Free media essential, but so are economic reforms

05May 2021
Editor
The Guardian
Free media essential, but so are economic reforms

​​​​​​​MEDIA executives and practitioners at the IPP Media Group had occasion to mark World Press Freedom Day on Monday with a diplomatic high profile visit, by the UK High Commissioner David Concar and his Canadian counterpart Pamela O’Donnell.

They visited the newsrooms, studios and printing house of the group at Mikocheni, and held a hearty conversation with a range of editors and practitioners in the company of media executives. It was a renewal of commitment to ideals of media freedom and a frank stock taking of reality, itself coming up in a situation where it is easier to hold aloft press freedom ideals.

Media freedom can rapidly be said to be about two things, the liberty to ask and also the liberty to laugh, with occasionally the latter group of journalists sparking the ire of authoritarian and doctrinal regimes around the world, for poking fun at what they cherish utmost. Yet media liberty isn’t about holding in high esteem what dignitaries and top officials think or feel, but those who purchase the newspaper or tune in to the television channel, radio station or Youtube channel. Media freedom faces many challenges where experts and administrators say it must be truthful and responsible, qualities that are often at odds.

Still the editors could not agree more with the envoys that free media is essential for Africa to progress, pointing out that informed societies make fairly accurate decisions, while those kept in the dark can at best judge the moods of their political and community leaders. Without a vibrant media they can’t cross check these sentiments with any other angles or considerations, and expression of a contrary view is put to a herd mentality as an adversary, or working for a hypothetical enemy. Closed societies, those which do not allow media freedom, live in constant fear – in public forums it is fear of enemies but in reality it is fear of their own shadows, for a fearful society is one that is almost always at the brink of real violence.

Those who do not agree with the principle of media freedom hold it either in distaste or fear in view of their wish to keep society hooked to one view of things, where questioning it becomes synonymous with questioning the legitimacy of authority. Once enshrined, that kind of perspective on what is broadcast or printed is soon consummated by fear – that there is a different opinion on things which is being expressed around, implicitly letting the cat out of the bag. Free expression thus consumes these fears, clears the air.

But freedom of expression isn’t just having the right attitude to the media but ability to live with stark differences of viewpoint, both socially and politically. Traditional social science has it that the basis of such freedom is economic freedom, where different brands of goods, services compete; politics becomes an expression of competing economic interests having affinities with wider society at certain levels, coalescing as a body of opinion, etc. If society is not sufficiently competitive in its economic activity, is doing all it can to protect some privileged groups whose roles are formulated in law and shielded from competition, such environment can’t tolerate competing political activity, or competing media views, etc. That is why the new orientation by President Samia Suluhu Hassan to build a competitive, modernising market economy should be pursued to the hilt, as outside economic reforms, ease of living, freedom fails.

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