May 3 is World Press Freedom Day – a day established by the UN General Assembly in 1993 to celebrate the principles of press freedom and bring attention to the threats to media independence around the world. 

USAID celebrates World Press Freedom Day and welcomes the opportunity to salute the professionalism and bravery of media personnel everywhere. Journalists and other media professionals play amazing 24/7 roles as news reporters, talk show hosts, photographers, watchdogs, editors, managers, facilitators of interactive multi-media platforms, and much more.

Vendors sell newspapers during the 2011 presidential elections in Liberia. USAID supported a media initiative to strengthen local media coverage of the elections and encourage independent reporting of election results through new media. Photo credit: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

Media play vital interconnecting roles among virtually all societal actors, facilitating a daily flow of information among citizens, elites, businesses, citizen associations, political parties, and governments. Journalism based on verified facts and diverse perspectives can help societies find constructive solutions to development challenges, while unprofessional or censored media tend to engender corruption and other obstacles to development. A growing body of scholarly research demonstrates strong correlations between media independence and an impressive array of democracy and good governance indicators.

Moreover, the explosive growth of new social and other electronic media platforms are enabling professional journalists to interact with citizen reporters, bloggers, and other new media activists, expanding the democracy-supporting roles of modern mass media like never before.

As a result, USAID works together with many local and international partners to strengthen the professionalism, independence, and new technology integration by the media in well over 40 countries throughout the world.  In Liberia, for example, USAID partnered with IREX, a U.S.-based NGO that works on media development, to support a comprehensive media initiative with the Liberia Media Center, a local media NGO, in the run-up to the Presidential elections in the fall of 2011 – only Liberia’s second since its emergence from years of civil war and one marked by tensions and threats of violence. With tensions rising and violence a real possibility, IREX worked with its Liberian partners to convene an emergency meeting to address the issue of conflict-sensitive reporting, while also supporting a media monitoring effort that called out inflammatory reporting.

Working with the Liberia Media Center, the project also supported an elections results reporting effort that placed reporters at more than 60% of Liberia’s 4,000 polling stations where they sent elections results in via text messaging to conduct a parallel vote count. The website that published the parallel vote count received over 3 million hits in the days following the elections, and since its results matched those of the election commission, it contributed to reducing tensions surrounding the elections.

Each USAID country program is tailored to local conditions, responding to a variety of media development challenges. When possible, USAID missions advocates for a comprehensive approach to media assistance, recognizing that fuller media freedoms result from many enabling factors operating together: such as journalistic professionalism, the media’s economic self-sustainability, legal and regulatory enabling environments, and incorporation of new technologies. Through these approaches, USAID aims to strengthen journalists and the media as a professional and independent Fourth Estate to better serve their respective audiences.