Heresy No. 4: A free press need not lead to a well-ordered society

Kishore Mahbubani – “Heresy No. 4: A free press need not lead to a well-ordered society

A key assumption in the West is that a good society needs a free press to keep abuse of power in check. That freedom of information checks bad government. That its absence leads to greater abuses and bad government.

This may well be true. A free press can lead to good government. But this is not necessarily a true proposition. A free press can also lead to bad government.

In Southeast Asia we have seen an unfortunate demonstration of this. By far, the one country in Southeast Asia that has enjoyed the freest press for the longest period of time (except for the Marcos martial law interregnum) is the Philippines. But the Philippines is also the ASEAN society that is having the greatest difficulty in modernisation and economic progress, suggesting that a free press is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for development and progress. India and China provide two massive social laboratories to judge what prescriptions would help a society develop and prosper. Between them, they hold about two-fifths of the world’s population—two out of every five human beings on the planet. Each has taken a very different political road. The West approves the freedom of the press in India, frowns on the lack of it in China. Yet which society is developing faster today, and which society is likely to modernise first?

The recent Ayodhya incident demonstrated one important new dimension for societies all around the globe. The Indian media tried to control emotional reactions by restricting the broadcasting and distribution of video scenes of the destruction of the mosque. But now many Indian homes can see video clips (transmitted through satellites and tapes) from foreign news agencies, which felt no reason to exercise social, political or moral restraint. Those who happily transmitted the video clips never had to bear the consequences themselves. They were sitting comfortably in Atlanta, Georgia, or Hong Kong, while the riots that followed in India as a result of their TV transmissions never reached their homes. Unfortunately, these media personnel did not stop to consider whether they could have saved other human lives, not their own, by exercising restraint.

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