A new book from the World Bank says “a free press can reduce poverty and boost economic development in poor countries.” It says independent media not only help prevent government abuses, but also ensure that basic social needs are met.
The book – entitled “The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development” – is the combined work of economists, researchers and journalists.
One of the editors is Roumeen Islam, a manager at the World Bank Institute.
She says, "You know, it’s been known for a while that information is actually very important for how markets function and for economic development. And what this book does is talk about the media as one of the very important instruments to get information across to promote good governance and to empower people to make their voices heard."
The book calls on governments to expand the reach of the media by enhancing competition, reducing restrictions on new media, and having fair and balanced regulations.
Ms. Islam says, "I think it’s difficult to establish and maintain an independent press in all countries. Because, you know, there’s generally a symbiotic relationship between media, government and business, right? Media are financed not just by consumers of news, but they depend on advertising revenues. They depend on government subsidies or fees and taxes. And the regulatory environment is controlled by the government. So, I guess in all countries there’s always this issue and in some countries it’s more of an issue. So what we talk about a lot is making sure that a diversity of opinions are reflected and there’s sufficient competition in the market for news."
The “Right to Tell” is being published at a time when the corporate world is still feeling the impact of scandals, such as ENRON and WorldCom. Ms. Islam says the media play a major role as watchdogs.
She says, "Corporate managers care about their particular reputations. And also, the media can expose wrongdoing, right? Private corruption. So, in this book we talk a lot about how even when you don’t have laws to protect shareholders or other shareholders – or even when laws are weak and unenforceable you can actually have – information is a very great, not just monitoring tool but even enforcing tool. You can make companies and managers accountable to people because they care about their reputations and they care about their profits."
The World Bank publication says radio and television have changed the political strength of different groups by affecting who was informed and who was not. It says the Internet is likely to have a similar effect.
Yet in many poor countries, choice of media is limited. Even so, Roumeen Islam says there is a profound impact.
"(In) many poor countries around the world, I mean, nobody has televisions, right? And they can’t ready or write so they don’t really read newspapers. But, if you even go to a small village in Bangladesh you’ll see people gathered around a radio getting news, which is very important for their lives. And you’ll see people gathered around the radio and in fact in every local marketplace you see the radio blasting and people listening," she says.
World Bank President James Wolfenson says, “To reduce poverty, we must liberate access to information and improve the quality of information.” He says, “People with information are empowered to make better choices,” adding a free press is “at the heart of equitable development.”