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There is no open government without a free press

Dietlind Lerner|

The statistics are frightening: According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in media stands at 43% – an all time low in 17 countries. Gallup reported in September that Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” dropped to its lowest level since it first began polling in 1972. And last week’s Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index, found a “deep and disturbing” decline in press freedom in about two-thirds of the world.

Despite this stark context, there are currently fewer than ten media-related commitments in the OGP Explorer. Today, on World Press Freedom Day, we should examine the role of a free press in OGP and what we can do to support it.

At Open Government Partnership (OGP), we rely on the press to cover developments all along the National Action Plan (NAP) cycle. In many countries, journalists begin reporting on OGP as early as the consultation process between government and civil society, which can be tremendously helpful as we push to broaden our base. In most countries, however, media coverage picks up later in the NAP cycle, as governments are assessed on their performance in carrying out OGP commitments. A review of our weekly OGP in the News summary shows that journalists are interested in both positive stories – such as when a government commitment receives a star and negative stories, including failed or incomplete commitments.

A free press (including social media) is essential for open government because it allows citizens and government to communicate with – and trust – one another. As OGP continues to grow and realize its potential as a countervailing force to closed government, our need for independent media will become even stronger, going beyond any NAP-related coverage we might receive.

Open governments rely on the press to expose corruption, as was the case with the Panama Papers investigation. We count on the press to inform us about important issues affecting our daily lives, such as government spending or service delivery plans. And as a recent six-year, multi-country study by BBC Media Action shows, when done correctly, we can expect political reporting to lead to significantly increased citizen participation in the political process.

An informal survey of the issues currently of greatest concern to free speech advocates around the world includes:

  • media consolidation (monopolisation of our newspapers, radio and tv);
  • “fake news” (false news created with intent to misinform);
  • algorithms that determine the content of our Facebook feeds (PEW estimates this is where 44% of Americans get their news);
  • whistleblower protection;
  • decent pay for the press (in order to avoid the temptation of bribery);
  • formats in which government data is made available;
  • and of course, the protection of journalists who continue to be jailed or even killed while carrying out their work.

All of these issues can be addressed in NAP commitments. Given the urgent need for action, we look forward to supporting groups interested in working through OGP to promote press freedoms. We invite you to contact us at communications@opengovpartnership.org for further information.

 

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