What Should Come First, Please: A Free Press or Prosperity?

In Africa, governments hold an awkward sort of orientation that national economic developments should instigate freedom of expression, and so the idea of free press should be postponed. This has even denied room for the discussion of the subject itself, of whether it is development or a free press that should come first.

For decades, states have exhibited such an inclination via their philosophy of “developmental statehood” and also “development journalism.” While state-led commitment to development is inevitably mandatory, regimes seemed to misuse this as an excuse to hinder citizens’ quest for economic justice and genuine participation. This deceptive justification, which has assisted dictatorial extension of regime powers for decades, has especially happened through a parallel press philosophy of “development journalism” which has been suitable but misused almost as “regime journalism,” commonly telling only the ways in which governments have succeeded, not where they have failed. Simply thus, in most African countries, free press has been negligently suspended awaiting a ‘development’ that successive regimes have desired, but that never arrives.

In the US, although prosperity seems to have resulted in a strong press environment which could somewhat overcome any repressive attempts of successive governments, it must be that initial notions of ‘the consent of the governed’ and ‘the free press’ introduced in the First Amendment which would have instigated a history of U.S. supremacy. And the combination of a free press and a reserve of assets would likely become the main cause for the U.S.’s brand old model of prosperity since the second half of the previous century. That is, the U.S. press freedom seems to be as old as its progress.

On one hand, the free press has triggered U.S. progress; on the other hand, progress has resulted in a strong and free media. An aggregate claim might be that press freedom seems to be the necessary foundation for development. This could be a good lesson for most African leadership who claim freedom of press is a luxury that should come only after communities achieve a certain level of progress. I say, no! Press freedom should be there as a crucial element in the process of development, in order to guarantee a nondiscriminatory and genuine development for all.

Free press and progress graphic

Nevertheless, mainly in terms of transnational propagation of the media, not everything that the U.S. press articulates about its country’s democracy would be swallowed in Africa, making the reputation of U.S. democracy a mix of both honor and doubts. Indeed, just as an example, media coverage of the federal elections and presidency in the United States can very well show the world what it means to practice democracy, with higher prospects for the emergence of a different political party and/or leader coming into power during any upcoming election, and that being normal. This happens while the issue of presidential service term limits is still a taboo, an issue the press cannot discuss in public in several countries in Africa.

Yet, one area of the growing divergence of opinions in Africa over the U.S. media has been over its frequent assertion that the United States “exports democracy.” Even though U.S. democracy could be a good lesson for quite a number of states, the paradox could be, again for instance, that media might tend to promote the State Department’s strong foreign relations with nations in the opposite corner in terms of democracy, like in the case of nations where state leaders have been in power for decades. This tension is a challenging one to resolve.