Media create economic stability by holding governments accountable

Journalists during a past presser. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

As Ukrainians battle and die for democracy, Russia is busy arresting its own citizens who are protesting the war and threatening prison for journalists who report the truth. Journalism is a perilous occupation in Russia today.

If you can imagine how the media can challenge and expose even the richest and most powerful in the world, one might wonder, why put up with free press. And why not embrace government-controlled media.

The answer is that it is impossible to maximise political stability, economic growth, and democracy without the free flow of information.

Information is power. If a country is to enjoy the political and economic advantages enabled by the rule of law, powerful institutions must be open to scrutiny by the people. If technology and science are to advance, ideas must be openly shared.

And if government is to be valued because it is accountable to the people, free and independent news media are essential to that process. That is why Thomas Jefferson, the primary drafter of the American Declaration of Independence, insisted that the US constitution include the public's right to free speech, a free press, and public assembly.

And Jefferson remained steadfast in supporting even painful scrutiny by the media, because he recognised that without such accountability and an unfettered flow of ideas, a nation's creative growth is stunted and its people are not free.

An independent media sector serves four vital roles in a democracy. It is a watchdog on the powerful, holding them accountable to the people. Second, it educates the citizens so they can make informed political choices. Third, media casts a spotlight on issues that need care. And lastly, media connects people, helping to create the social 'glue' that binds civil society.

The watchdog function is often the hardest to perform excellently. Government agencies and officials are not always willing to be transparent, especially if there is no tradition of public scrutiny. In post-Soviet Georgia, for example, Rustavi II television broadcast verified investigative reports on areas of government corruption.

And when the government tried to close down the television station rather than correct the problems, citizens gathered en masse to protest. Their demonstrations in defence of their independent media forced the government to dismiss corrupt members of the cabinet and allow Rustavi II back on air.

The second example comes from India where Bhartiya Janata Party President Laxman Bangaru was caught on videotape by an undercover Internet journalist receiving a bribe (money) for what he thought was a weapons deal. The public outcry, after the sting, forced the ouster of several senior cabinet ministers.

Media that do an honest job of holding the government accountable can help support the rule of law and thereby create economic stability. That stability will make the country more attractive to long-term economic investment.

Freedom of speech and exchange of information are not just luxuries, they are the currency on which global commerce, politics, and culture increasingly depend.

Lack of free and independent press, the full responsibility for public information and safety resides only in the government. This lack of public engagement can seriously undermine a country's security and economic growth.

The Chinese media, for example, did not report the unfolding Covid-19 epidemic in 2020 accurately because they were following their government's wishes to minimise the crisis. Thus there were no warnings that the disastrous disease was raging out of control in Wuhan.

Uninformed citizens continued risky behaviours that spread the disease. Citizenry panicked as cases climbed while tourists and international investors grew jittery. And when the independent Reuters journalist went from hospital to hospital in Wuhan, compiling the real numbers of Covid cases, some foreign investors lost faith in the Chinese government's official line and started pulling their employees out of the country.

The government realised belatedly that it needed to inform the public about the real hazards and scope of the problem in order to stem the epidemic and restore government credibility. In this case, the independent foreign media held the government accountable on behalf of the people when the local media were not allowed to do so.

If media function freely, newspapers, radio and television stations can be vital building blocks of democracy. In addition to serving as a watchdog on institutions and alerting the public to safety issues, they can help citizens understand and access their distant government.

A vibrant media, with competing independent prints, radio, Internet and television grants those voices to be heard. These media can spotlight problems, encourage citizens and government to deal with them, and empower even the destitute with real information.

Everyone gains if the poor have a chance to improve their lot, taking part in the opportunities afforded by free speech, free press, and the right to assembly in democratic societies.