Myopia and Misallocation in Media Development

Guest post by Richard Winfield of the International Senior Lawyers Project

Two years ago, my friends at CIMA revealed that of all federal foreign aid dollars, only 4/10s of one percent is aimed at assisting the development of free and independent media. The CIMA study reported that only $222 million in federal and private foundation funds were spent in 2010 on all forms of media development abroad. Of that sum, only 5.4% was aimed at helping democratizing countries to adopt modern, progressive media laws. This marked a drop of 4.2% from the comparable figure in 2006 of 9.4%. Funding for media law reform from all sources is on a downward spiral.

Efforts to create less hostile legal environments for the press have become the underfed stepchild of foreign aid. A pie chart published in the CIMA study illustrates the lopsided priorities in funding. For every dollar spent on reforming laws, $19 are spent on such projects as training journalists and supporting media businesses. This misallocation ignores the realpolitik of helping create a viable independent press; not even the best-trained journalist can survive in a hostile legal environment where prison awaits him/her for critical reporting. Not even a media outlet with the best business plans or technology can survive in such a repressive legal regime.

The CIMA study concluded that government and non-government funders alike have consistently “overlooked” the need to support media law reform. It is hard to explain such myopia. After all, it is no secret that autocracies deploy a variety of weapons systems to prevent a punish journalists for publishing critical coverage, and most systems are based on laws: criminal libel laws, seditious libel laws, insult laws, civil libel laws, national security laws, journalist licensing laws, internet-blocking and -filtering laws, and censorship laws to name just a few.

Only with an arsenal of such legal weapons systems can autocracies hope to survive, immune from the scrutiny of a free and independent press. Maintaining such systems is an incumbency insurance policy for any repressive regime worthy of the name. It is as fundamental to a regime’s survival as secret police, informers, rigged elections, lapdog judges and the usual ecosystem of fear.

A modest analysis would suggest there exists a link between enacting and enforcing good media laws and a good, watchdog-free and independent press. Another modest analysis would suggest there exists a link between such a free and independent press and the possibility of a self-governing democracy. A further modest proposal would go something like this: because reforming media laws is indispensable to sustaining a free and independent press, and because a free and independent press is central to creating democratic institutions, policymakers and funders should reemphasize and reenergize support for efforts to enact progressive media laws.


Richard N. Winfield leads the media law working group of the International Senior Lawyers Project, which he co-founded in 2000. He teaches comparative mass media law at Columbia Law School, and American mass media law at Fordham Law School. He served as general counsel for the Associated Press for over three decades while a partner at Rogers & Wells, which later became Clifford Chance US LLP.

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