By John J. Martin
The United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, which were designed to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.” These goals are intended to promote basic human needs and include: zero hunger, quality education, and clean water. While the SDGs are seemingly comprehensive and straightforward, the goals neglect to include one of the most important, and most undervalued, prerequisites for a healthy society — freedom of the press.
Considering a free press to be as vital as water might seem absurd or melodramatic, as well as counterintuitive to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. However, corruption is often the driving force behind ongoing environmental and socioeconomic issues, such as water crises, that pose major risks to public welfare. Consequently, unless such corruption is confronted and resolved, people will continue to die at the hand of government abuse and neglect. Corruption needs public exposure before confrontation can occur, which is not possible without an uncensored media. Human lives are relying on the existence of a free press for survival in these instances.
Food, water, and shelter do not exist in a vacuum. Governments have the capacity to influence the production of and access to these essential resources, especially in more authoritarian states. For instance, the looting of resources this year by South Sudanese politicians has resulted in a famine with a death toll currently in the thousands and rising. The lack of transparency on behalf of the South Sudanese government was the primary reason these politicians were able to get away with committing such abuses. These situations highlight how accountability over the control of essential resources can be just as significant to the preservation of life as the existence of such resources in the first place. A free press is the key to achieving this accountability.
This dynamic is already observable in many developed countries. When Donald Trump Jr. released emails in early July indicating that he had planned a meeting with a Kremlin-connected attorney about “incriminating” information regarding Hillary Clinton, he was not doing so out of some unwavering commitment to transparency. He did it because the New York Times had reached out prior to inform him that it was going to be running a story on said emails. Secret meetings may not be as devastating as famines, but the general idea holds true that leaders have a harder time hiding their corruption when the press is able to function independent of government oversight.
This is not a groundbreaking concept, nor is the idea that accountability leads to better governance. Nevertheless, these considerations suggest that freedom of the press should not simply be regarded as a human right, but as a human necessity. Research conducted at the University of Missouri suggests that a freer press leads to higher quality of life and a healthier environment. Additionally, countries experience greater economic growth and productivity when they are less corrupt.
These facts might make freedom of the press simply seem like a great benefit to society rather than a necessity, but consider what happens in its absence. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that approximately $2.6 trillion is lost annually to corruption. That is foreign aid, foreign direct investment, and government revenue all being diverted away from public goods into the pockets of fraudulent politicians and bureaucrats, inevitably hurting the common people. Look again at South Sudan, where thousands of children are at risk of starvation due to misuse of resources. When this kind of corruption remains unreported, or when media coverage of it gets stifled by the government, the issues go unresolved and more lives continue to be lost. These people’s lives rely on having such information disclosed, which is where freedom of the press becomes as necessary as the water they drink and the food they eat. The lack of transparency is causing loss of human life.
Fortunately, the rise of internet access in countries like South Sudan has made it possible for the press to circumnavigate legal limitations. This is not a solution in itself, since various websites dedicated to exposing corruption are targeted by government efforts. For example, Tanzania’s Jamii forums have not been immune from state suppression. The internet is instead an accessory for transparency activists to use while international organizations and NGOs attack the problem at the source by fighting for a freer press. An important part of this battle will be for organizations like the United Nations to view freedom of the press as being on par with other basic necessities. Humans need clean water to survive, but they also need to know what their leaders are doing with that clean water in order to truly preserve the wellbeing of society.
John J. Martin is the Global Transparency Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). John earned his BA in International Relations from New York University.