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
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.