On May 3, the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day. Reflecting on the day’s events, a few important questions arise about what role the media plays in a community and in a democracy.
First, how does freedom of the press compare to freedom of speech? Not only do journalists need freedom to speak and write without fear of censorship, retribution, or violence, but also they need professional training and access to information in order to produce high-quality work. Furthermore, journalists need to work within an organization that is effectively managed, which preserves editorial independence. People need multiple news sources that offer reliable and objective news, and societies need legal and social norms that promote access to public information.
Second, why is the media important? We care about the media because it is a powerful and critical tool for ensuring that citizens understand the state of their community, country, and world. In this way, citizens are equipped to participate in the democratic process. Media gives a voice to the people and helps to hold governments and institutions accountable for their actions. Media is also the way to spread critical community messages, such as how to prevent HIV infection, where to vote in the next election, and how to address difficult issues with balanced, well-informed analysis so as to promote peace and tolerance.
Lastly, how do we measure how well (or poorly) the media sector is functioning, and how do we gauge progress? With great interest in this subject, USAID has supported comprehensive, multi-year assessments carried out by IREX, which are reported in the Media Sustainability Index (MSI). This tool analyzes challenges in the media sector by country and allows for tracking of progress from year-to-year. In this way, it helps USAID to better identify media development gaps and possible areas for technical assistance. The 2009 edition of the MSI for Africa is now available, and editions are also available for the Europe & Eurasia and Middle East regions. With multiple years of surveys now completed, the tool spurs discussion and understanding of both the current status of the media in a given country and region as well as the trends over time.
The MSI is both a quantitative and qualitative tool. It draws on a set of panels composed of local media and civil society experts from each country, and the resulting index assesses five objectives important to a successful media system, which include the quality and professionalism of journalism as well as the management and independence of media businesses. The results also capture the rapidly changing new media landscape on the continent.
MSI’s data is used by a variety of advocacy and human rights groups, as well as USAID, other donors, and academics who are interested in tracking the role of the media in larger development processes. Findings from the MSI can inform how we channel our resources; for example, the latest edition of the MSI reveals that weak business management and professional journalism skills are some of the key factors challenging the media sector in African countries today. In response, USAID programming in countries such as Liberia, Nigeria, and the DRC are better cultivating local skills and building the professional capacity of media.