The Media Map Project was in Mali in February to research the impact of donor-funded media development interventions over the last 20 years.  While we’re still preparing our findings on that topic, I wanted to share some observations.  Some striking characteristics of Mali’s media landscape are directly related to the discussions we have been having on this blog about the advantages and limits of using Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Index as the go-to dataset to stand in for media development.  Freedom House gives Mali a “Free” rating.   Our field research supports this assessment.  Our desk research also shows that good empirical evidence already exists that supports a strong connection between the media and development.  In a soon-to-be released report outlining how quantitative data has been used to measure the health of a country’s media sector in the context of economic development, Sanjukta Roy writes, “The academic literature,  through theoretical models and empirical testing, has validated the role of the media in facilitating good governance and favorable developmental outcomes.”  The index that these studies have overwhelmingly used to measure the media sector?  Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Index.

But does that mean that we can assume that a country with a Free Press rating will have similarly high ratings in governance and development indexes?

Unfortunately, no.  But given the way that the academic literature has emphasized the Free Press measurement, it’s hard not to assume that a Free Press rating also implies a healthy media sector and positive development milestones when you narrow the focus to the country level.

Sadly, in Mali, that is not at all the case.  Mali has been free from colonialism for 50 years and is celebrating its 20th year of democracy.  Mali is also one of the ten least developed countries in the world, by various different measures of development.  Mali has a notably higher mortality rate, lower level of education, and worse environmental challenges than sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, and indeed, low income countries when taken as a group.  The government of Mali is democratic, but not transparent about its activities.

What about the media in Mali?   Yes,  Mali’s press is free.  But our trip to Mali vividly illuminated that the rating “Free,” accurate though it may be, cannot be taken to represent the health of Mali’s media sector.  What we saw in Mali was that the media system is characterized by disorganization, hyperbolic and sensationalized reporting, and a lack of professionalism overall.  Not a single journalism school exists.  A harsh libel law is still on the books and is enforced from time to time.  Most media, whether private or community, cannot sustain itself as a business, and so brown envelope journalism is alive and well.  Almost 75% of citizens are illiterate, limiting the types of media most people can access.  Many Malians also lack the ability to discern the difference between good and poor quality information.  No comparable, good quality data on the media market or on media use is collected consistently.   Thus, it is difficult to assess the media across the country and over time from either a business perspective or from the citizens’ perspective.

It’s not all bad news. Recently the Minister of Health had to step down because the media exposed the misappropriation of international grant funds going on in his office.  Community radio is alive and well, with over 250 stations spread throughout much of the country.  Mali has been connected to the Internet since 1996 (though to put that in context, the number of internet users is still far lower than the average for low-scoring sub-Saharan Africa), and mobile penetration is on the rise.

Media has received a lot of support from donors over the last 20 years, but seems to be less of a priority for donors now that the Malian democracy is pretty effective.  But clearly the media system still has a long way to go.

So what to do?  What would be the best approach to leverage Mali’s Free Press into a developed media system?

Tara Susman-Peña is Director of Research of the Media Map Project.

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