Media and Development Conference III:Free media as a development mechanism

Minister Bert Koenders exchanges views with leading  Arab journalists.

Dutch minister of Development Cooperation Bert Koenders warmly welcomed the international conference guests to his office to discuss the importance of media support and its potential pitfalls.


“The press is one of the most vital parts of society. All over the world we are constantly debating the role of the press. Freedom of the press is a key element in international relations. Human development means more than growth of jobs, it’s also growth of cultural space and its expression. Proper reporting and journalistic training are crucial elements in opening up societies in a way that shows familiarity with the local situation. It is important to support the press around the world, whilst remaining neutral of course.


 I might agree or not agree with you, that is absolutely irrelevant. What is relevant is that you can write what you want to write, in itself an important development mechanism.” Hisham Jaffar, editor-in-chief of IslamOnline, asks about the criteria for cooperation. “It is obvious that European countries are following up democratic reforms in the area. Training journalists is positive, but are political and economical reforms really taking place? I believe reforms start from the will of the people living in the area, you have to reach them if you want to get results. Projects should be close to those people and take into account their priorities, not European ones, otherwise projects will have a limited effect.”


 Bert Koenders responds: “It’s an extremely difficult question, but I am glad you asked. In my view we have lost quite a bit of progress the last couple of years. Especially after the Iraq war the West has been depicted as employing double standards and I think that’s correct to some extent.


Secondly, relationships between Europe and the Middle East are seen as being more based on stability than on freedom of the press and democracy. This agenda does exist, although it is not as dominant as you might think, and I disagree with it completely. It’s not up to us to prescribe what’s good for you, that’s absolutely a non-starter. But the issue of press freedom can unite people instead of divide them, and we have to unite again. And it’s true, there is a certain risk that the programs we are supporting are intended for a very small elite, often seen as western. The result can be stigma instead of progress.


Besides, it’s difficult to work on freedom of expression in many countries if you consider the very negative reports on freedom. And I know that you are not just standing on the sideline, but you are constantly in the thick of it. And that’s why I think the media field has expanded to the Internet and the blogosphere. Still, in a way you are always training an elite, supporting people who have the courage and show the leadership to act. Besides, the problem of elitism is a worldwide phenomenon, many people don’t feel represented by their own press and politics. So the difficult challenge of fighting for freedom of expression is to find and support those courageous leaders, while ensuring at the same time they are not regarded as only the ‘elite’. It seems to me this is what you are trying to achieve in some form, in all modesty of course, in all these programs and projects. And I believe this is very important.” [JB]