Understanding Media and Democracy
Guy Berger, 30 November 2001
Many African broadcasters enjoyed a brief moment in the sun in the first multi-party elections of the late 20th century, but new governments – despite promises of allowing true democratic public service broadcasting – soon took control – repeating the pattern of their predecessors. As a result, broadcast journalists found themselves under severe political pressures to become government mouthpieces once again.
There were often hopes that liberalization of the airwaves would allow for private broadcasters that were politically independent. In some cases, governments reneged on commitments to privatize state-owned broadcasters. In many cases where new licences were issued, these were given only to government loyalists and/or the licencees were also often were refused permission to broadcast news.
To justify their control, governments used the following arguments:We pay the bill for public broadcasters, so we should call the tune. We were voted into office, so we have the legitimacy to call the shots. We represent the nation’s interests, and in the national interest, we need to have control for nation-building purposes.
The private press does not communicate our programmes to the public, so broadcasting is needed.
If you are not with us, you must be part of the political Opposition.
- The counter-arguments raised have included:
- We are accountable to the public, not to its elected representatives.
- We have a professional duty to be independent, not a government mouthpiece.
- Society needs a watchdog to hold the powerful (including government) to their promises and to ethical conduct.
- We will lose audience share to other media if we are seen as propagandists.
- What is lacking in this contest is a strategic point of view of the underlying roles that media can play and the place that media has in society. Understanding this bigger picture can empower journalists to argue for broadcasting independence.
- Many experts have analysed society in terms of two components:
- State (including government)
- Civil Society (businesses, unions, churches, NGOs, sports groups, etc).
- In Africa, some media is located in the State, other in Civil Society. Generally, newspapers traditionally are located in Civil Society. Broadcasters, because they utilise a public airwave frequency, have tended to be found within the State.
- However, this is not always the case. In countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia, major newspapers are found in the State, while in South Africa many broadcasters are in Civil Society (as community or private enterprises).
- Sometimes, the difference between State media and Civil Society media, whether newspapers or broadcasters, is mistakenly interpreted as follows:
- State media is seen as belonging to government.
- Civil society media is seen as being free of direct government controls.
- However, in reality, there is state-owned media like SABC in South Africa which is independent of government editorial control. There are privately-owned media, such as in Malawi, which are owned and controlled by cabinet ministers. And in some cases, particularly during apartheid South Africa, private newspapers can barely move because of the amount of censorship and other restrictions emanating from the state.
- Another conflation of issues is that classically State media like broadcasting is seen as being non-profit, in that its funding derives from licence fees or state grant; and Civil Society is seen as being dependent on the market place for survival.
- Nowadays, however, much state media is required to be commercial; while a lot of civil society media depend on State patronage for survival (eg. Advertisements, bulk purchases).
- In short, State media and Civil Society media is not the same thing as broadcast vs print; neither is it the same thing as government-control vs free; and, finally, nor is the same as non-profit vs commercial.
Getting to grips with State and Civil Society categories:
- The point about State and Civil Society is that these are big picture categories related to the question of power in society. They are bigger things than the kind of media (print, broadcast) and commercial or not.
- They are also even bigger than governmental control or not. This is because government and State are not identical. A State media does not have to be government-medium.
- The point about State and Civil Society is that both are key factors in relation to power and whether there is democracy or not.
- There is a big debate as to which is the most important factor. Some people see democracy as depending on the power of Civil Society as against the State. Others stress the importance of the State in ensuring that Civil Society does not collapse into anarchy.
- There are some problems in taking just one side in this matter. For those who see the State as hijacked by a government (elected or not) for undemocratic purposes, the answer lies in reducing the power of this apparatus.
- In this scenario, the feeling sometimes is that the answer is privatization as the way to avoid any controls. It is the case that a private media is typically driven by the market rather than politics. But the limit is that private media then chases profits – and it is not profitable to produce newspapers or broadcast progammes for the vast majority of the continent’s poor and largely rural masses.
- What this suggests is the need for some agency capable of collecting and allocating revenues on a non-commercial basis to ensure that the media needs of these marginalized constituencies are met. In other words, enter the State.
- A number of problems arise here, however. Many states are requiring broadcasters to become commercial – at the expense of non-profitable programmes in minority languages, for example. Many states are also examples of abuse by governments, who through funding – or just ownership, get state media to serve anti-democratic control needs, rather than the democratic needs of the audiences.
- In short, the problem is that Civil Society media does not on its own meet the media needs of democracy and development unless there is money to be made in doing so. And the State is also often not the solution either.
Meeting challenges by adding the concept of Public Sphere:
- The challenge for broadcasters is to avoid the limitations of the State and Civil Society arenas.
- This means using the agenda of each side in order to counterbalance the other. Thus, State broadcasters can ally themselves with civil society’s interest in reducing government undemocratic controls. Civil society broadcasters can rise to the challenge of not always chasing the money – but of also fulfilling some social responsibilities.
- Enter the concept of the Public Sphere. This refers to that realm or arena of society where State (including within it, the government) and Civil Society meet and overlap. It is where Public Opinion is made and has an impact. It is where issues are debated, ethics are defined and agendas are set. The direction of power and its limits are made within the Public Sphere.
- In some societies, the Public Sphere is overshadowed by the governmental sphere; in others, there is more involvement by Civil Society. In the middle sometimes is the State, playing a role of an impartial forum that reflects the interests and views of all participants.
- The Public Sphere without Civil Society participation (whether by Civil Society media, or through State media) is rather barren and empty.
- Civil society without the Public Sphere has no focus. And without the State media serving as a key part of Public Sphere, the constituencies marginalized by the market place, will have no participation.
- But for State media to play a truly public service role, rather than be reduced to a commercial one or hijacked for and/or propagandistic role, it needs to reflect Civil Society voices – even where there are already Civil Society media.
- To be truly democratic, governments need to keep their hands off the State media. Of course, governments must also have their voice in the public sphere (whether by government media, or as ONE part of state media, or whether reflected in Civil Society media). But this is not the same as taking over the state media or circumscribing the civil society media.
- Democracy is bigger than an elected government. It is something bigger even than an elected government behaving democratically (and many elected governments – often having previously fought for democracy – find that once in office democracy no longer suits them).
- Democracy, in short, is about people’s participation in significant decision-making – it is about the health of the Public Sphere. It is about Civil Society participation there. It is about the State playing a role in enabling this, not sabotaging or blocking this, and it is certainly not about the State being used to ensure that only government’s voice being heard in the Public Sphere.
- Instead, the Public Sphere ought to set some of the parameters within which government and State operate. Government and State power need to be accountable in this manner, because these institutions are the locus of so much power in society.
- At the same time, power also exists in other realms – such as in Civil Society (whether by business or international organizations, or even by organized crime), and such as within the family (especially concerning gender). So much as media plays a role within the Public Sphere, it ought not to concern itself only with issues of government and State power. Media can help to make some issues in the Private Sphere, public ones.
- In the nature of media’s role, it will always find itself being pulled and pushed in one or the other direction – towards government, or towards Civil Society (or specific parts of it). Media itself is not completely free-floating, however. It has its own dynamics. Private owners can tilt their media holdings in particular directions. State-owned media ought by definition to be impartial – providing a forum for various participants (including government as ONE of theses). But there are also other factors – like journalistic professionalism and ethics. These are important ways in which there are limits to which the media can be utilized by government or by private/community groups.
- Media’s place in democracy is complex and varied. But in the last instance, it is up to those working in the media who can do a lot to shape the particular contribution of their medium. That indeed is part of the responsibility and calling of being a journalist.
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