The point of press freedom

2004-04-30 16:39

No substantial famine has ever occurred in any country with a relatively free press, writes Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen. The world-renowned professor of economics argues that the independent media also provide a voice to the neglected and disadvantaged while simultaneously preventing governments from insulating themselves from public criticism.

It is not always easy to love the media. The press can torment and harass through distorted reporting, and it can also ruin lives through targeted invasions of privacy. The ability to do great good rarely comes without some power to do harm, and the free press is no exception to this general rule. The press should do what it can to minimise the abuse of power (self-scrutiny can help and so can competition), but we should also try to understand with clarity why and how press freedom can enrich human lives, enhance public justice, and even help to promote economic and social development. Press freedom is important for several different reasons, and it is useful to separate out the distinct contributions it can make. The first - and perhaps the most elementary - connection concerns the direct contribution of free speech in general and of press freedom in particular to the quality of our lives. We have reason enough to want to communicate with each other and to understand better the world in which we live. Press freedom is critically important for our capability to do this. The absence of a free press and the suppression of people's ability to communicate with each other have the effect of directly reducing the quality of human life, even if the authoritarian country that imposes such suppression happens to be very rich in terms of gross national product (GNP).

Second, in addition to the direct contribution of press freedom to the quality of human life, it also has an important protective function in giving voice to the neglected and the disadvantaged, which can greatly contribute to human security. The rulers of a country are often insulated, in their own lives, from the misery of common people. They can live through a national calamity, such as a famine or some other disaster, without sharing the fate of the victims. If, however, they have to face public criticism in the media and to confront elections with an uncensored press, the rulers have to pay a price too, and this gives them a strong incentive to take timely action to avert such crises.

It is, thus, not at all astonishing that no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press. Large famines have occurred in authoritarian colonial regimes (as in British India), in repressive military regimes (as in Ethiopia or Sudan in recent decades), and in one-party states (as in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, in China during 1958-61, in Cambodia in the 1970s, or in North Korea in very recent years). Even though the proportion of the national population that is affected by a famine rarely exceeds 10%, which may be electorally unimportant, yet public discussion of the nature of the calamity can make it a powerful political issue.

The Bengal famine of 1943, which I witnessed as a child, was made viable not only by the lack of democracy in colonial India, but also by severe restrictions on reporting and criticism imposed on the Indian press, which isolated even the Parliament in Britain from the misery in British India. The disaster received serious political attention only after Ian Stephens, the courageous editor of The Statesman of Calcutta (then British owned) decided to break ranks by publishing graphic accounts and stinging editorials on October 14 and 16, 1943. This was immediately followed by stirs in the governing circles in British India and by heated Parliamentary discussions in Westminster. This, in turn, was followed by the beginning - at long last - of public relief arrangements. The famine ended then, but by this time it had already killed millions.

Third, the press has a major informational role in disseminating knowledge and allowing critical scrutiny. The informational function of the press relates not only to specialised reporting (for example on scientific advances or on cultural innovations), but also to keeping people generally informed on what is going on where. Furthermore, investigative journalism can unearth information that would have otherwise gone unnoticed or even unknown.

The informational role of a free press has a bearing also on the prevention of disasters. Consider, for example, the Chinese famine of 1958-61, in which between 23 to 30 million people died. Despite the fact that the Chinese government was quite committed to eliminating hunger in the country, it did not substantially revise its disastrous policies (associated with the ill-advised "Great Leap Forward") during the three famine years. The non-revision was possible not only because of the lack of a political opposition and the absence of an independent critique from the media (I have discussed that connection already), but also because the Chinese government itself did not see the need to change its policies partly because it did not have enough information on the extent to which the Great Leap Forward had failed. Because of the absence of an uncensored press and other modes of public communication, news was extremely scarce, and the local officials across China were respectively under the impression that while they themselves had failed, the other regions had done well. This gave incentive to each local unit - collectives or communes in various forms - to concoct their agricultural data to pretend that they too were doing well enough. The totality of these reported numbers vastly inflated the Chinese government's own estimate of the total amount of food grains that the country had. Indeed, it led the Chinese central authorities, at the peak of the famine, to the mistaken belief that they had 100 million more metric tons of grain than China actually had. The information that is lost as a result of censorship of the press by an authoritarian government not only deceives the public, it can also devastatingly mislead the government itself.

Finally, informed and unregimented formation of values requires openness of communication and argument. The freedom of the press is crucial to this process. Indeed, value formation is an interactive process, and the press has a major role in making these interactions possible. New standards and priorities (such as the norm of smaller families with less frequent child bearing, or greater recognition of the need for gender equity) emerge through public discourse, and it is public discussion, again, that spreads the new norms across different regions.

"No man is an Island, entire of it self," John Donne has told us. And yet the politics of censorship attempts to isolate us from each other. That suppression diminishes our lives, reduces our knowledge, stifles our humanity, and maims our ability to learn from each other. To overcome these handicaps, we need freedom of communication, including press freedom. What can be more important than that?

Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen wrote this exclusive article for the World Association of Newspapers for World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

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