Issues of information and communication lie at the heart of this edition of the Yearbook. For citizens to participate in democratic life and to exercise democratic choices, they need access to information about the issues that shape their lives, the spaces to discuss and debate those issues openly with others, and the opportunity to make their perspectives and demands heard.
If, as Neera Chandhoke argues (Chandhoke 2002; 2005), civil society is the public space in which people meet, discuss and engage with politics and public policy, then the media is an essential determinant of the success of civil society as a creator of public spaces, and of how effectively people’s voices can be heard. Manuel Castells argues that ‘media have become the social space where power is decided’ (2007: 1).
The link between communication and power, and voice and citizenship is ancient: throughout history, the extent to which citizens have made their voices heard has depended on their ability to exercise communicative power – to exert influence over policies that affect them by communicating, either individually in ways that resonate in the public sphere, or collectively in ways that will pressure those in authority to consider their arguments.
This chapter will explore how civil society and democratic engagement is mediated through the media and communication technologies, how this is changing and what is driving those changes. It will focus on the efforts – including those of various global civil society actors – to engage and challenge the media by creating alternative forms of mediated communication, and engaging with existing mainstream media. It will also describe how rapid changes in the media present new opportunities for communicative power and action, as well as many new obstacles to a democratic public sphere.
Providing an insight into the relevance of the media for public spheres in the twenty-first century within the context of the Global Civil Society Yearbook requires a global perspective. Mapping the complex, diverse and rapidly changing universe of the media on a global scale in a single chapter is clearly impossible, but some indication of how the media is reducing and expanding the public sphere can be provided. The chapter will focus more on the information, communication and media realities of people outside the industrialised world, which has been documented and analysed exhaustively – particularly on the two billion people on the planet who live on less than US$2 a day. Countervailing media trends will be examined, some of which contribute to an expansion and enrichment of the public sphere, and others to a contraction and stifling of it. Similarly, interactions between civil society and media that expand the public sphere, and those civil society actions that potentially undermine it, will be explored.
The chapter makes three main arguments. First, it argues that nearly all the trends outlined are rapidly changing in their character and double edged in their impact, contributing in some ways to an expansion and in others to a contraction of the public sphere, and of the capacity of citizens to make their voices heard. This suggests that a much greater strategic understanding and engagement by civil society organisations in media issues and trends is critical if these organisations are committed to enhancing the plurality and inclusiveness of democratic systems.
Second, the chapter argues that civil society’s relationship with the media is also double edged in its impact on the public sphere. If media is a critical place where power is decided, civil society organisations have an obvious interest in understanding and engaging in processes that shape such power. Civil society actors are, or could be, sources of accountability for media organisations as well as sources of support for media-related attempts to enhance the communicative power of marginalised citizens. Most civil society organisations are often more preoccupied with using media as a conduit for their messages than as a critical component of democracy. This preoccupation can encourage them to appropriate communicative power for themselves through their advocacy initiatives.
Third, the chapter concludes that international public debates on these issues are hampered by lack of appropriate public fora in which actors from media, civil society, government and business can discuss such issues intelligently, comprehensively and constructively. It calls for a greater investment in spaces for critical and constructive dialogue capable of engaging a broad spectrum of opinion on these issues.
Communicative power and the public sphere
There is a substantial literature on notions of communicative power and communicative action, most famously developed in the context of Jurgen Habermas’ argument around the development of the public sphere (Habermas 1983, 1987, 1988, 1989). This chapter, which is more concerned with trends and actions than concepts, leaves discussion of the many debates around Habermas’ and others’ work on the public sphere to other contributors to this edition (see for example, the Introduction). However, it does argue that these debates are increasingly relevant in the context of twenty-first century events and trends.
Habermas argued that a public sphere in an idealised form was a space where citizens could discuss their common public affairs and organise against arbitrary and oppressive forms of social and public power. The principles underpinning the public sphere included an open discussion of all issues of general concern, in which discursive argumentation was employed to determine general interests and the public good. The public sphere thus presupposed freedoms of speech and assembly, a free press, and the right to freely participate in political debate and decision-making (Kellner 2007).
Discourses on the public sphere, communicative action and power acknowledge the critical importance of the media in determining the character and quality of the public sphere, and the distribution of and access to communicative power in the twenty-first century. This analysis acknowledges the role of the media as a critical determinant of the quality of democratic life, culture and effectiveness (Jacobson 2006). This chapter explores some of the trends shaping the media’s role in relation to communicative power, the public sphere and democracy.
Media and the expansion of the public sphere
During the last two decades, for much of humanity, the public sphere has expanded substantially and the capacity to contribute to public debate increased. Three main trends have shaped this expansion of the public sphere: first, the wave of media liberalisation that, as part of broader democratic reform movements, swept much of the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall; second, the transformative changes wrought by new technologies; and third, how advocacy and the effective use of communicative power is increasing the pressure for social justice.
Media liberalisation, freedom and expansion
Some of the reverses to press freedom and media pluralism in recent years are outlined below; but the analysis presented in this chapter is rooted in an acknowledgement of the major expansion of the public sphere over the last two decades. The global wave of media liberalisation that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the associated pressures of globalisation, continues to reverberate on the ever more rapidly changing media landscape of the twenty-first century.
This wave was not uniform, but it did transform state control of communication systems in large parts of Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It led to a proliferation of new media actors and the replacement of media monopolies with a profusion of commercial and, in some cases, community and public service media. For a large portion of humanity, media was transformed: once the preserve of government which used it as a tool to control information and maintain power, media now offered opportunities for the creation of fora, and a plurality of sources of news and other information.
During this period, there was a greater expansion in both the numbers of media entities and their audiences than at any other time. Despite serious economic difficulties and declining circulations in many western countries, the number of newspapers has increased substantially globally. Global newspaper circulation has increased by almost 10% over the last five years, according to the World Association of Newspapers, and the number of daily newspaper titles has surpassed 10,000 for the first time (World Association of Newspapers 2007). Most of this increase has occurred in developing countries.
A decade ago, with some exceptions (for example in large parts of Latin America, and in South Africa), television was largely the preserve of industrialised countries and the rich in developing countries. Today, satellite dishes are a prime consumer item in some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the world, particularly the Middle East, where the new channels (most famously al-Jazeera), have profoundly impacted the public sphere in the Arab world, providing spaces for people to gain insight into political and state actions, and engage in debates around them. Educational soap operas, such as South Africa’s award winning Soul City, are broadcast to townships where television ownership is common. In Asia, even among the poor, television ownership is rising exponentially; and in many regions of the world it provides the main source of information for people, particularly in industrialised countries. While there remains a gap in television ownership between rich and poor, and urban and rural, these gaps – at least in terms of access – are shrinking rapidly.
Radio remains the most accessed medium in the world, and it is arguably this form of media that has undergone the most profound revolution in structure, content, audience and diversity, with profound impacts on the public sphere in many countries (Girard 2005). In 2004, there were more than five times as many radio sets per hundred people in low income countries than there were television sets. More people in the world have access to a radio signal (96%) than to a television signal (83%) (ITU 2003). According to a major recent study of African media, radio is the most accessible of all media, with both television and newspapers concentrated mostly in urban areas (AMDI 2007).
Commercial FM radio has revolutionised broadcasting in many developing countries, transforming broadcast environments from monolithic monopolies to a panoply of new actors. For developing countries, the role of radio in underpinning and enriching democratic debate and processes has been especially significant. Within a decade of liberalising its broadcast policy in 1993, the number of radio stations in Uganda increased from two to nearly a hundred; and the country’s FM sector has become famous internationally for its muscular political talk shows and for Ebimeeza – public discussions on political issues that are broadcast live.
Liberalisation of media in Ghana produced a smaller number but no less dynamic group of FM radio stations. Their impact in opening up public debate and facilitating the public monitoring of the elections in 2001 (Friedman 2001) and in 2004 (Sakyi-Addo 2007) was particularly significant.
In some of the more mature markets, such as the United States, increased media liberalisation has led to radio ownership becoming increasingly concentrated, and the effect of liberalisation in former closed markets has been a major increase in diversity and pluralism, creating new public spheres of discussion and debate. Later, this chapter will explore the growing political and commercial pressures on such maturing markets which threaten to close down these new public spaces. However, in large parts of Africa, Asia and, to some degree, in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Latin America, the events that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall have had a major and sometimes a lasting effect on the media and public sphere. In some countries, the effects of these changes are only becoming fully apparent now (see Box 8.1).
While commercial media has benefited most from liberalisation, new policy environments in many countries have also sparked a mushrooming of community media, a trend also facilitated by falling technology costs and a substantial decrease in the price of entry into the radio market (see AMARC URL). The community radio movement in Latin America, which has a long tradition, is experiencing an unprecedented expansion, with hundreds of new licences being issued and the number of community stations reaching perhaps 10,000 across the continent. Peru alone has 4,000 community radio stations and Colombia has issued 500 new licences (Gumucio, forthcoming). In Africa, particularly in Francophone Africa (Sow, forthcoming), the growth in community radio has been almost as dramatic, with thousands of community radio stations across the region.
Where community media has had the opportunity to gain a serious foothold in the broadcast environment, its political and social effects have sometimes been dramatic. Community radio in Nepal, a majority medium reaching nearly 65% of the population, played a central role in mobilising peaceful mass protest against the monarchical dictatorship in the country, and ultimately securing a transition to democracy (see Box 8.1).
Later this chapter explores the many limits, constraints and setbacks of the media liberalisation wave of the 1990s, as well as many countervailing forces, but it should be acknowledged that, for much of the world’s population, the last decade of the twentieth century and since witnessed an unprecedented inflation of the public sphere.
Most current discussions of communicative power focus on the internet, mobile telephony and other new technologies, and concentrate on what Manuel Castells calls ‘the rise of mass self-communication’ (Castells 2007: 246). While the revolution in media, particularly in developing countries, has been prompted in large part by a change in politics, policy, economics and society, leading to transformed systems of ownership, it has also been fuelled by, and is itself helping to catalyse, the technology revolution.
Never before have new territories for claiming (and possibly confining) public space emerged as rapidly as they have over the last two decades, with the emergence of the internet, and the allied technological revolutions of mobile telephony, satellite broadcasting and communication, and the host of other applications (blogs, vlogs, wikis etc.) that make up what is termed Web 2.0. These issues have been discussed in previous editions of the Yearbook (see Castells et al. 2006; Naughton 2001) and elsewhere in this publication; here attention will be paid to the links between new and traditional media in opening public spaces and enhancing communicative power.
Mainstream media increasingly turn to blogs and podcasts for stories, opinion and inspiration, and are using the same tools as delivery platforms. Social spaces such as Myspace and Facebook enable the instant creation of networks of likeminded people, and activate fluid, dynamic interactions that are beyond – but also can influence – traditional media. Wikis create democratic tools for defining concepts, movements and innovations. The difficulties of censoring such technologies poses a challenge both to governments and to mainstream media, which may fear that its reluctance to cover sensitive issues will reduce its credibility as the story becomes available through viral communication networks.
While in the West and established media markets, the Web 2.0 technologies are reshaping media markets and communication opportunities available to citizens, the effect in resource-poor countries is even greater potentially. Such technologies reduce substantially the price of entry into the media market and, particularly in environments where media freedom is restricted, indigenously produced media content is often prohibitively costly or where existing media markets are too expensive for new independent entrants to survive, they provide an even greater opportunity for unheard, marginalised perspectives to be aired and new public spheres to be created.
Online public interest journalism is no longer new, with some of the leading online public interest sites demonstrating a capacity to sustain themselves over time, establish a strong brand rooted in public respect and trust and a lasting influence. Tehelka.com is an independent investigative journalism site in India, founded in 2000, which has been targeted repeatedly by the authorities and equally repeatedly made mainstream news through its exposés. Malaysiakini, another online political website, attracts 160,000 visitors each day, and is celebrating its eighth birthday despite several attempts by the authorities to close it down, including an incident in 2003 when its offices were raided and 19 computers were confiscated, allegedly for a breach of the country’s Sedition Act. When Opendemocracy.net was founded in 2001, there were fears this respected web-based fora would prove unsustainable; such anxieties have, at least for now, been dispelled.
Even in the lowest income countries, the links between traditional media and new technologies have transformed media and communication environments from largely vertical communication flows (from political centres of control to disenfranchised citizens) to increasingly horizontally networked patterns of communication. Some of the most powerful effects of new technologies have been felt in developing countries where, in their own right and in constantly reinvented symbiotic relationship with old technologies (particularly radio), they have helped to revitalise public debate. In the last decade, radio content has been transformed in many countries by the talk show, phone-in and discussion programme, many of them made possible by the growing ubiquity of mobile telephony. It has enabled community and other public interest radio stations to form networks within countries and across countries. The massive growth in mobile telephony in developing countries – a phenomenon that will probably have greater implications for democracy and economics in those countries than any other single factor – has opened up traditional media to instant feedback, and interactivity of perspectives and of content with their audiences.
In environments where freedom of expression is under attack or curtailed, independent websites run from within countries, or by diasporic and other related communities, have often constituted the only sources of independent and critical analysis. In environments where mainstream media has been (or been perceived to be) dominated by commercial or political issues, new media sites have provided a critical monitoring function of the media (for example, The Hoot in India and Mediachannel.org in the US, although such sites have found it extremely difficult to obtain financial support).
Global civil society and communicative power
The degree to which global civil society has been facilitated and enabled by new communication technologies is well documented, including in earlier Global Civil Society Yearbooks. Rather less attention has focused on how the media’s reporting of key issues of concern to civil society has also been transformed – and it is the changing character and force of communicative power that has enabled this shift.
The mainstream media continues to be criticised globally for downgrading its coverage of public interest issues, particularly of poverty and marginalisation. Some of the forces shaping reduced journalistic investment in these areas are explored later in this chapter, but at least part of the gap has been filled by a renewed willingness to report on the concerns of civil society, particularly on issues of poverty and marginalisation.
The first years of the twenty-first century have ushered in the age of advocacy, a period where the media has been more amenable to stories about critical issues of concern to global civil society arguably than ever before. In few other areas has this been better exemplified than in the global campaign to ‘make poverty history’.
By the late 1990s, development assistance budgets had been in decline for more than a decade, and media interest in development – at least in the West – was reactive and focused on a fragmented set of issues prompted mainly by famine and disaster. Journalists, production companies and filmmakers found that getting support for development-oriented programming was increasingly difficult; and news organisations in most industrialised countries were cutting back on their international networks of correspondents, particularly in developing countries. Development as an issue was declining on public agendas and financial support was consequently weakening.
This situation has been revolutionised in the last few years. The Millennium Declaration that articulated the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) provided a clear and proactive framework for global advocacy around a concerted and strategic approach to development. Having spent many years building up their operational and project departments, in part because donors preferred to channel aid through NGOs rather than governments, most major international development NGOs began to focus more on campaigning and advocacy.
Grassroots social movements – most notably on HIV/AIDS – have become increasingly powerful, built largely on their capacity to embarrass and hold governments and international agencies to their account through sophisticated public protest and media strategies. This adept use of communications, combined with excellent advocacy campaigns have transformed networks of people living with HIV/AIDS from the subjects of the response to the pandemic, to agents and strategic shapers of it. In this way, the resources, infrastructure and political commitment galvanised around HIV/AIDS and increasingly other global health issues, such as TB, have increased significantly. The HIV/AIDS global campaign echoed other social movements, for example around debt cancellation, fair trade and against globalisation. This move has coincided with and increasingly been overtaken by the rapid increase in the communicative power of celebrities to shape media and public agendas around issues of concern to civil society. Rock stars such as Sir Bob Geldof and Bono have epitomised the shift in sources of action on development issues, with policy agendas not only represented by but increasingly shaped by figures who have instant access to media. For example, Geldof suggested the establishment of a commission for Africa, prior to the G8 Summit in 2005, and as one of its 17 commissioners, he played a key role in shaping its content. This trend is augmented by massive new resources being made available for development work (particularly in health) from new private foundations and individuals, most notably by Bill Gates. The communicative power of such figures outweighs and exerts more influence over policy than virtually any other development actor, be they implementing agencies, grassroots NGOs or research bodies. In addition, a new generation of US foundations, established by new technology entrepreneurs, such as Jeff Skoll and Pierre Omidyar, are supporting social entrepreneurship and advocacy.
All development issues now compete for public profile, with the experience of HIV/AIDS, poverty and other causes depending increasingly for political and financial commitment to media visibility and public support. Celebrity ambassadors and endorsers have become a central strategy for many development actors; the massive communicative power of celebrities unleashing unprecedented and previously untapped financial and public support. Having been in decline for decades, development budgets, both formal (through governments) and informal (through NGOs and diasporic networks), are rising faster than at any other time. The use of communicative power in pursuit of a social justice agenda has arguably rarely been so great or so effective.
The contraction of the public sphere and the appropriation of communicative power
Media and the concentration of communicative power
The previous section of this chapter outlined some of the ways in which the media has undergone a transformative opening worldwide, diminishing the control and influence of government, as a consequence of policy change, social change and technology. This section deals with many of the opposing forces, documenting some of the ways in which public spheres are contracting, and how communicative power is increasingly being either co-opted from citizens or marginalised.
Four trends in particular stand out:
- Newly intensified assaults on freedom of expression, sometimes linked to the war on terror
- The concentration of communicative power
- The dependence on advertising and the reduction in public interest reporting
- A growth in media numbers, but a shrinkage in diversity
1. Freedom of the media is under renewed assault
The number of journalists killed or imprisoned each year is reaching new records, according to Reporters Without Borders (URL). The war on terror is increasingly cited by advocates of media freedom as a cause of media censorship and intimidation. According to the World Association of Newspapers, there is:
a legitimate and growing concern that in too many instances tightening of security and surveillance measures, whether old or newly introduced, are being used to stifle debate and the free flow of information about political decisions, or that they are being implemented with too little concern for the overriding necessity to protect individual liberties and, notably, freedom of the press. (2007:1)
Such advocates argue that the constraints on press freedom arise from new anti-terrorism and official secrets laws, criminalisation of speech judged to justify terrorism, criminal prosecution of journalists for disclosing classified information, surveillance of communications without judicial authorisation, restrictions on access to government data and more strict security classifications. ‘All these measures can severely erode the capacity of journalists to investigate and report accurately and critically, and thus the ability of the press to inform,’ according to WAN (2007: 1).
Legislative frameworks that guarantee freedom of expression clearly provide an important indicator of communicative power and pluralism, but the existence of new legal and even constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, and mechanisms for media diversity, are no guarantee that these will be implemented in practice. Historically, the experience of many societies illustrates that while freedom of expression may be guaranteed under the constitution, it can be routinely violated by the government.
Even where freedom of expression exists in theory and in practice, in many poor countries it can be meaningless for everyone except the elite, particularly people in rural areas, who for reasons of cost, media reach, language or other factors, are unable to access information or the means of communication.
In many countries, such as former Eastern bloc nations, the liberalisation of media has enabled the establishment of media entities, but has not necessarily resulted in a genuinely free and plural media. According to a major review of European countries carried out by the Open Society Institute in 2005, ‘freedom of the media soon came to mean first of all freedom to run the media as a private business. Private broadcasters pursuing above all commercial gains rapidly outperformed State broadcasters, which were mostly reluctant or unable to keep up’ (OSI 2005: 33).
2. Media ownership is becoming more globalised and concentrated into fewer corporate entities, which exert increasing control across media platforms
This enduring trend towards concentration of media and communication ownership has taken longer to reach the lower value markets of many developing countries, but it is now accelerating. The initial post-1989 explosion in ownership and control of the media in many new democracies and markets is being replaced by a steady consolidation of media systems, as commercial pressures, mergers and acquisitions increasingly focus media ownership on a smaller number of actors. This is evident at the global, regional and national levels.
At the global level, there is an increasing concentration of media and communication industries among a handful of giant corporations. Traditional media conglomerates have increasingly merged with and been joined by new media companies, with Disney, CBS, AOL-Time Warner, News Corporation, Bertelsmann AG, Viacom, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and General Electric dominating markets – by some estimates around 90% of the media market in the US. Most of these conglomerates have major international operations; for example News Corporation is increasings its foothold in Latin America, through Sky Latin America, and Asia, particularly in India and China. Many of the Web 2.0 social networking sites are being bought by such corporations; for example, News International has purchased Myspace. The advertising industry, which shapes media markets, is also becoming more globalised; and the emergence of global advertising brands, global consumer cultures (for example, global teenagers) has been well documented (UNDP 1998).
At the regional level, global players are augmented by major regional players. In Africa, South African media companies, such as Naspers, as well as other players such as the Nation Media Group, are beginning to shape media ownership throughout the continent. Building on the rapid emergence of an African middle class (rather than simply an elite class), the trend is providing a ‘third wind of change’ for the continent according to Wallace Chuma of the University of Cape Town. ‘Africa has already experienced two “winds of change”’, namely the decolonisation process that started in the late 1950s, and the democratisation and deregulation processes that followed the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s (Chuma 2005). In both cases, the media were rapidly influenced by the political upheavals. While these winds of change were catalysed largely by events and processes outside Africa, the third wind is likely to be driven by pan-African media investment projects from the southern tip of the continent. The changes wrought by this third wind of change seem likely to result in the increasing influence of a few global and regional media players across the continent, the consolidation of the media market, and a pre-eminence of business, sport and entertainment news.
At the national level, concentration of ownership has long been a feature of mature markets; for example, following the US 1996 Telecommunications Act, Clear Channel acquired 1,200 local radio stations across the country. And the trend continues in regions such as Latin America where, for example, in Guatemala, four out of six television channels are owned by one businessmen, a Mexican citizen based in Miami. These trends are being challenged, often controversially such as in Venezuela (referred to later in this chapter). The same trend is taking place in newly democratic countries, as competitive pressures increase broadcast licences, other operational costs rise, and media markets mature.
3. Media is becoming increasingly competitive, and advertising dependent, with a reduction in public interest reporting
Competitive pressures ensure that owners, editors and journalists focus coverage on those issues that are of interest to a paying market. A long standing global trend, this pressure is intensifying in poor countries, where its consequences could be particularly acute. Arguably, the incentives to investigate local issues of poverty, marginalisation and injustice are weakening and the disincentives to doing so are growing, particularly if the coverage threatens to upset those with power or influence. Media owners are increasingly reluctant to exercise courage in the public interest, and the effect on many of those new markets which experienced an opening of public debate following liberalisation, is the beginnings of a steady closing down of public spaces. From Russia to Uganda, where independent media offered new platforms for public debate, there seems to be a stifling of freshly opened public spheres as a result of political pressures and an increased focus on profit.
Indeed, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the media in many former Soviet countries has undergone a classic Bell curve: rapid transition from dictatorship or a one party state system catalysed free and open debate, facilitated by a confident, diverse and dynamic media movement, but was followed by a stifling of public debate and media diversity through competitive pressures, media consolidation, the growth of consumer culture and the reassertion of central political influence.
The Open Society Institute’s 2005 survey of European television illustrates just such a Bell curve, and argues that the investigative reporting and innovative approaches to news gathering and political analysis ushered in by the liberalisation of media have not endured.
Pressure to increase ratings has encouraged a focus on entertainment, with a consequent decline in the status of news journalism. ‘In such a precarious environment, and against the background of widespread political interference in programming and economic pressures, self-censorship thrives’ (OSI 2005: 71).
Much of the current debate about the role of the media in democratic societies could usefully focus on incentives. Most independent media enterprises need to operate at least on a sustainable financial footing (public service and some community broadcasting, as well as and those run as loss- making opinion formers run by wealthy corporations and individuals are obvious exceptions). However, in environments of increasingly intense competition between media actors for market share and advertising revenue, the incentive for editors and journalists (let alone proprietors), to cover politically or economically sensitive or unpalatable stories are few, both in commercial and political terms. In resource poor countries, where media systems are often more fragile, markets smaller, penalties for unsettling those in authority sometimes more severe, and the costs involved in undertaking substantial investigative journalism greater, commercial and political realities serve as substantial barriers to public interest reporting.
Public interest media is under increasing pressure, with public service broadcasters (where they exist) facing intense competition, loss of market share and, in many countries, reductions in funding. As media markets fragment and audience share diminishes, even the strongest public service brands – such as the BBC – are struggling to justify licence fees making it doubtful that such models will be replicated elsewhere. While it is increasingly visible, community media faces a challenge to develop sustainable business models, and the movement is fragile, even when it is effective (see Box 8.2).
4. A growth in media numbers, but not necessarily in media pluralism or diversity
The explosion in media discussed earlier in this chapter is sometimes taken to indicate greater diversity, plurality and dynamism. However, there is no inherent relationship between the number of media outlets and the plurality of those outlets. Of course, the role and impact of media in a society varies immensely, but the number of outlets provides little guide to their social or political function. Multiple media outlets may just as likely indicate a sophisticated marketing environment as the prevalence of diverse political perspectives.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in China. Two decades ago the principal function of media in China was to provide the critical instrument of state control by framing and limiting news and information available to its people. Today, its principal function is the provision of advertising platforms to fuel the country’s huge consumer boom, exercised through a media environment transformed by an explosion of television and other media channels. Freedom of the press remains heavily curtailed and while a debate continues within the country about the role of a more open media in exposing corruption and providing a more stable business climate (Hilton 2006), the evidence suggests strong reluctance to accept such openness. In such a climate, media focuses mostly on entertainment, beauty, sport and of course state-controlled news.
New technologies and the fragmentation of the public sphere
The Internet has created a limitless matrix through which ordinary people can exercise communicative power, establish shared spaces for discussion and dialogue, and where tapestries of communication between old and new media, traditional and twenty-first century communication networks are constantly rewoven.
However, as media markets fragment and fracture, there are less key reference points and platforms where a clear contestation of ideas within the public sphere can be held. Communities of common interest create spaces for sharing those interests; people with similar views create networks where those views can be shared and reinforced. The advantages of such opportunities are obvious, and have been outlined above, not least in their capacity to create new identities, solidarity, confidence and empowerment of those who are marginalised. There has been less debate about the implications of a communication environment fractured to such a degree that the contestation of ideas and policies is impossible to sustain. In this context, the public sphere erodes and is replaced by a panoply of individualised private and semi-private spheres.
In such a climate, communicative power may be increased, but the capacity for citizens to assess, evaluate and take informed positions and decisions – not least in elections – becomes far more difficult because the space to weigh up different arguments narrows, thus constraining interpretation. As a result, ideas receive neither due consideration, nor are subject to testing in a genuinely public forum.
In any case, the genuine inclusiveness of new technologies is debatable. The digital divide between those who have access to, or an interest in, new technologies, and those who do not, is an ongoing subject of debate. Even in the age of Web 2.0, there is evidence that media creation and readership using new technologies is drawn from a relatively narrow audience. The top 100 websites receive 62% of the online audience according to an unverified citation on Wikipedia, compared to the top 100 newspapers, magazines, and radio stations, which receive about 30% of their respective audiences on average.
It is not yet clear whether, in such an environment, communicative power will end up being exercised by those with the most marketing muscle, brand recognition and sometimes the most strident views. If there is value in a public debate where a range of perspectives can be aired and challenged, this fragmentation could as well mark the disintegration of the public sphere as the regeneration of it. It seems likely that those brands with high public trust will strengthen their influence on the public debate and become a reference point, if not a platform within an ever more complex and noisy public sphere.
Meanwhile, the optimism for an unfettered and accessible public arena ushered in by the Internet in the mid-1990s – epitomised by the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1996 (EFF 1996) – has faded, with the rise of censorship. China restricts access to particular websites routinely (see chapter 5 of this volume), and while those websites highlighted above, such as Malaysiakini, have survived, they have been threatened by the authorities and struggle financially.
Civil society, media and the expansion of the public sphere
The trends outlined above demonstrate some of the shifting balances of communicative power. Most of these shifts result from changes in policy, often catalysed by the tectonics of globalisation and international political change, by technology and commercial forces to maximise capital and market share. At the same time, there are also a host of civil society initiatives aimed at rebalancing communicative power in the public interest.
The current communication environment is frequently characterised as one that lends itself to alternative voices finding a platform, an audience and an organisational network capable of creating communicative power. Some of the limitations of such an environment have been touched upon above, but four key areas of civil society activity to improve the public sphere, through and with media, should be outlined.
1. Freedom of expression movements
The international freedom of expression movement, which comprises many international organisations, has become increasingly organised, better resourced and more dynamic. It has needed to, given the increasing worldwide assaults on freedom of expression. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) lists more than 70 members, many working internationally and an increasing number from developing countries. The movement monitors abuses of media freedom, supports independent media movements in countries that face constraints or attacks on press freedom, and develops policy to enshrine and make real rights to freedom of expression. While the movement has embraced members from developing countries, and from a broad range of actors beyond the mainstream media (such as the World Association of Community Broadcasters), relations with civil society organisations are weaker. There are good reasons for this, not least a determination by the media to retain their independence, but both sectors share common concerns, such as increasing pressure from authoritarian regimes.
2. Communication rights in the twenty-first century
A growing international movement – which has sometimes been at odds with those in the freedom of expression movement – is coalescing behind the ‘right to communicate’. Such rights go beyond freedom of expression and extend to areas such as democratic media governance, participation in citizen’s own culture, linguistic rights, the rights to enjoy the fruits of human creativity, to education, privacy, peaceful assembly and self determination. Central to the right to communicate movement is the right to create one’s own media (particularly important for community radio, which continues to be banned or discouraged in many countries). Such rights are also aimed at countering the concentration of media ownership, control of intellectual property and exclusion of minority voices. In effect, the movement is attempting to establish a right to be heard and be listened to.
The history of attempts to establish such rights is contentious and occasionally bitter. The right to communicate was proposed in the 1981 MacBride Report (MacBride 1981), which initiated a global debate around what became known as the New World Information and Communication Order initiative (NWICO), led by UNESCO. The MacBride Commission pointed to the extreme dependency of developing countries on Western news sources, the concentration of Western media ownership that exerted increasing influence in developing and small countries, and the growing information and communication technology gap between the West and the rest (in other words many of the same issues – although often in different form explored in this chapter). At this time, developing countries (the Non-Aligned Movement) were in a critical phase of nation building and consolidation or creation of national and cultural identities. They protested that new forms of cultural imperialism (or what could be reasonably termed communicative power) were replacing and augmenting the old forms of military and political power (CRIS 2005).
The NWICO perished in acrimony and prompted the departure of the US and the UK from UNESCO. The reasons for the failure of the initiative were many and complex, including: the ideological context of the Cold War; attempts by several non-Western governments to use communication rights to justify limits or quotas on the media, concerns among Western media that the right could threaten freedom of expression and justify arbitrary limits on media ownership; and the concerns of Western governments that it would undermine intellectual property rights and threaten free speech and free markets.
While many of the contextual realities that led to the NWICO debate becoming so unproductive have disappeared, including the Cold War and the polarisation between developing and developed countries, the problems that sparked it in the first place have become more acute. Partly because of the bitter legacy of the debate, there have been few international fora in which such issues have been discussed seriously since.
In Latin America, the concept of communication rights provides an important source of inspiration and impetus for the revival of community radio (outlined above), concepts shaped by civil society and academia. At the same time, the recent establishment by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of Telesur in Venezuela, the ‘new television station of the South’ represents a clear challenge to the dominance of private media on the continent and, with an advisory board comprised of intellectuals and academics, is often described as an attempt to realise communication rights. Many of the same tensions that characterised the NWICO debate are re-emerging around the Chavez’s attempts to ’rebalance’ the media (not least in the government’s withdrawal of the licence to RCTV and perhaps other commercial television stations that are accused of inciting rebellion in the country).
While the concept of communication rights is most vibrant in Latin America, a global campaign for Communication Rights in the Information Society was formed in 2001, and led to significant lobbying at the World Summit on the Information Society, a two-stage UN summit held in 2003 and 2005.
Today, no right to communicate has been established officially, but the campaign continues often controversially. At the heart of the debate on communication rights are three sets of issues.
First, the right to communicate is founded on and rooted in the principle of freedom of expression, but is supplementary to it. Nearly all actors involved in this debate argue that freedom of expression is a non-negotiable foundation stone. However, the right to communicate involves not only the right to say, but the right to be heard, and encompasses concepts of listening, understanding, learning, responding and the capacity to create. For some there are tensions between the right to freedom of expression and the right to communicate; and for others, these rights are mutually reinforcing.
Second, there is a question of whether the right to communicate implies the necessity to listen (which in turn could imply compulsion). Many argue, for example, that there is an inherent contradiction in creating a formal right focused largely on ensuring that the authorities enable people to make their voices heard, while at the same time making governments the guarantors of such a right.
Third, and perhaps more profound, is the absence of serious international discussion about the problems that underpin and prompt the communication rights debate. Issues of growing media concentration, the marginalisation of people living in poverty from debates that shape their lives, the perceived domination of a small number of international news providers, and the role of information and communication in sustainable democratic development – these issues have little place, space or home in international discourse. The World Summit on the Information Society failed to provide that space, and in any case was a forum defined by governments. Whether communication rights – or any other strategy or movement – is an appropriate solution to such issues is rarely subject to a serious debate at international level. This concern extends well beyond social activists and civil society movements as mainstream journalists become increasingly constrained by, and their work shaped according to, the commercial imperatives of their owners. No serious international fora exists where a diversity of engaged and concerned actors, from across the ideological spectrum, can address these issues. Without such a forum, the future debate risks continued polarisation (particularly between some freedom of expression advocates and social activists) misunderstandings, unhelpful assumptions, much of it shaped by the sad history of such debates.
3. Alternative media and communicative power
As this Yearbook makes clear, the opportunities for civil society actors to create their own communication platforms – often called alternative media – have never been greater. Many examples of these, such as the Indymedia movement (see chapter 10 of this volume), are well documented.
‘Alternative media’ encompasses an extraordinarily broad range, from citizens’ networks, community media and the many electronic and web-based entities, outlined earlier in this chapter, to theatre groups, oral testimony initiatives, and wall newspapers, to name a few. In truth, the term tends to define more what it is an alternative to, than what it actually is, leading some to question its value. However, regardless of this terminological debate, alternative media encompasses highly imaginative, dynamic and innovative manifestations of communicative power by ordinary citizens.
In the West, alternative media has been established in response to the unwillingness of the mainstream media to provide spaces and voices to marginalised groups, or those perceived to be outside of mainstream public discourse. It is often articulated as a challenge to the perceived domination of media by international capital, or a set of narrow commercial interests hostile to citizen power (Chomsky 2002).
In most non-Western societies, alternative media has tended to emerge less in response to commercial power and more in response to governmental power, in order to create spaces free of control and censorship by the state. While such distinctions between Western and non-Western societies may simplify a much more complex picture, they do explain, in part, the absence of an integrated and coherent global alternative media movement (another key reason is a lack of resources).
Over the last 40 years, there have been many efforts to establish alternative, non-Western based news and information services, some of which have been successful and achieved impact. The best known and longest lasting, the Inter Press Service (IPS), was established in 1964 as a Southern response to agencies such as Reuters. With strong networks in Latin America, IPS prides itself on breaking stories not normally covered by mainstream media, and on its close links to civil society. It is prominent in many international civil society meetings and conferences. Supported by various development agencies and philanthropic foundations, IPS is one survivor of a substantial number of similar agencies, such as Gemini News and Compass Features, which were not financially viable. In the meantime, regional agencies have become established through an online presence, such as AllAfrica.com.
4. Media for Development
Outlined above are efforts by citizens’ movements either to create their own channels of communication, or to establish new rights that enable people to utilise or create such channels. A more coherent set of actions are gaining momentum as media and media support organisations, both national and international, become increasingly organised and effective in developing initiatives to improve public interest media, provide communication opportunities to those living in poverty. The Communication Initiative, an international website (URL)) documents thousands of organisations, initiatives, networks and projects designed to improve access to information and build people’s capacity to communicate their perspectives.
Much of this Yearbook is concerned with the critical ingredients that make democracies democratic, that make public discourse genuinely public and inclusive, that makes politics work for the most disadvantaged in society and that ensures that social change is shaped by those within societies rather than those determining realities from outside. The international development sector has tended to make such issues secondary to the more tangible interventions of delivering healthcare, education and infrastructure, and the more obviously urgent issues of trade, aid and debt.
However, current development policy is coming to understand the importance of media to the economic and political development of developing countries, and this is leading to a more concerted series of efforts to support it. Most notable among recent steps was the decision by the UK government, outlined in its policy White Paper ‘Making Governance Work for the Poor’ (DFID 2006), to create a new £100 million Governance and Transparency Fund designed to support free media and civil society in developing countries.
The reasons for this new commitment, which is increasingly shared by other multilateral and bilateral organisations, are rooted in an unprecedented consensus that now underpins international development policy. Seven issues underpin this consensus: the importance of national ownership in formulating and implementing development strategies; the necessity for good governance, particularly the capacity of citizens, rather than donors, to hold governments to account for delivery of services; the MDGs as the principal strategic framework for development; globalisation as an overarching context to development; the need for more rights-based approaches to development; the importance of coherence, alignment and harmonisation of development policy; and managing for results.
While all of these issues have major implications for the role of media in developing countries, one in particular stands out. Most donors, led by the UK, are committed to providing funds through budget support to governments. Only by doing so, they argue, can governments become accountable to their citizens for delivery of services, rather than to Western donors, and only then can real democracy take hold (budget support also enables donors to spend large amounts of money with relatively little administration at a time when spending budgets are increasing and administration budgets are being pared down). Increasingly, donors understand that if citizens are to hold government to account in new and poor democracies, capacities for that to happen need to be better developed. Citizens cannot hold governments to account unless they are informed of and have access to information on the issues that shape their lives. The role of the media and of communication structures at all levels (community, sub regional, national, regional and international) is inextricably bound up with how citizens understand and engage in democratic life. The rights and capacities of people, particularly those living in poverty, to voice their own perspectives and have them heard in public debate, particularly through the media, are increasingly recognized as critical to effective governance.
Such Western donor interest in promoting media and civil society in developing countries clearly leaves them open to criticism that they are using such actors as proxy sources of accountability. This has engendered efforts to develop a set of Southern- (and particularly African) led agendas on media development. For example, the Strengthening African Media Process, supported by DFID, is expected to reach its conclusions in late 2007. These initiatives are complemented by a series of sector-led initiatives, such as the Global Forum for Media Development, which seek to map out a proactive agenda from media and media support organisations within which external actors – including funders – can operate.
This sphere of media and communication for development is increasingly dynamic. It includes, for example, work on:
- Asserting and developing better access and rights to information, such as enabling people affected by particular policies and initiatives to have access to information about them. A highly successful citizens’ movement in India has been particularly effective in gaining legislative and judicial backing for this right.
- Support to media, including media freedom, community media, capacity building and enhancing financial sustainability of independent media, media policy, pro-poor/development focused content, professionalism and ethics in media.
- Strengthening a healthy public sphere, characterised by informed media, a vibrant civil society and decentralised patterns of information exchange.
- The role of communication in informing and generating public debate, and in ensuring the voices of vulnerable and marginalised groups are prominent in such debate; and its allied role in enhancing ownership, accountability and transparency in development policy (such as formulating development, poverty reduction and other related strategies).
- Community empowerment through communication for social change and other dialogue-focused methodologies.
- Communication as part of a rights-based approach to development, and how communication (particularly with and through media) intersects with and enriches civil society voice.
However, while the media for development community and initiatives are increasingly effective, well organised and, hopefully, rooted in Southern frameworks of action, such efforts remain largely marginal and poorly coordinated areas of development policy. Nevertheless, current development contexts and strategies strongly suggest more concerted and increased support for such initiatives in the future.
The appropriation of communicative power
Earlier sections have focused on the role of civil society in supporting public debate, often by creating alternative forms of communicative power and by placing pressure on mainstream media to cover particular issues.
However, as this chapter illustrates, the relationship between civil society and media is complex, civil society’s efforts to enhance media freedom and expand the public sphere face many obstacles, and there are instances of civil society activity eroding the public sphere. While it is not of the same nature or intensity as the competition within the media, civil society organisations do compete with one another. Such competition creates incentives for civil society organisations to regard the media as a conduit for its messages, rather than as a critical component of the democratic fabric of society. Civil society organisations require a positive public profile and credibility in order to achieve their objectives, and this need has intensified. As a consequence, they have the potential to appropriate communicative power through the media.
Many events have changed the dynamics, impact and influence of global social movements in the last few years, including, most importantly, Western political reactions to 9/11 , the war in Iraq, and the subsequent constriction of spaces for social action; and the partial appropriation of many of these issues by mainstream politics and politicians.
Other influences on global civil society include the appropriation of leadership on central issues of concern by those who command and exercise communicative power – in particular, celebrities. The capacities of rock musicians and of wealthy individuals to mobilise their resources and public support base, to catalyse leadership, and to exert pressure on political processes surrounding issues of concern to global civil society, such as global poverty, has been extraordinary.
Such impact has come at a price, however. It is now more difficult to call a ‘movement against poverty’ a genuine social movement that is shaped, driven and represented by those most affected by the issues. It is debatable whether the trade justice or global justice movements were ever social movements in this sense; and charities and development organisations have been criticised for many years for representing people living in poverty rather than providing them with a voice. However, they have sought to address such criticisms: the Jubilee 2000 campaign was perhaps the best example of a genuinely global campaign on poverty rooted in communities throughout the world that were directly affected by debt.
Rather than deriving power from those most affected by particular issues, those leading the current movements on poverty and environment are those able to command communicative power. This is power rooted in their access to and easy capacity to use media to deliver their message. It is not power that is rooted necessarily in a democratic legitimacy or one founded on – or with any kind of accountability to – a large movement of concerned or affected people. This has had the clear benefit of achieving an immense amount. However, there are obvious and major risks.
The first risk is that it is a fragile movement on stilts, with shallow support structures incapable of dealing with setbacks and shifts in political mood. Live 8, the massive global music concert coinciding with the 2005 G8 summit was an event focused not on raising money but on raising public awareness on Africa, featured barely a single voice from Africa, an event about Africa, not of or from Africa. Criticism of this feature of Live 8 has been well rehearsed, but it is perhaps emblematic of an event focused on the exercise of communicative power by those best in a position to exercise that power, rather than a deliberate attempt to share and invest others with such power. The opportunity of Live 8 was to provide the Make Poverty History campaign with a set of supporters and voices that could nurture it through the inevitable difficulties that lie ahead. Most opinion polls suggest that public support in the UK in particular for efforts to tackle poverty is very widespread, but also very fragile. While the main justification of celebrity-led campaigns is their ability to reach a large number of people, some evidence suggests that their impact is short lived and shallow. Research in Britain shows public concern about poverty in poor countries reached a high of 32%, in April 2005, prior to the G8 meeting in Gleneagles in June, and two years has declined to 22%, its lowest level since the study began (Darnton 2007).
The second risk of this style of campaigning is its de-politicisation and over-simplification of complex issues. The Commission for Africa (URL) set out a comprehensive analysis and strategy for action, including the need to tackle highly contentious political issues such as land reform and media policy, but the ensuing public debate focused on levels of development assistance. The need for simple media messages encouraged proponents, including development economists such as Jeffrey Sachs, to highlight the most practical and easily achievable actions (for example, the provision of bed-nets to malarial-affected areas). Complex issues, from macro-economic policy to often difficult policy choices that are required to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (many of which were outlined in the Millennium Declaration and the Report of the Commission for Africa) were lost in the public presentation of the campaign.
In the West, the media and public believe that increased aid to developing countries will and should achieve rapid results, and are ill-prepared for setbacks and slow progress. However sensible the strategy of funnelling development assistance through the national budgets of developing countries, it is likely to lead to news stories of mismanagement and waste. As indicated above, public opinion is fragile and it is questionable whether those who have exerted the most communicative power through the media are able to maintain public confidence and support in the face of negative stories about the use of aid, or slow progress in developing countries.
The third risk is that, parallel to the globalisation of civil society, a globalisation of NGO advocacy is occurring. Such a global process retains credibility and legitimacy when it is rooted in the experience of ordinary people in developing countries. Instead, professionalised advocacy organisations have evolved a development agenda and associated campaigns designed to exercise maximum communicative power through the media. This has clear advantages, in terms of raising the global profile of poverty-related issues, but it risks excluding the very people most affected by poverty. This tendency is reinforced by other factors. As development budgets become increasingly decentralised and budget support mechanisms become the norm, policy and financial priorities are set within developing countries (rather than at donor headquarters), which has clear advantages. But it has effects on how international NGOs operate in developing countries and, in turn, how the media agenda is shaped. By deploying their advocacy resources on issues and experiences within developing countries, in order to gain public and political attention, civil society organisations can dominate media coverage at the expense of indigenous public debate and journalism. In poor countries, public spheres are more limited than in industrialised countries (because the number of and audience for media entities is more limited, and budgets for investigative journalism are more scarce, for example) and such societies can be particularly vulnerable to agendas – even public interest ones – shaped by forces outside the country. If the media and public agendas are shaped more by those with the largest advocacy budgets and access to global celebrities or brands, rather than indigenous processes, this risks appropriating, rather than allowing the grassroots exercising of, communicative power.
This chapter has sought briefly and partially to outline some of the civil society relevant factors and trends that are shaping who has and does not have access to communicative power in the twenty-first century, and what is expanding and constraining public spheres internationally.
This chapter has sought to demonstrate the complex, contradictory and countervailing media trends shaping the character of democracies in the twenty-first century. It has not been its intention, despite inevitable biases, to reach definitive conclusions or specific policy recommendations or conclusions. The author believes, for example, in the critical role that commercial media can play in invigorating the public sphere, as well as community media and public service broadcasting; that globalisation and concentration of media can sometimes bring important benefits, although generally these are greatly outweighed by the problems; that the role of development agencies in strengthening the media is vital, but such support is fraught with problems and inherent contradictions.
The critical questions prompted by this analysis are whether there is a sufficiently serious, focused international debate on the state, role and importance of media and communication in twenty-first century society. If not, how, where, and by whom can that debate be held? Media organisations are often reluctant to engage in discussion about their role because they fear the consequences, for example, on their independence. Governments should not lead such a debate for the obvious reason that it is principally governments that should be held to account by an independent media. International governmental organisations face a similar problem, as debate about NWICO demonstrated. Civil society organisations should be held to account by the media too, and should be wary of making efforts that could be seen as muzzling it. The fact that so many trends are contradictory and complex in their impact, as well as so rapidly moving, heightens the need for civil society (among others) to track, understand and respond to them. This analysis suggests that civil society should focus not only on the media as the conduit for its messages, but increasingly as an enabler of democratic debate and dialogue, and as a critical shaper of the public sphere within which civil society operates. That implies the need for a more determined and informed engagement with debates on the future of the media by civil society. Developing better strategies and spaces for such engagement, and ensuring they do not threaten the independence of the media, is one of the most critical challenges facing democracy, civil society – and of course the media itself – in the twenty-first century.
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