Analysis: The Role of the Free Press in Sustainable Development
May 3 2016 (IPS) – This year’s World Press Freedom Day marks the 250th anniversary of the first-ever freedom of information law, enacted in what are now Sweden and Finland. 3 May, 2016 is more than just an important anniversary, however; this is the first celebration of World Press Freedom Day since the adoption of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Securing a free press is essential for progress towards achieving these ambitious goals for people and planet by the year 2030.
To reach development targets, a free press must identify areas in which nations and the world are lacking, from access to education and healthcare to sustainable industrialization and consumption. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals seek to address the real and most pressing issues facing the people of this planet, and development efforts will only be effective if they have reliable benchmarks upon which to improve.
A key difference between the Sustainable Development Goals and their predecessor the Millennium Development Goals is a new emphasis on environmental protections that have a clear impact on human development. Environmental crimes and simple mismanagement of natural resources remain pressing issues worldwide.
Developing countries are faced with a trade-off between lower-cost industrialization using fossil fuels or sustainable economic production, and often, they choose the former. Developed nations, who achieved industrialization by consuming fossil fuels and producing pollution, criticize industrializing nations while still contributing to growing global carbon emissions themselves.
Through the efforts of a free press, all nations in any stage of development are held accountable for promoting global sustainability. Known for wielding a tight grip on its news media, China has recently expanded censorship over information regarding pollution. In a nation with sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities, the Chinese government releases incomplete or misleading information on its air quality. The World Health Organization uses two air quality guidelines, one for the developed world and a less rigid standard for developing nations. China’s pollution standards are lower than both. Meanwhile, industrial pollution has resulted in cancer becoming China’s leading cause of death, and the globally shared ozone layer is continually depleted by man-made emissions.
The media must expose the human suffering resulting from environmental abuses across the world so that individuals with the power and the means to demand change can do so. This imperative extends far beyond one nation’s environmental practices; society is at its best when journalists are unafraid and free to discover and expose the truth.
April brought the release of the Panama Papers, an unprecedented leak of information linking global political and business leaders to offshore tax havens. This development is a victory for free press worldwide and supports the tenth Sustainable Development Goal to reduce inequality within and among countries. Citizens have become aware of a great dichotomy between the richest and the average individuals within nations and worldwide. The fight to close the gap between the immensely rich and the general populace has new relevance due to fearless journalism.
In the political sphere, press freedom is necessary to expose misuse of power. Contexts in which a free news media is needed most, however, are usually times when repressive rule works its hardest to silence journalists.
2015 was a challenging year for news media, with press freedom at its weakest in 12 years. While typically high-risk regions for journalists like the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Latin America continued to limit the press, the democracy advocacy group Freedom House found that media freedom decreased in Europe in the past year, largely due to surveillance and security measures in response to terrorism.
While fear and legitimate safety concerns often understandably overshadow calls for press freedom, those of us who can demand the truth must do so for others who cannot. In the Middle East and North Africa in particular journalists can risk death for speaking out against the ideology of oppressive regimes and violent extremism.
We must pursue the sixteenth Sustainable Development Goal and “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms” for all, appreciating the and utilizing the freedom we do have to fight for universal press freedom.