PERSPECTIVES: Genuine Democracy Needs Responsible Media

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By Ramesh Jaura Noam Chomsky addressing Global Media Forum | Credit: Deutsche Welle

BERLIN - When Erik Bettermann, the outgoing director-general of the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, launched the Global Media Forum in 2008, he had an ambitious aim: to institute a 'media Davos' on the banks of the river Rhine. The recently concluded sixth Forum has indeed achieved that aim. It imbibed the essential spirit of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps and manifested alternative approaches guiding the World Social Forum.

More than 2,500 participants comprising representatives of mainstream, government controlled, alternative and social media as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and academia from over 100 countries attended the three-day conference from June 17 to 19, 2013 in the post-war historic city of Bonn and exchanged views on 'The Future of Growth - Economic Values and the Media' in some 50 workshops. They agreed that citizens are the key drivers of change, and that the media must build up an informed citizenry without which democracy would remain a farce.

Such a threat is real – also in western democracies. A case in point is the “really existing capitalist democracy (RECD),” as eminent American philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky describes the U.S. political system. Any resemblance to the word "wrecked" is accidental, he jokes about the acronym. The "soaring rhetoric of the Obama variety", such as, "government of, for and by the people", is far from the reality of RECD, Professor Chomsky argued in a keynote address at an opening session of the Global Media Forum.

Seventy percent of America's population has no influence on policy. It is just a tenth of the top one percent who actually determine what policy should be. "The proper term for that is not democracy, it's plutocracy," Chomsky said.

Asked about the role of the press, Chomsky simply replied concluding his keynote address on the opening day: “I would like the press to tell the truth about what matters." The significance of this simple remark is underlined by the fact that the inequalities of everyday life on the national agenda, influence reporting, public perception and language itself.

India’s environmental activist Vandana Shiva’s keynote address on the closing day of the conference was another highlight of the Forum. "The future of growth as GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and commodification of the planet and society will inevitably accelerate ecological and social disintegration and the rise of a surveillance state," she said. "We need to focus on the growth of wellbeing of the planet and the people for the sake of peace, justice and sustainability," the winner of The Right Livelihood Award said.

The concept of GDP as a measure of economic growth and human progress was challenged in different workshops during the conference. ‘Sustainable growth’, ‘Sustainable economy’, ‘Green economy’, ‘Beyond GDP’ ‘Goodbye GDP, Hello GDW (Well-being)’ were recommended as some of the alternative concepts on the anvil to replace the GDP paradigm.

Beyond GDP

There have been signs of a paradigm shift since 1990 when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) first published the Human Development Index (HDI) – a composite measure of health, education and income. It was introduced in the first Human Development Report in 1990 as an alternative to purely economic assessments of national progress, such as GDP growth.

Participants in a workshop hosted by the United Nations University pointed out that the congruence of unprecedented economic, social and environmental crises call for a revaluation of present measures of progress. It was argued that current indicators, such as GDP and the HDI, are insufficient to provide robust indication of societal progress. They fail, for instance, to inform on distributional aspects of economic growth; to reflect the state of natural resources; and to indicate whether national policies are sustainable in the long run. In this context, the workshop discussed new indicators of societal progress based on three international initiatives:

-- The Inclusive Growth Project, which works towards achieving material progress through economic growth while encompassing equity, equal opportunity to basic service provision, and social protection for the most vulnerable people of the society.

-- The Inclusive Wealth Report 2012 (IWR 2012) that presents a promising economic yardstick, the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI). Grounded in theory and research, the IWR 2012 proposes a radical shift in the way we measure economic progress: switching the analysis from ‘flows’ (like GDP) to ‘stocks’ of capital assets (or wealth). In the report, the wealth of nations is evaluated in an inclusive way by considering not only manufactured capital, but also human and natural capital. Twenty countries were assessed in the IWR 2012, including high, middle and low-income economies over a period of 19 years (1990-2008). The IWR 2012 is the first of a series of reports that will be published every two years.

-- The Economics of Land Degradation (ELD), which is an initiative for a global study on the economic benefits of land use and land-based ecosystems. The vision of the ELD initiative is to transform the global understanding of the value of land and build support for sustainable management practices. These are critical matters to prevent the loss of natural capital, preserve ecosystem services for society, combat climate change as well as its relevance for food, energy and water security issues.

Another workshop hosted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) underlined that though for many decades, gross domestic product has been the main indicator used by national and international institutions to define and measure progress, a focus on economic growth fails to capture many factors which affect people's lives. Safety, health, equity, a feeling of community and a clean environment are all important in determining well-being.

Over the last decade, a number of countries and institutions have set out to identify alternative ways to measure the progress of societies: from a commission led by some of the world’s most renowned economists – Stiglitz, Sen, Fitoussi – to Germany setting up a parliamentary committee on ‘Growth, prosperity and the quality of life,’ to Bhutan, whose King declared that gross national happiness is more important than gross national product. But the powers that be are apparently not ready to say goodbye GDP and say hello to GDW (well-being).

“As an organisation whose mission it is to help governments design better policies for better lives, the OECD is equally interested in understanding what drives the well-being of people and nations. Its ‘Better Life Index (BLI)’, an interactive online instrument that invites users to create their own Better Life indexes, was launched to engage citizens in the ongoing effort to identify key drivers of well-being. Since people are encouraged to share their results, this is also a way for the OECD to learn what really matters to them;” an OECD representative pointed out.

But this is not enough to drive policy change, panellists in the workshop agreed. The OECD, the media, private sector, civil society and other actors play an important role in translating academic rhetoric into action in language that encourages engagement and participation, they said.

Gross National Happiness

A Bhutanese participant regretted that very little attention was paid to the Happiness Index. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan coined the term Gross National Happiness (GNH) in the 1970s. The concept of GNH has often been explained by its four pillars: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation.

Lately the four pillars have been further classified into nine domains in order to create widespread understanding of GNH and to reflect the holistic range of GNH values. The nine domains are: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. The domains represents each of the components of well-being of the Bhutanese people, and the term ‘well-being’ here refers to fulfilling conditions of a ‘good life’ as per the values and principles laid down by the concept of Gross National Happiness.

Short of stressing that ‘All you need is happiness’, wide-ranging discussions at the Global Media Forum were characterised by the consensus that growth will have no future if it remains grounded on what Chomsky terms RECD and RECT. Growth will have a future only if it is built on pillars closely intertwined with the well-being of all sections of the population.

Responsible media are the backbone of well-informed societies. "The established media, and social media alike, bear a large responsibility," Bettermann told Forum participants in a closing session. "Social media channels have an ever more important role in shaping people's personal opinions, and in turn, in the formation of public opinion. They uniquely combine information and participation – transcending borders and spanning cultures and languages," he added.

With this in view, the focus of next year's Global Media Forum will be: ‘Challenges for the Media – From Information to Participation’. Deutsche Welle, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, will then be headed by Peter Limbourg who takes charge as new director-general in October 2013. [IDN-InDepthNews – June 29, 2013]

Image: Noam Chomsky addressing Global Media Forum | Credit: Deutsche Welle)

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