Imraan Buccus, my colleague and Academic Director for an SIT-Study Abroad program in South Africa, just published a fascinating golumn in the Mercury, Durban’s morning newspaper. Buccus refers to the work of the Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist, Amartya Sen, who found that there has never been a famine in recent times in any country that has press freedom. Here’s Imraan’s column:
Here in Mozambique, where I’m attending a conference on participatory democracy hosted by Frelimo, it is clear that South Africa remains a beacon of press freedom on the African continent. But what is also clear to us, but perhaps less clear here in Maputo, is that, that status has come under real threat from new legislative proposals, from hostile political rhetoric, and from the conduct of some senior state officials in South Africa.
From the so-called ‘secrecy bill’ to the fact that journalists on the Sunday Times have been spied on and intimidated to the threat to boycott the City Press, it is very clear that the ruling elite has our celebrated press freedom in its sights. But while our status as a “beacon” for press freedom is being threatened by increased state involvement there are some glimpses of hope. One of the hopeful aspects of recent developments has been the vibrant debate on press freedom that has been a critical part of the national conversation in South Africa for some time now. In this context it may be worth turning to the work of the great Indian economist, Amartya Sen, who changed the way that we understand famines –and was able to draw a fascinating link between press freedom and famine.
For him the topic of famine was not one of mere academic interest. As a nine-year-old boy he lived through the Bengal famine of 1943 and was deeply shaped by the enormous suffering that he had witnessed. As an adult his research on famine threw up an intriguing result. Sen found that in no country was famine the result of a shortage of food. In each of the famines that he studied he found that the real problem was the distribution of food. He also found that in each case the problems with the distribution of food were a result of another problem – a lack of press freedom.
In fact Sen found that there has never been a famine in the recent times in any country that has press freedom. The reason for this is simple. A free press will always report things like food shortages, resulting in pressures on governments to take effective action to resolve the situation.