The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development

Article excerpt

The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development. World Bank Institute, ed. Herndon, VA: World Bank Publications, 2002.322 pp. $35 pbk.

One only has to look at SARS and its devastation in China to see how secrecy can hurt a developing economy.

Just weeks ago, Beijing's new generation of Communist leaders basked in improved international standing and an energized economy. Then the spreading epidemic shattered the official cover-up and the Chinese sense of well being. The government admitted hiding information, faced domestic and world criticism, and confronted economic damage.

China's crisis is a cautionary tale that a shackled press and controlled information can carry an economic cost. It illustrates the main point of a recently released World Bank study arguing that a free press "is at the core of equitable development."

"The media can expose corruption. They can keep a check on public policy by throwing a spotlight on government action," James D. Wolfensohn, the World Bank president, said in a forward to the study, The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development. "They let people voice diverse opinions on governance and reform, and help build public consensus to bring about change."

The report, a collection of nineteen studies released in November 2002, seeks to go beyond the long-standing assertion that political transparency and a free press are human entitlements. The main premise is that openness also boosts economies and reduces poverty. How much the press helps this process depends on its independence, the quality of information, and people's access to the news media.

Illuminating this intricate interaction is not an easy undertaking. The research is often conflicting. And in its rush to expose the peril of state media ownership the World Bank at times seems to overlook the dangers of private media conglomerates. Monopolies, government or private, limit voices worldwide.

Bank research is rooted in the work of Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning architect of contemporary developmental economics. Sen is noted for his contention that famines do not occur in democracies and, indeed, that democracy and openness must go hand-in-hand with development.

Joseph Stiglitz, a Columbia University economist and a Nobel Prize recipient, acknowledges this legacy. "Free speech and a free press not only make abuses of governmental powers less likely, they also enhance the likelihood that people's basic social needs will be met," Stiglitz writes.

But Sen himself increasingly draws complaints for oversimplifying. In a recent article in the New York Times, critics said the economist overplays the impact of democracy and ignores widespread hunger and malnutrition in democratic countries such as India. …


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