Researching the politics of development



Access to independent media as a development goal: can we measure it?

27 May 2014
By Antonio Savoia.
This was the key question that emerged at the World Press Freedom Day 2014 conference held on 5-6 May in Paris at the UNESCO headquarters.  Not the usual academic folk I am used to mingling with, but the theme was so interesting that even an economist would join in. The theme was ‘media freedom and the post-2015 development framework’, with the view of feeding into UN process that will establish the new set of development goals. The UN High Level panel report, published last year, suggested creating a goal on good government and effective institutions.  A component of it, the panel recommended, should be a target around ensuring ‘people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information’.

Free and independent media: intrinsically or instrumentally valuable?

There seemed to be general agreement, among the participants at the conference, that free media and good government go hand in hand. For example, investigative journalism ensures government accountability and transparency, which guarantees exposing poor regulation of the economy, weak rule of law, public sector malfunctioning, etc. Similarly, independent media thrive in a well-tuned system of incentives, i.e. the quality of governance itself provides the conditions under which media can have the necessary independence and protection to perform their functions. For example, during the conference it was stressed how the rule of law is a prerequisite for, as well as an outcome of, a successful media development agenda. A strong rule of law means that citizens have confidence in public processes. In sum, media development is intrinsically valuable, but it is also instrumental to development. So far, so good? Not quite.

The feasibility of measurement…

Before we can set and monitor targets, one problem that the media and development communities must face is measurement. A working group within this conference, which I was invited to join, had the task to make a start on measurement issues. Can we come up with indicators that we can use to set and monitor access to independent media as a post-2015 development goal?
My fellow group member James Deane of the BBC rightly pointed out on his blog that measurement is perhaps the most pressing issue. I agree. Elaborating and presenting the most refined concept of media development, and UNESCO is doing a wonderful job in this respect, may be of little use if then the UN cannot match it with a set of indicators we can trust. But how do we decide which set of indicators can be trusted? This is perhaps where some of our research at ESID can help. We can borrow from a recent working paper providing a framework to measure, set and monitor the goal of good government and effective institutions.

… Long term

Part of our argument concerns the need to consider short- and long-term approaches to measurement. The discussion up to this point has considered an approach centred on people. James Deane’s proposal is to create new indicators, which are perception-based, by asking people to what extent they access free and independent media and whether they can be trusted. This comes with important advantages, not least its simplicity and political legitimacy to media organisations and countries. A sensible objection that the working group raised is the fact that the concepts of media freedom and independence mean different things to citizens in different countries. Hence, this approach could generate data that are quite noisy, which is a well-known limitation of perception-based measures.  Regardless of the merits of the arguments for and against this proposal, I see this as a long-term enterprise. Looking towards 2030, it deserves to be taken forward. Perhaps UNESCO’s leadership is desirable in the development of such measures, as it may have the necessary capacity and political authority.

… And short term

We have to think short-term as well, if access to independent media is to be part of the post-2015 goals. Even in this case the task of measuring and monitoring goals is quite challenging and one should be mindful that likely indicators might be subject to short country coverage, issues of comparability and legitimacy, as well as methodological shortcomings.
So far, the on-going discussions have considered a number of possible indicators relating to the rule of law (as applied to media) as post-2015 targets:
(i) Number of journalists threatened, killed, disappeared, illegally held, and tortured;
(ii) Number of cases of impunity for attacks on journalists, assessed through the proportion of legally unresolved incidents in relation to total reported incidents;
(iii) Number of violations by security officials of legal rights of journalists to do reporting;
(iv) Extent of censorship, jamming, blocking, filtering and surveillance that exceeds international standards for legitimate limitations on freedom of expression.
This is an interesting set of proxies. But how far can they go? The first three indicators are all examples of objective measures. They come with the risk of confusing outcomes of media freedom with the concept itself. Any consequences? Let’s look at the example of Italy… No widespread violence towards journalists (apart from prominent cases such as Roberto Saviano). Yet, there are still pretty poor levels of media freedom. Why? The structure of ownership and control of state and private media is such that one individual and his cronies can exercise numerous forms of indirect censorship (e.g. dismiss ‘unfriendly’ journalists and replace them with ‘friendly’ ones). Indicator (iv) would be useful to flag up such cases, but it is perhaps the trickiest to measure. It may require a significant element of subjective assessment, which may suffer from observer’s bias. Perhaps surveying a sample of international journalists on each country should minimise this.
Despite the above methodological problems, this could be a potentially effective set of measures in the short term. They capture both the intrinsic and instrumental value of media development. Three of them are not affected by observer’s bias. All four are also simple to understand and relatively easy to collect in the short term for all UN countries. In this respect, UNESCO’s contribution, in collaboration with international watchdogs, could be desirable.

The goal of independent media as a two-task exercise

Future discussions should be aware of the two main tasks involved in this exercise. Short-term, we may have to rely on measures subject to methodological shortcomings, such as the four mentioned above. Yet, they may still allow setting relevant, specific and measurable international targets for the goal under scrutiny. Longer term, we should aim for the setting in motion of processes that will create measures as a routinised function within UNESCO itself (the creation of a professional cadre, the setting of international standards, etc.), possibly taking a people-centred approach. After all, the UN system has successfully contributed to the evolution of globally accepted statistical measures for the last five decades at least.
The discussion continues…
Dr Antonio Savoia is a lecturer in Development Economics at The University of Manchester and a researcher with ESID. He recently published an ESID Working Paper, ‘Governance as a global development goal? Setting, measuring and monitoring the post-2105 development agenda‘ with David Hulme and Kunal Sen.