Almost everywhere one looks, the news media is in crisis. And although a robust free press is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy, the world’s democratic governments are doing too little to protect it.
Media outlets worldwide are struggling to adapt their business models to the digital age, with newspapers, collapsing partly because of the loss of advertising revenues. Without trusted publications, readers become susceptible to false narratives and sensationalist clickbait. As quality journalism is marginalised, political leaders can dismiss unflattering coverage as “fake news” and the lack of a shared set of facts erodes trust in democracy and the rule of law.
The dominant model of media ownership is “media capture”, whereby political leaders and their wealthy cronies use it to advance their authoritarian designs and business interests. Without trusted media holding government and business to account, corruption flourishes.
The feeble response to this crisis by the world’s democracies reflects more a lack of political will than a lack of solutions.
One lever for addressing it is foreign and security policy. Democratic governments should recognise attacks on press freedom and use measures such as diplomatic isolation, denial of visas and sanctions to put pressure on perpetrators to meet their obligations under international law to uphold freedom of expression.
Momentum for such action may be building. In July, Canada and the United Kingdom launched a media freedom initiative, which calls on countries to sign a pledge to take co-operative action when media freedom is at risk. The following month, France included the issue on the agenda of the G7 meeting in Biarritz.
A second lever for addressing the problem is official development assistance. In 2018, less than 0.5% of the $150-billion that the world’s richest countries spent on development assistance went to addressing media freedom. That share could be increased meaningfully — say, to 1%, as a group of media-support organisations has advocated — without cutting significantly into spending in other areas.
Raising development assistance for the media could help to advance other development goals. A media industry captured by vested interests impedes economic reform, precludes political compromise and undermines social cohesion. For countries struggling to build or maintain a democratic system of governance, a robust free press is indispensable.
Sudan is confronting precisely these challenges as it attempts to build a democracy in the wake of Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship. During such fraught political transitions, newly liberated media organisations often align themselves with a particular party or faction, reinforcing deep and paralysing fissures. In a country where ethnic, cultural, and religious discrimination has fuelled brutal civil wars, the risks should not be underestimated.
Yet, so far, the international community has done far too little to aid Sudan’s media development and reform efforts. As Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok argued at September’s United Nations general assembly, donors must “revise their priorities” and support media reforms in countries like his. These efforts — along with building an independent judiciary, reversing the economy’s decline and addressing the Bashir regime’s crimes — are critical to a successful transition, he said.
Among donors’ priorities, in Sudan and elsewhere, should be helping to address governance weaknesses — economic, political, and institutional — that leave media vulnerable. That means assisting governments in reforming or strengthening media laws, building institutions and securing political support for democratic media governance. Development institutions such as the World Bank and the UN Development Programme can help here.
Media development organisations also have a role to play — for example, in helping local outlets to strengthen newsroom management and ensure high journalistic standards. Fortunately, many highly competent organisations stand ready to contribute. Donor governments should facilitate these contributions, including by using their influence to discourage aid recipients from interfering in media development work. With additional investment, they could also ensure that the work of media development organisations — such as the European Journalism Centre in the Netherlands or Deutsche Welle Akademie in Germany — complements the broader development agenda.
After World War II, the world’s democracies came together to create an institutional framework that would underpin global peace and stability for decades to follow. To address the current media crisis, a similar effort is needed, with governments, media organisations and citizens working together to fortify an essential building block of democracy and human progress. — © Project Syndicate
Mark M Nelson is the senior director of the Centre for International Media Assistance