- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009



As President Obama and his foreign policy team assess America’s proper role in a troubled world, they would do well to consider a predicament that afflicts 4 out of 5 people on the planet - and that Washington can go a long way toward alleviating.

That affliction is the absence of fully free, wholly unfettered media. According to a survey of press freedom last year by Freedom House, just 18 percent of the world’s population lives in countries whose media can be considered fully free. Another 40 percent lives in countries judged to have partially free media, but 42 percent - a plurality of the world’s population - lives in countries where the media are not free.

This has clear implications for the new Obama administration as it looks at its approach to democracy assistance. Free and independent media are the backbone of any true democracy. The free flow of news and information is essential to ensuring fair elections, fighting corruption, enabling economies to thrive, and fostering a diversity of voices. Whether the new president chooses to spread democracy aggressively or with restraint, with a high profile or a low one, his efforts would be bolstered significantly by recognizing free media as a fundamental building block of democracy.

No country is better suited to address the problem than the United States. For 220 years, it has served as an example to the rest of the world, a model not only of how independent, free media can and should function but of how democracy thrives when the press is free. Yet far from offering only its example, America offers its help. The United States is the biggest funder of media assistance programs in the world. According to the Center for International Media Assistance’s 2008 report, Empowering Independent Media: U.S. Efforts to Foster Free and Independent Media Around the World. U.S. donors spent at least $142 million in 2006 in support of independent media overseas, compared with $100 million spent by donors in all other countries. Support from the government and from private donors has spurred the growth of thousands of new media outlets around the globe. American media professionals, supported in part by government funds, have trained more than 100,000 journalists worldwide since 1990.

Of that U.S. total, almost $69 million - roughly half - came from the government, specifically the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. Yet within the government, for all its admirable commitment to the field, independent media are still seen as a secondary aspect of development policy.

Media assistance programs tend to be buried under broader programs. At the State Department, for example, media are a subset of a subset of a subset of human rights, health and other categories of assistance. In addition, only about a half-dozen people at State and the U.S. Agency for International Development are assigned to work exclusively on media development.

This is a tremendous missed opportunity to improve democracy - one the Obama administration can easily remedy.

The Obama administration should make media development a separate sector at both the State Department and USAID, independent from those that focus on broader issues but coordinating closely with each. These newly empowered media sectors should be given more money. The $69 million spent on media assistance in 2006 pales in comparison with the hundreds of millions Washington spends on foreign broadcasting. A higher profile, sufficient funding, and expanded staffing would enable the government to vastly amplify the good work that is currently being doing by an overworked few.

Too often media is almost forgotten as a subsector of larger development projects. A health initiative in Africa may train journalists to report on health issues, but the training may do little good if there is no viable radio, television or print media in the country and poor laws to protect journalists.

Today the Global Health Bureau at USAID spends much more communicating development programs, such as on health-related matters, than the agency spends on overall media development. Planners need to do a better job of integrating the two.

New technology should be given a higher priority. In many Third World countries, cell phone technology is advancing more rapidly than in the United States and is rapidly becoming a prime source of information for their populations.

The new administration should seize the potential of these new technologies and make them a centerpiece in its media development programs.

The immediate beneficiaries of more free and independent media would be billions of people around the world who, with greater access to better information, could someday see repression diminish, corruption lessen, incomes increase, health care improve, authorities listen. In the long run, the beneficiaries would be millions of Americans who dream of living in a more democratic world.

Marguerite H. Sullivan is senior director of the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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