Prospects for partnership —Syed Mohammad Ali

The media can undoubtedly promote transparency and accountability. To boost its legitimacy in this regard however, media companies must themselves adopt explicit policies concerning basic development concerns

The media has the immense power to reach out to the ordinary masses, due to which it can also play an important role in positively influencing the lives of people. This power can and should be harnessed by civil society to promote a range of development processes.

But before identifying how and what can be done by civil society to utilise the media to directly help improve the lives of ordinary people, it is necessary to recognise that both civil society as well the media are segmented into numerous forms. Civil society, on the one hand, comprises a wide range of multilateral, bilateral agencies, international and national non-government organisations, as well as community-based organisations, in addition to a range of other associations of professionals like lawyers, and even trade unions.

On the other hand, the media has also mutated tremendously with the availability of recent technologies, and has gone beyond use of conventional electronic and print media like radio, television and the newspaper or magazine to include mobile and internet-based forms.

Civil society thus has to consider the broader spectrum of media sources and devise strategies of engagement which are targeted enough to make effective development impacts on ground. There is already some encouraging on-ground evidence of some beneficial development results.

For example, Inter Press Service in Africa is trying to direct media coverage so that the emphasis is put on not only hearing the voices of those in positions of power and formal authority, but on the majority of the people whose voices have often been silent in the media.

Yet providing the poor access to media, and inversely, the media access to the poor is not always easy. In order to empower citizens through the media, the need to focus on issues concerning ownership and access need to be considered. Who owns the media, and how does that influence the perspectives and content of news, are vital considerations that cannot be ignored. It is these factors which lead to the not too uncommon phenomenon of dozens of accredited media personnel covering a fashion show in a city like New Delhi, while there was hardly any media coverage given to cotton farmers committing suicide just a hundred kilometres away.

The famous intellectual and academic, Noam Chomsky, cautions against the media propaganda model, which despite the rhetoric of giving a voice to the voiceless, can in fact reinforce existing power structures. Who gets how much coverage in the media is therefore an important question to ask. And, even when there is no apparent suppression of information, a certain level of self-censorship by media representatives like cable operators and journalists themselves takes place, which needs to be overcome so that pressing problems of poor people get the attention that they rightly deserve.

But retaining the attention of general audiences while trying to tackle development issues is an understandable challenge for the media. This requires giving due attention to not only issues like access of technology, but also to the content and approach being used to provide relevant information. There is hardly much current appetite for issue-based reporting in the prevailing media culture, which is largely event-based or else focused on celebrities.

However, while problems like land degradation or gender inequality are complex topics, it is possible to make them of interest and relevance for ordinary people. To do so, civil society organisations should become more proactive in connecting media sources to the communities where they are working so as to give their issues of concern not only a human face, but also the desired complexity that is invariably intrinsic to social reality. This would enable media sources transcend the urge to avoid becoming overtly cynical, and instead of always trying to expose inadequacy, instead draw attention to potential solutions to different development challenges.

Moreover, the fact that a digital divide has emerged which prevents access to information and communication technologies is hard to dispute. For instance, while there are demonstrated possibilities of using the internet to help improve the incomes of poor people, yet a prerequisite to using this enabling technology to empower the poor requires a basic amount of literacy, in addition to access to a computer, to electricity and to internet servers.

The weak infrastructure typically found in developing countries — particularly in areas where the poor reside — remains a major stumbling block in overcoming this digital divide. However, the profusion of mobile phones, which do not need literacy, and provide a much more portable form of communication, is a positive step that can be used to promote development goals, as several earlier columns in this space have tried to point out.

Also, there is need for more flexibility and thought concerning which media source should be used in a given situation. Sometimes, it is relevant to utilise local media sources like radio to help enhance awareness within a predominantly illiterate community, to tackle a specific viral outbreak, for example. Or else, there are situations where mainstream media is more effective in terms of helping gain strategic attention to pressurise reluctant policymakers or else to draw the attention of the international community to a particularly serious environmental or human rights infringement.

The media can undoubtedly promote transparency and accountability. To boost its legitimacy in this regard however, media companies must themselves adopt explicit policies concerning basic development concerns like gender equity, and workers rights, which civil society organisations could help them formulate. But this type of interaction will require increasing levels of understanding and mutual trust. At their end, civil society organisations can foster such a relation by taking the media on board at the inception of their projects, rather then trying to use media outlets as a mere mouthpiece for propagating their own agendas. Closer partnerships between civil society groups and media sources could boost mutual accountability, besides benefiting development outcomes across various developing countries, including Pakistan.

Our media and civil society recently played a significant role in bringing a democratic government into power. Given the sudden spiralling inflation and food and energy crises which have since become evident, it is now imperative to build on this existing relationship, to help ensure that increased political participation is also accompanied by greater equity for the marginalised poor.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at ali@policy.hu

Daily Times, 8/7/2008

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