedom of the Press 2014, and several other free media rankings to its lowest levels in over a decade. This was largely due to India media houses’ shameless pandering to political parties and our fondness for getting offended, which could very well be declared the national pastime if that idea didn’t offend someone. While we continue bullying bloggers, burning books, and being bought by big business, thus enjoying the company of Liberia, Kuwait, and fellow “partly free media” nations, it is worthwhile to examine freedom of expression and its often-overlooked relationship with economic and social development.
Free(?) Press
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

That a free press and democratic governance go hand in hand is now well established in the development community. Media freedom and access to information have been recognised as contributors to the wider development objective of empowering people, and helping them gain control over their own lives. Journalists all over the world make efforts to hold governments and businesses accountable, shine a light on social evils and malpractices, and serve the public interest, despite being harassed, threatened, or imprisoned.

Journalism is as much about service to humanity as is the medical or teaching profession. The media can be a voice for the powerless, a disseminator of ideas and information, and an engine for political and social change. Correlations between freedom of the press and the different dimensions of development, poverty, governance and peace have been empirically established by economists and sociologists in several studies and reports over decades.

When world leaders vowed to improve the wellbeing of humanity by constituting the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), press freedom, democratic governance and accountability, were not among them. This was about a decade and a half ago, possibly due to pressure from rich, authoritarian regimes, but much has changed since. Information and communication technology have exploded, and while quasi-dictators continue thriving, today’s citizens aspire for more. According to the UN’s own poll of more than half a million people worldwide in 2013, promoting open and responsive government is a top priority, behind only food and health care.

As the MDGs expire in 2015, inclusion of press freedom in the next development agenda is necessary for the fight against global poverty. The High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has already recommended (as one of the goals), the promotion of “good governance and effective institutions” through two necessary conditions: “ensure that people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information,” and “guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data.”

Thus, access to accurate, fair and unbiased information, representing a plurality of opinions, and the means to actively communicate vertically and horizontally, is a prerogative to holistic international development efforts. The post-2015 Development Agenda will be synthesized over multiple stakeholder engagements and consultations, such as the World Conference on Youth 2014 in Colombo next week, and gives us an historic opportunity to correct this omission in the 2000 MDGs. However, let us not forget that the UN alone cannot be the sole platform for a system of accountability, and that it must be integrated with regional and national action by governments and policy-makers.

Our own nation is among several in the process of electing new governments this year, and while the Right to Information act has been simultaneously called the incumbent regime’s greatest success and failure, it would be interesting to see the new precedents of accountability and press freedom that will be set over the next four years. It is important also because India is now the world’s third largest economy (by PPP), just behind the U.S. and China, two increasingly oppressive and overbearing powers themselves. It is up to us to push for greater freedom and liberty to express ourselves, so keep tweeting!