US-style free press - best bang for buck in foreign aid

When American journalists foul up, everyone jumps and dumps on them ... and rightly so. We set, and expect, high standards for a profession, a craft, a business (call it what you will) that is specifically protected under the Constitution.

The Founding Fathers did not particularly relish the often vituperative attacks on them by the scribbling classes. But they wrote the First Amendment because they recognized the vital role of free speech and a free press in a democracy.

So let's get beyond all the carping. Despite its occasional failings, the United States has amazingly free, mostly ethical, and almost infinitely varied news media - if only its sometimes startlingly uninformed citizens would use them.

Then let's go an important step further: Recognize what such an independent press and media could do elsewhere in the world - especially where faltering and emerging democracies are most in need of them. One simple and peaceful way to promote a "noble" (George W. Bush's word) American agenda of global freedom from tyranny is for us to increase our encouragement, support, and training of independent media abroad.

What better way to foster political and economic development? And what a bargain - in money and lives - compared with military intervention. The whole US foreign aid budget for all nonmilitary assistance in all countries is a small fraction of the dollars being poured into Iraq alone.

For example, when the "Rose Revolution" swept Eduard Shevardnadze from power amid tumultuous but nonviolent demonstrations in Tbilisi in November 2003, Georgia's Western-trained independent media played their part.

Ever since Georgia broke away from the imploding Soviet Union, journalists and media managers from the US and Europe - funded by Western governments and private foundations - have been working with their Georgian colleagues to explain the basics of a free press: how to report, comment, and broadcast independently; how to survive financially; how to be professional, fair, and unbiased.

Among the fast learners was Rustavi 2. A lively and popular independent television channel, it was a tough critic of the corrupt Shevardnadze government. The authorities tried, and failed, to close it down. Instead, Rustavi 2 played what one Russian commentator at the time called "a very important role in the fall of the regime."

No one would argue that development aid for civil society and free media is possible in vicious dictatorships such as Saddam Hussein's. But in semiauthoritarian countries, such as Georgia under Shevardnadze, an increasingly "independent" media - editorially and financially independent of government, politicians, business elites, mafia figures, etc. - can make a huge difference. Rustavi 2 was one of a modest array of such media that spurred on peaceful change by providing Georgians with accurate reporting of the events surging around them.

Most Americans have little knowledge of the government-backed and privately funded efforts to build civil societies and independent media that have been going on for years - in Georgia and dozens of other nations.

Those directly affected, however, have taken note. A few days after he lost Ukraine's presidential election in December, an angry Viktor Yanukovich denounced the demonstrations that had led to his defeat. He said the demonstrations had amounted to a "scenario of the seizure of power."

"This scenario was planned in overseas centers," he went on, as reported in The New York Times, "which was tested in Yugoslavia, Georgia, Romania and now is being introduced into the Ukrainian reality."

In one sense, he was right. The disciplined, nonviolent techniques used by the Otpor ("resistance") student leaders to oust Slobodan Milosovic in 2000 were indeed taught to the protest organizers in Tbilisi in 2003 and again in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2004. American advocates of nonviolent change helped this process along. And, in a broader context, Western development aid there and elsewhere had long been aimed at teaching the basics of democracy and at building and supporting a free press.

This is not a conspiracy for the "seizure of power." It is simply an ongoing effort to level dictatorially tilted political playing fields so that power can properly and peacefully change hands.

What's more, when everything comes together just right, it works. It is cost-effective and well worth supporting - both for the citizens of the countries concerned and for the long-range security of the United States. So when we Americans rightly criticize our own media's many failings, ethical lapses, mindless trivia, and often pitiful international coverage, we should not forget the absolutely essential worldwide role of a thriving free press... and be prepared to support it.

Unlike our Founding Fathers, aspiring authoritarian leaders or dictators make their first act the crushing of those irritating scribblers. Take Vladimir Putin. Quietly but terribly effectively, he has yanked into reverse the post-Soviet trend in Russia toward lively media freedom. Now there's an issue for a new administration to focus on, especially one that calls for global liberation.

David Anable was president of the International Center for Journalists in Washington from 1997 to 2004, and is a former managing editor of the Monitor.

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