Monday, December 20, 2004

World Bank Snippets: Press Freedom -- Prometheus Unbound, A Bit. and Sri Lanka Needs Reforms, Rural Investment

Press Freedom -- Prometheus Unbound, A Bit.

The world's media are much freer than they used to be, The Economist writes. The
Soviet Union's collapse sent liberating tremors not only through Russia, but also through its array of colonies and satellites. Furthermore, the cold war's end prompted western donors to stop propping up anti-communist dictators and to start insisting on democratic reforms, of which unshackling the press was one. Of the former members of the Soviet block, only a few, such as the Czech Republic and Lithuania, have managed to become proper democracies where speech is truly free. But only a few, such as North Korea, Cuba and Turkmenistan, still silence dissent completely.

The most uniformly repressed region is the Middle East, writes the weekly.

But even there new voices are being heard. Though they try, the most dictatorial Arab regimes have failed to insulate their people from the legions of (sometimes wildly conspiratorial and unpleasant) Arabic current-affairs websites. Neither have they stifled the pugnacious new satellite television news stations, such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.

Dictators are rarer than before in Latin America and East Asia, and censorship laxer. Progress has been most striking, however, in sub-Saharan Africa. In the late 1980s, when Africa was still a battleground for the superpowers, only three countries (Botswana, the Gambia and Mauritius) allowed their people to say, write and broadcast what they pleased. The rest were more like Zaire (now Congo), where state television showed President Mobutu Sese Seko's image descending godlike from on high. Private newspapers are now available almost everywhere in Africa, and the number of independent local radio stations has risen 100-fold, from ten in 1985 to over 1,000 today. Television is still state-dominated, but, in general, relatively unfiltered news is reaching far more people than ever before.

The media watchdog Freedom House says that few poor countries are as free as they should be, though most are heading in the right direction. China is an example. It is less oppressive than it was under Mao Zedong, and that is reflected in its media. The number of Chinese newspapers soared from 382 in 1980 to 2,119 in 2003, says the government. Direct criticism of the Communist Party is still taboo, but other comment is a bit freer. Chinese journalists can write about economics, foreign affairs and practical problems facing their readers in a way that would not have been tolerated 20 years ago. At a local level, they can also expose corruption, even among party officials. Freedom House also reports that since 1985, the proportion of the world's population living in places where the media are “not free” has fallen slightly, from 46 percent to 43 percent. On the other hand, the proportion who live in countries classified as “free” has also fallen, from 29 percent to 17 percent. This does not mean that lots of countries have regressed from “free” to “partly free”. Rather, it reflects faster population growth in poor countries.

Sri Lanka Needs Reforms, Rural Investment: World Bank.

Sri Lanka badly needs rural infrastructure investment and reforms to boost a stagnant agriculture sector to speed up economic growth, the World Bank said on Thursday, saying future aid may depend on it, reports Reuters.

Sri Lanka should trim its fiscal deficit, cut back public debt equal to 100 percent of gross domestic product and focus on poverty reduction, the bank said in a new development policy review. Ensuring lasting peace between the government and Tamil Tigers rebels after two decades of civil war was also vital to the Indian Ocean island's economic prospects, it added. "There is a need for agricultural reform," said World Bank country director Peter Harrold, launching the review in Colombo. "But it won't work unless it is accompanied by investment in infrastructure like roads and power."

Fiscal deficit and public debt reduction, investment in transport, education and the power sector and reforms to increase rural productivity are the best ways to tackle poverty reduction and broaden the base of economic growth, the report said. "These the World Bank regards as the key issues that would need to be considered in defining a more pro-poor growth strategy for Sri Lanka, and which will be guiding our assistance to Sri Lanka in the coming years," the report added. The government's newly approved 2005 budget focuses spending on rural infrastructure, as well as incentives for power generation projects and small and medium businesses.

Sri Lanka's road and rail networks have deteriorated in recent years as the government channeled spending into defense to fight Tamil Tiger rebels and neglected areas like health and education. The bank estimates the civil war between the rebels and government, which has killed more than 64,000 people on both sides, reduced GDP growth by 2.0-3.0 percentage points per year on average between 1983-2002. "Sri Lanka is at a crossroads on its development path," the report said. "Any resumption of conflict poses a major risk to Sri Lanka's development prospects." The government is targeting 6.0-8.0 percent growth in 2005 and 6.0-7.0 percent growth in the medium-term. But inflation is expected to rise to 8.0 percent in 2005 from 6.0-7.0 percent his year, the rupee is at all-time lows and the budget deficit is forecast at 7.6 percent of GDP next year compared to 8.6 percent forecast for 2004.

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