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Op-Ed: Press Freedom Helps Fight Poverty

Available in: русский, Español, العربية, Deutsch, Farsi, Français
April 30, 2004—As we mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, this year's campaign theme, "Press Freedom Pays", provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on the catalytic role that an open and free media can play in economic development, and particularly in the fight against global poverty.

We know from Freedom House that out of a global population of six billion people, only 1.2 billion people live in countries with access to a free press, 2.4 billion have access to a partially free press, and another 2.4 billion live without a free press. In other words, around 80 percent of the world's population does not have access to a fully free press. It is striking that the majority of those people live in the developing world.

These imbalances in press freedom reflect broader imbalances between the rich and poor countries.

Some of these broader imbalances include: One billion of the total world population own 80 percent of global wealth, while another billion struggle to survive on a dollar a day. Two billion people have no access to clean water; 150 million children never get the chance to go to school; and more than 40 million people in the developing countries are HIV-positive, with little hope of receiving treatment for this dreadful disease.

What is the connection, then, between press freedom and economic poverty? A large part of the answer lies with corruption, and the fight against it. Studies by the World Bank, for instance, show that the higher the level of press freedom in countries, the greater the control over corruption and thus the greater focus of scarce resources on priority development issues.

A free press not only serves as an outlet for expression, but it also provides a source of accountability, a vehicle for civic participation, and a check on official corruption. A free press also helps build more effective and stronger institutions.

By fostering transparency and accountability in both public and private spheres, the media in poor countries are being increasingly recognized as a "development good" capable of contributing to improved government accountability and more effective use of resources.

But a free press not only pays off in the fight against corruption. It also pays off in supplementing traditional school education (e.g. radio math lessons), in improving public health efforts (HIV-AIDS education campaigns), and in supporting institutional change and market development (sharing of timely and relevant information). Further, there is a strong positive correlation between greater voice and accountability, and improvements in incomes, infant mortality, and adult literacy.

That is why we must continue the push for press freedom and there still much to be done. In many countries, particularly in transition and developing economies, the independence of the media can be fragile, and even shackled.

Policies on access to and dissemination of information, and other legal regulations that foster a culture of openness, transparency and accountability are key. Ultimately, they help to promote good governance and more equitable growth.

The World Bank is contributing to this effort. Through the World Bank Institute, our learning arm, we have delivered training programs reaching over 3,000 journalists. These programs include specialized courses on economic journalism, health, and environment. Most programs are offered using distance learning technologies, such as videoconference, interactive television and the Internet to broaden the outreach to participants in more than 50 countries.

By addressing critical health issues like HIV/AIDS we have spurred journalists to find new ways of covering this pandemic in their countries. And investigative journalism courses help them tackle the issues of corruption in a professional way.

There is no longer any doubt that the media's contributions are invaluable to advance economic progress, fight corruption, address the great imbalances between rich and poor, and ultimately reduce poverty worldwide.

Let us then make sure that press freedom continues to pay, especially for the billions of poor people who need it most.

James D. Wolfensohn is president of the World Bank Group.





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