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Jamie Stewart

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Something to chew over? [Mar. 29th, 2009|07:16 pm]
Jamie Stewart
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What with writing on the subject of the Middle East media, and being a western-educated journalist, it will come as no surprise to see the subject of free expression continually cropping up among these blog posts. Fortunately, with this being an Independent affiliated blog, I can use that phrase without fear.

It was not so long ago I was in fact embroiled in the task of writing a dissertation on the very subject of free expression. To be precise, it was a paper that dipped into the relationship between freedom of expression and economic prosperity, focussed particularly on the UAE, as I was based in Dubai while researching and writing.

There is an interesting sub-plot to the dissertation writing tale, that has evolved into one of my favourite stories to tell when boasting of drunken exploits.* (See foot of page)

Dubai itself presented a fascinating case study, as here was a state that failed to exercise many of the facets of a free media that are taken for granted in the west, and while being typical if not relatively free alongside regional standards, it could be described as nothing less than a Middle Eastern tiger economy. Like the East Asian states and the Celtic Tiger before it, here was an economy that grew exponentially, where you could walk down the street and literally watch it grow before your eyes. A growth that, when juxtaposed with the curbs on media freedom, appeared to offer a potential counter argument to the widespread assumption that a successful economy requires a free media to function and expand. There is however, a rather large and greasy factor to consider. One commonly known as oil, and the accompanying petro-dollars.

To cut a long dissertation short (again, *) I concluded that an economy could grow, and growth could even by facilitated, over the short term, via the considered prohibition of free expression, which was a difficult but necessary conclusion to find myself drawing. But, to create the conditions within which an economy could grow over the long term, at a controlled and sustainable rate, a larger degree of free expression was an absolutely necessary correctional mechanism to employ. (Phew! May as well keep myself in the job while I'm at it...)

There was one argument which struck me, and backed up my conclusion, that I wish to share as the subject of this post. On 3rd May - World Press Freedom Day - 2006, former US Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell delivered a speech to the School of Journalism at the National University of Science and Technology, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

"The Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen offers a noteworthy historical truth that drives home the relationship between freedom and prosperity, especially in the developing world," Dell said.

"Of all mankind’s terrible famines, none has ever occurred in a functioning democracy with regular, credible elections, healthy opposition parties, and an unfettered media.

"Famines historically have been associated with one party states, such as 50s China or 70s Cambodia; military dictatorships, such as Somalia or Ethiopia; or colonial arrangements such as pre-independence India. Notably, not just rich countries avoid famines; poor societies that are open and democratic have never experienced famine either."

Something to chew over. No matter where you are.

By the way, as a postscript, I'd just like to add, here's hoping that 2010's Wall Street and Canary Wharf don't prove the exceptions to Sen and Dell's stated rule.

* I was sharing a flat in Dubai with a friend at the time, and was six days from flying back to London to hand in the dissertation for my MA in journalism, so marking the end of my student days, when it occurred to me to check the word limit, on the advice of a friend. To my horror, my 13,000 words were 5,000 too many. (This may sound like a short dissertation, but in my defence, I included a rather lengthy practical component. Anyway...) It was a Saturday night, around 3am, and I was by this stage well acquainted with my good friend Mr Jack Daniels. "All for the good", I thought, and settled down to a good session of hacking and slashing at my virtually-complete dissertation, forcing upon entire finely-crafted paragraphs - no - entire chapters, the ignominy of entry to the Norton Protected Recycle Bin.

It was surely the first time that a passionate defence of the Laotian government's 1979 stance against and subsequent expulsion of the Communist Party of Thailand has shared the same hard-drive space as an accidentally downloaded version of
One Love by Blue (honestly, I was trying to get the Stone Roses tune of the same name. I was!), five empty folders, and an old photo of me wearing a hat.

I am pleased to report, however, that slashing complete, I promptly fell asleep and woke the next morning to find a rather readable, and alarmingly cohesive, dissertation. The moral - or immoral - of the story? If you've a lot of heavy subbing to do, and it's your own work, and, like a terminally-ill sculptor engaged in his final project, you've injected blood, sweat and tears into the very creation of the text itself,
get drunk first! It makes you not care!

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