Royal Bank Column – Free press and economic development

By Alex Tawanda Magaisa

LEADING development institutions such as the World Bank recognise the vital role of the media in promoting economic development. There is controversy over whether there can be a “free

media” at all.


While that debate is beyond the scope of this article, the key element is that the state or public authorities must not shackle the media. It does not mean that the state cannot participate in the media. Indeed, it can as it often does, invest in the media like any other entity or individual.


The media is important for development because it plays a key role in the fight against corruption, provides opportunities for investment and employment, creates spin-offs for other industries, is a conduit for communication to the market, enables artistic creativity and provides space for public discourse.


Public authorities should be happy that journalists are their eyes and ears who tell them about the people’s thoughts and feelings and where they are going wrong so that they can properly satisfy the electorate’s needs. That way they can focus on priority areas and deal with people’s problems rather than dismiss it as lack of patriotism. The unpatriotic are those that continue to paint a positive picture when clearly there are key areas of concern that they choose to ignore.


To the extent that investigative journalism exposes illegal and irregular activities, the media plays a complementary role to public authorities such as the police since it gathers and disseminates information and helps to fight crime. Some popular programmes in the UK such as BBC’s Crimewatch have played key roles in the investigation of crime and informing the public on safety issues. Without the exposure by the Sunday Times, perhaps the building of the Minister of Finance and Economic Development Christopher Kuruneri’s Cape Town mansion would never have seen the light of day.


Similarly, it is quite probable that there is more that is not yet within the public domain in which public officials have been involved. It is the media’s duty to expose those things. Whenever the judicial process requires the media to exercise restraint the courts have the power to order them not to publish about a specific case until a given time. Similarly the common law of defamation enables individuals to protect their reputations. As a result of its role as a watchdog, the media keeps both public and corporate authorities on their toes and ensures that they conduct themselves appropriately. To that extent, the media acts as a representative of the public voice. It is not only about what the public wants to hear, but also more about what the public wants the authorities to know and act upon. Where media freedom is non-existent, people are simply called upon to listen and cannot express themselves freely.


Besides helping in the fight against corruption, media freedom also provides avenues for investment and creating employment. The media is big business globally with vast companies and news agencies like CNN, BBC, BSkyB, Reuter and AFP. While it remains an elite commodity in countries like Zimbabwe, cable and satellite television is generally affordable to most individuals in countries where large companies operate without excessive interference.


Although there are problems, Zimbabwe still enjoys infrastructural privileges, which many other African countries lack. Although now crumbling due to lack of maintenance, it has enjoyed relatively good infrastructure and has a well-developed skilled employment sector. All things being equal, it would be quite cheaper for most companies to invest in Zimbabwe for their media businesses. Such investment would also create employment for many people who remain idle. The laws that make it harder to invest in the media clearly make Zimbabwe an unattractive destination. The current restrictions to entry in the media sector paint a very negative picture of Zimbabwe as an investment point. The media is not just about disseminating political news or ideas – there is far too much about the media that Zimbabwe is missing due to the unnecessary and restrictions.


In addition to the direct investment, there are spin-off industries that develop as a result of greater and more vibrant activity in the media. As advertising opportunities grow, the marketing industry develops and therefore creates more employment. Companies specialising in providing media products, individuals pursuing productive careers in the media would increase with the growth in the number of players in the sector.


It is simple economics that quality is enhanced in a competitive market. Elsewhere great numbers of people have gained wealth through their roles in the media. The globally popular English Football Premiership is rich because the league is able to negotiate good deals with television companies such as BskyB. Companies offer considerably high bids in a very competitive market to secure rights to cover live football games and weekly highlights. Similarly the European game has become richer due to the role of the media and no wonder the UEFA Champions League is the most popular international club competition.


There is also the chance of promoting the growth of the arts industry through the growth of the media. As more television and radio companies emerge, greater space is created for artists of all types. Their opportunities to market their products, earn more royalties and enhance their reputations expand in a more plural and competitive media market. Most actors are reaping massive benefits in addition to their fame in most developed economies. Yet in Zimbabwe most actors complain of poor remuneration and conditions of service. Things cannot improve in an environment without competition for their skills. If there were alternative markets, there would be better valuation of their contributions and their talents.

In most countries with plural media, ratings of the performances of individual companies or products play a major role in determining their competitiveness and quality of service. Ultimately it is the consumer that benefits from the positive spin-offs of a more plural, free and competitive media sector. Creativity is a major part of society’s cultural life. Failing to create an environment where people can exercise their skills is wasting so much time and opportunities. It will not happen in a sector with one broadcaster or few newspapers parroting a single voice.


The media also plays a role as a significant channel for communication between the corporate sector and the public. The markets watch the media and in turn the media watches them. Information is a key aspect of market economics and its production, management and dissemination is vital for the success of the economy. Most people know what is happening because of what they read and hear from the media. Such is its significance that in highly developed countries, there are entire television channels dedicated purely for economic/financial information. That is not an official role, but one that the media plays with distinction as the conduit between the investors and the market. Similarly the media communicates government policy and activities to the people and the market.


These can be subject to different interpretations and people are entitled to such opinions. Although the government communicates through formal channels such as the Government Gazette, very few people know about them nor do they provide a good read at all. The typical newspaper combines most things that people are looking for – news, sports, adverts, notices, etc. The more they are the better the quality since they are fighting for a given market.


The media is not simply about communicating the government voice, but also about putting that voice to scrutiny and bringing public officials to account. In a democratic society the media enables the public to communicate with those that they elected into office. The formal institutions such as parliament, the executive or the judiciary restrict public space to the few elected and appointed individuals and the media provides the critical space within which the people can express their views. The Letters’ forums allow people to express themselves and remind public and corporate leaders of their presence and needs. The Opinion forums allow experts to share their views and ideas with both the public and officials. In some cases, they also allow corporate leaders and government officials to write opinions and debate them with the public. An environment where such debate is promoted is healthy and productive in the long run as ideas are key to development. Since each media organisation will often publish what it deems to be within its editorial policy, the creation of more media organisations allows most views or agendas to be represented and therefore greater choice to the public.


It is not for a single official or the state to make that choice for the people.

The editor of the UK Daily Mirror, Piers Morgan, a bright man by any standards was recently asked to leave after it was discovered that published pictures of UK soldiers abusing Iraq prisoners were fake. The newspaper apologised to the government without any reservations. Had it not been for the presence of a journalist from one of the plural media organisations in the USA, pictures that have made headlines even in Zimbabwe’s Herald may never have seen the light of day. With a limited media, Zimbabweans heard very little about our troops’ recent mission in the DRC.


The media has a critical role to play in exposing the bad and irregular. That role extends to matters of economic development as well. To sacrifice the potential benefits at the altar of political expediency is a heavy price to pay for a young nation struggling to make a mark.


* Alex Tawanda Magaisa is Baker & McKenzie Lecturer in Corporate & Commercial Law at the University of Nottingham. He can be contacted at alex.magaisa@nottingham.ac.uk