The Pot and the Kettle?

Joseph Stiglitz, in Globalization and its Discontents, shows how the principle of conditionality is increasingly used as a political instrument by institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. According to this article in the International Herald Tribune, current World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz now speaks up for including freedom of the press as one of the conditions for loans of the Bank.

Wolfowitz and senior World Bank economists know that strong, independent news media play a key role in promoting transparency and good governance, which in turn lead to economic and political development. Corruption can only flourish when governments operate with impunity outside the bright lights and public exposure that independent media bring. So autocrats and corrupt politicians everywhere seek to suppress their homegrown independent media.

The bank has been reluctant in the past to speak out on this issue for fear that it would be seen as interfering in the domestic politics of sovereign states. But media freedom is a universal right; it is also a precondition for tackling the central issue of corruption. As Wolfowitz has said, “you really can’t talk about economic development without talking about freedom of the press.”

Although in principle I am positive about such an inclusion, it clearly increases the political role of the World Bank. And what’s more, in the perception of many, it will even more than before put World Bank policies in line with the ‘spread of democracy’-strategy of the US (and some European countries).

In the IHT article, Wolfowitz claim is mainly illustrated through the case of Kenya. At the same time, rightly or not, it might also create opportunities for developing countries to criticise western democracies and their relations with the press. This includes the administration of which Wolfowitz was part, which has been criticised over press matters more than once.

And what about the EU? Are we still talking about free press when parliaments pay journalists to report on their activities? As is reported in the same issue of the IHT:

The funding for journalists can include payment of a first-class round-trip train ticket or an economy-class plane ticket to Strasbourg from any of the 25 EU countries and a daily stipend of 100 Euros to cover hotel, food and entertainment over two days.

The Parliament also provides television journalists with unlimited use of free state-of-the-art television studios, free sound and camera equipment, and free two-person camera crews that can be borrowed for the day.

Hans Peter Martin, an independent member of Parliament from Austria and a former journalist for the German magazine Der Spiegel, said the Parliament’s funding of journalists showed that representatives of EU institutions had not understood the principles of free press and democracy.

So are we talking about a typical case of the pot calling the kettle black? I myself do not think that argument really stands firm. I however do think that this argument will be used by states that try to limit press freedom in their countries. Also, the perceived alignment with US foreign policies might jeopardise the legitimacy and credibility of the World Bank. And for the EU payments to journalists? This of course has to stop immediately if the European Parliament wants to have any credibility left in the future.

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