Challenge of dovetailing growth with Freedom of Expression


(Left to Right) Owais Aslam (Pakistan), Geetha Seshu (India), Fathimath Isha Afeef (the Maldives), Angkhana Neelapaijit (Thailand), Llias Alami (Afghanistan) and Laxman Datt Pant (Nepal) Pic by Sujatha Jayaratne

It was very fitting that Sri Lanka was the venue recently of a UNESCO-organized regional conference on the Freedom of Expression and a number of linked, vital issues, such as, ‘Ending impunity for crimes against journalists’. Some countries of the region were mentioned by the relevant forum as falling short of specific, required standards on this head, but it could be argued that Sri Lanka too needs to do a considerable amount of more work on the stated parameters if it is to be seen as exemplary on media freedom related questions.

To be sure, Sri Lankan journalists are operating with a greater degree of freedom currently than during the 2005-January 2015 period but the demand of journalists of conscience is that every perpetrator of crimes against local journalists, regardless of the regime period, be swiftly brought to justice. This is one area where Sri Lanka is continuing to lag. May the administration of justice to wronged, harmed and killed journalists be expedited by the Lankan authorities, is our hope and prayer.

The issue of not all responsible sections and personalities in the local media field not being present at the forum was also brought up by the Lankan authorities at the beginning of the conference. This columnist and writer cannot speak for anyone else in the local media, but he would like to place on record that he did not receive a personal invitation to the forum. The invitation would have been honoured by him if such a personal invitation was received. In contexts such as these the norms of respectability require the extending of personal invitations. It is important that the local media authorities get to know the relevant personnel in the Lankan media. This is a relevant ‘aside’ which this columnist is compelled to make in consideration of the importance of the issues that were, apparently, discussed.

However, there is no denying that Sri Lanka was singularly honoured through the conduct within its shores of the ‘UNESCO Regional Conference on Reinforcing Regional Cooperation to Promote Freedom of Expression and the Rule of Law in Asia through Ending Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’, to give the forum’s full title. Hopefully, issues of note, in this context, were discussed comprehensively and consensual thinking on them facilitated, along with the formulation of future, time-bound action plans to end, in particular, obstacles faced journalists in the conduct of their duties.

Hopefully, the broader international context was focused on by the forum in the conduct of its deliberations. Even a discussion of media issues cannot overlook questions in contemporary international economics and politics, for example.

This international dimension is of considerable vitality because of the simple fact that today issues in international economics are at the heart of decision-making in the developing world or the global South. Time was when the question was raised in classical economics – ‘Bread or Guns?’While this poser remains very important for developing countries, the latter today are also increasingly compelled to choose, ‘Bread or Media Freedom?’

The apparent successes scored by some authoritarian states of the South in the economic field, or ‘Bread’, and in governance underscore the importance of the latter question. Put simply, could states trade rights, such as the Freedom of Expression, for economic growth? The growth success stories of quite a number of Southern states redouble the urgency of this issue.

In a way, this issue is not particularly new. When the executive presidency was introduced into Sri Lanka in the late seventies, the underlying logic of the project was that democratic freedoms should be curtailed in the name of the concentration of political power in the Executive President, who would thereby be helped in making quick economic decisions for the country, untrammelled by parliamentary checks and balances. Moreover, it was felt that uncurbed democratic freedoms, including press and trade union freedoms, militated against quick and expeditious decision-making by the Executive President. Thus began, Sri Lanka’s slide into authoritarianism.

Such thorny issues could be glossed over or ignored by the global South in these times when world economic power has distinctly shifted South from North. The gradual political and economic decline of the West over the years may seem to add credence to this belief.

On the face of it, the economic successes of the global South seem to be unstoppable. For example, a Southern, consumerist-oriented middle class is growing by the day, testifying to the seeming unavoidability of the adoption of an authoritarian growth model that sacrifices democratic freedoms for soaring economic growth. Of note is the fact that commentators are on record as saying, ‘The global middle class will more than double its size from 2 billion in 2012 to 4.9 billion by 2030. Asia alone will host 64 per cent of the global middle class and make up more than 40 per cent of middle class consumption. During the same period, the European and American middle class will shrink from 50 per cent in 2012 to just 22 percent in 2030...’ (See ‘Global Game Change’ by John and Doris Naisbitt – SAGE Publications India Pvt. Ltd.,

Sure enough, the South represents the economic success story of the future. But there is an obvious danger in seeing authoritarian states of the South as development mentors. The phenomenal economic growth of the South coupled with the relative prosperity of sections of its people could compel other developing countries to blindly accept authoritarianism.

However, it should be plain to see that growth at any cost comes with a prohibitive price. That is, the curtailing of fundamental freedoms.

The global South would be doing itself immense good by having these issues in focus. These are questions for conferences such as the recent UNESCO-led regional forum held in Colombo. Ideally, the balance must be struck between growth and fundamental freedoms, such as, the Right to Information and Freedom of Expression. These are vital factors in democratic development which could be ignored or seen as less important in the scramble for growth.

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