Danny Glenwright is the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights.
Fourteen years ago this month, prime minister Jean Chrétien helped launch the Millennium Development Goals in New York by asking nations to pledge that the “information revolution” would be shared by all nations, not just rich western countries.
The MDGs, remember those? More than 100 heads of state and government joined Mr. Chrétien at the United Nations to adopt, with great fanfare, the declaration that would become eight international development goals to be reached by 2015. And while the original goals comprised commendable targets such as eradicating extreme poverty and reducing child mortality, they failed to include media, the Internet and access to information – a key sector, which, while apparently clear to Mr. Chrétien, had yet to announce its true significance to other world leaders.
Only about 45 per cent of Canadian homes had access to the Internet in September 2000. Globally, about 380 million people used the Internet that year – today that number is 2.9 billion. Those who were online in 2000 didn’t use Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Wikipedia or a smart phone, because none of these existed. The Globe and Mail had only just begun reporting breaking news on its website.
Almost 15 years on, the world is a very different, and much more connected place. Efforts to achieve the MDGs have seen some success, yet we are nowhere near meeting all the original targets. As a team of world leaders and policy makers once again gather at the United Nations in New York this month to finalize a new post-MDG global development agenda (what they are calling Sustainable Development Goals), it’s essential that this time around they recognize the part played by journalism, access to information and social media in advancing development and securing good governance.
Journalists have long understood the role a vibrant, plural media sector has in tackling inequality, promoting diverse societies and giving a voice to women and minorities. Corrupt and weak leaders also know this, which is why so many of them resent journalists and restrict access to information.
Take Tanzania, where last year the government shut down two newspapers under the country’s Newspaper Act of 1976, a relic from before the East African country became a democracy. Ironically, the country’s director of information banned one paper, Mwananchi, because he said it had published stories intended to influence “citizens to lose confidence in state organizations.”
But enterprising reporters working alongside Journalists for Human Rights trainers from Canada found a workaround, publishing their critical news stories on Facebook, which isn’t covered under the outdated Newspaper Act. Mobile technology has allowed Africans to connect to the world – and like in other regions, it’s given previously disempowered people the muscle to come together and force their leaders to listen to them. In the end the Tanzanian government relented, realizing the futility of such a ban in the era of social media – the “information revolution” is being shared by all, whether world leaders like it or not.
I saw firsthand the power newspapers and radio still have in helping cultivate good governance in the developing world when I worked with a team of Canadian media trainers during Sierra Leone’s 2007 national election campaign. Throughout a decade-long civil war, journalists had been arrested and killed in Sierra Leone simply for doing their job. Our team worked with local reporters to rebuild their confidence post-conflict. We helped produce a series of critical and investigative election stories in newspapers and on air over several months – coverage the United Nations and Sierra Leonean leaders later praised as essential to ensuring a free and fair election and peaceful handover of power.
Tough journalists like those in Tanzania and Sierra Leone brave the odds every day, refusing to give up in the face of crackdowns on media. It’s time for policy makers, including those currently drafting new development goals in New York, to recognize the vital role these journalists play in furthering social and economic progress.
The world has changed since international leaders launched the first MDGs and the information revolution has taken on a life of its own. Many governments have responded by trying to stifle access to information and press freedom, worried that social media and intrepid journalists will shine a light into their darkest corners. And experience has shown that competent journalists will do just that. In order to protect these journalists and lend support to their work, those who purport to champion human rights and global development must enshrine media freedom and access to information into any post-MDG development initiative.