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On World Press Freedom Day: What about journalists in the developing world? (okay the day after, but hey I was busy)

“We have a natural right to make use of our pens,” French philosopher Voltaire noted, “at our peril, risk and hazard.” For those of us on the West, that goes without question. But what about those in the developing world where peril, risk and hazard are daily facts of life?

Much has been reported over the past few months about the need for better reporting about aid and other efforts focused on meeting the world’s greatest challenges: hunger, disease, poverty and inequality. That shouldn’t be limited to the West.

In March, Columbia Journalism Review ran this important piece about “Hiding the Real Africa.” Its author, Karen Rothmyer, notes that “U.S. journalism continues to portray a continent of unending horrors.” Among the horrors are “graphic pictures of a naked woman from Sierra Leone dying in childbirth,” and “two young Kenyan boys whose family is so poor they are forced to work delivering goats to slaughterhouse for less than a penny per goat.” These are not the stories that the developing world wants to tell.

The stories they’d like to tell aren’t the ones that “reinforce economic misery,” as Rothmyer says. They are the ones like this Wall Street Journal piece that focus on expanding markets, growth and opportunity in places like Africa. Their capacity, however, is limited. Journalistic ethics, standards and know-how throughout much of the developing world are weak. That needn’t be the case, especially when it comes to business and economics.

Media coverage of business and economics in the  “developed” world is unparalleled. Daily newspapers such as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal and monthly publications such as Forbes, Businessweek, Inc. and Entrepreneur devote a lot of ink to markets, start-ups and small business.

This is not true in the developing world where business is for the elite and entrepreneurship is considered a fool’s errand. Lacking serious employment and educational opportunities, people in the poorest parts of the world start businesses not out of inspiration, but desperation – and they do so in great numbers.

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, as The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki points out, nearly forty percent of Peruvians run their own businesses, compared to fifteen in the U.S. This would lead one to believe that Peru is far more entrepreneurial than America. Yet in the face of poor regulatory environments, complicated bureaucracies, capital shortages, under developed supplier and customer networks and weak journalistic standards, very few Peruvians move beyond subsistence; the majority of ventures in Peru fail.

What if they had better information?

Through microfinance, social entrepreneurship and other efforts to build marketplaces, including our own, there is tremendous focus on addressing most of those challenges. Yet, little attention is given to information and communication. That must change.

Yesterday, The Omidyar Network announced its support of journalism in the developing world. It has awarded four grants to the Africa Media Initiative, The Sahara Reporters Project, the Media Development Loan Fund and the Committee to Protect Journalists.  It’s a much needed initiative that follows in the footsteps of The European Centre for Journalism, Thomson Reuters, the Knight Foundation and the Soros Foundation, all of who have been long time advocates of liberty.

Liberty, they know isn’t just a sound bite, but an activity that requires the participation of all, regardless of position or persuasion. That is difficult and frightening to some, for it requires constant compromise, engagement and tolerance. All of it requires communication and information.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire.


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