Media and Democracy: Scene One, Take Two?
Somehow it seems that concern for the rights of (wo)man, now at the end of the millennium, is again as strong as it was in the 17th century, when the idea started to take root in the European culture. This view is especially strong from the Central European perspective, but major conferences and academic publications in the field reflect this as an important concern on the global level as well.
It is difficult to say decidedly why this concern is being expressed right now, but we would not be far wrong if we linked it to the process of change that has swept through the world body politic. This fundamental change has not been purely political, nor has it been confined only to the Central and Eastern European countries. The democratic model of government seems to have become the preferred option for countries on all the world's continents. Even if many have problems with its implementation, the majority now claim it as their choice.
A parallel development in the world society is the growing centrality of communication in the affairs of the people. Formulated in terms of the post-modern discourse, communication is said to have replaced the ideology of linear progress (Mattelart, 1995). The importance of information has been stressed so much that the arrival of information society has become a bit banal through so many repetitions. Nevertheless, the immediacy of information provided by international media1 networks has influenced not only the mode of politics but also the expectations of the people. The shelf life of news has consequently been shortened, together with the memory of the citizens. Still, the expectations of citizens for information play a crucial role in the political change towards a democratic model of government. The role of the media in answering these expectations is of central importance.
Taken together, these two developments are responsible for a revival of academic interest in 'old-fashioned' topics like the media and democracy. These topics have come into the focus of interest of authors in the last decade (or more precisely, since 1989), and it is not a coincidence that many begin their writing with sentences echoing John Keane:
'These questions have been badly neglected both in recent social science and in the high-pressured, breathless world of print and electronic journalism. ... almost nobody asks basic questions about the relationship between democratic ideals and institutions and the contemporary media' (The Media and Democracy, 1991).
The basic question is, of course, why the media are so important in a democracy? An answer is also needed to the related question of the character of these media. The contemporary belief in the importance of the media in a democracy has been shaped by their development in the Western European cultural context. There the media have developed hand in hand with the other institutions of modern democratic societies, like the representative government and universal general suffrage. Like the other institutions of democratic society, the media there gradually developed their independent status and role of the main institution in the public sphere. The basic impulse to the relationship between the media and democracy is provided by the 'freedom of expression' as the most fundamental idea underlying all others. The concept has been extended to the operation of the media, so that 'freedom of the press' has become a worthy cause championed by philosophers and politicians alike. An overview of the classic arguments in favour of the freedom of the press (Keane, 1991) gives an interesting insight into the values and cultural codes envisaged by their proponents. What Keane calls the theological approach links the freedom of press and print to the possibility of attaining virtue by human beings, which can only be accomplished when good is contrasted with evil. The concept of the public good is first found in the approach that bases its argument on the natural rights of individuals, where the natural right of free choice of religion is extended to the freedom of political choice that presupposes the freedom of expression as its basis. The utilitarian theory2 argues (borrowing the arguments from the liberal theory) for freedom of the press in its role of a counterweight to government, as a control and insurance of the effectiveness of other mechanisms (such as free elections). The freedom of the press is regarded as playing a part in insuring the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number of people' in accordance with the utilitarian doctrine, in their role of making public all the information relevant to public decisions. The concept of truth as the main goal of the free press challenges the concept of utility as lacking the importance of the concept of truth. Truth is regarded not only as that which is attained by the free discussion of citizens, but also as that which must always be challenged lest it degenerated into dogma (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, in: J.Keane, The Media and Democracy, 1991).
In accord with the general tenets of social theory, the democratic and liberal concepts existed much before they were incorporated into the real life of states and modern society. As the scope of democratic ideals changed through time, so did the concept of media freedom. Although some of the basic arguments remain universally valid, their realisation in the media system has proceeded differently in different countries. Also, freedom has been applied differently to the new and emerging media.
At the time when 'communication .. has become a yardstick by which the evolution of humankind is judged' (Mattelart, 1995:11), the 'new' Europe is also judged by this yardstick. The position of the media has not only been on the agenda of new political parties and civil movements in the post-1989 period, but is also in the centre of attention of international and regional integration organisations. In the context of the aim of all the countries of the region to join fully in the processes of European integration, membership in the Council of Europe3 has been widely sought. As media freedom is considered to be one of the main criteria for judging the state of their democratic attainment (which is the main prerequisite for membership in this organisation), a wide range of activities have been undertaken in the countries in question in order to reshape their media space in accordance with the accepted standards.
What are the current assumptions regarding the relationship between the media and democracy that operate as a standard against which a media system is judged? We are now beyond the point where one dominant principle is able to structure the beliefs of societies, and their complexity makes it impossible for presentday social scientists to attempt it (even if they so wished). Hence, the arguments for freedom of the press are more diverse. Also, freedom of the press is not the only standard expected of the modern media system.
The arguments may be grouped into two main categories: one in which the argument is predominantly linked to the rights of an individual human being (in his many identities, and as a member of a group), and the other that links the argument with the functioning of government. Both these groups of arguments are present in the contemporary media legislation. As an illustration of the first group, the extension of the 'basic right' argument is found in the case of minority (both ethnic and other) rights of free expression and communication. This argument is linked to the (liberal) spirit of democracy, and not only to its day-to-day operation. The second group of arguments would include those related to the concept of the need of the public to be informed and the freedom of political debate. This group of arguments would also include the arguments related to the plurality of the media and information sources, linked to the concept of 'informed consent', the basic principle of representative democratic government.
In spite of the fact that more or less the same arguments form the cultural basis for the democratic concepts of all the countries of the Western world, their media systems have developed in line with different kinds of logic. While the majority of the Western European broadcasting systems developed originally as public service monopolies, the American media space, including the broadcasting system, developed as a commercial system from the start. The reason lies in the different media policies employed in the two cases. The role of the media in fulfilling the democratic goal of society is therefore much influenced by the policy which the government employs. Whether this policy is influenced by market liberalism (arguing that the best plurality of choice of information is obtained by free market competition) or by the proponents of the public service media who base their argument on concepts such as quality and diversity of programming types, arguably the most important criterion for a media policy of the new democracies is to ensure that the media become part of the civil society. The concept of media freedom in presentday Central and Eastern Europe is mainly political. Their freedom is considered from the standpoint of the relationship of the media and the government, where the elimination of governmental intervention is in the first instance viewed through the concept of censorship. Censorship and registration laws of the 'leaden times' have been abolished and the print media have been completely deregulated4. The situation is more complicated with respect to the broadcasting media, especially television. Although censorship in the form of 'prior restraint' has been completely abolished, the importance of broadcasting for the shaping of public opinion still makes it a field of contested influence. Owing to its specific character, which requires the use of a limited natural resource5 (i.e., the frequency spectrum) for its operation, some sort of regulation is necessary in order to prevent the interference of communication signals. This is also the place where opinions are confronted on the preferred character of the media space. Although the governmental regulation of the frequency spectrum is not considered a breach of the media freedom6, it has a great influence on the future character of public communication in a society. This policy decides whether the communication system will only allow entry to the big players or place an emphasis on the concept of the public service media (sadly diminished in recent years). It also decides whether a host of non-mainstream opinion and ideas ever get a chance to be heard in the media system. This will depend on the possibility of existence of the non-commercial, non-public, and non-state media. The civil society alternative, with the presence of alternative choices, makes for a more tolerant, happier society.
Although this has been a 'hot' topic in the last few years, it is far from exhausted from the standpoint of social science research. We need to go beyond politics, both national and international, to the basic issues and relations of the (post)modern institutions. Only by trying to understand the makings of the emerging relationship between the media and contemporary societies will we be able to understand their importance for democratic development. The issues that confront us in the relationship between democracy and the media are still in need of a comprehensive and up-to-date re-construction.
In a world shaped by major international players, television networks and news agencies, the development of alternative communication networks - channels of civil society - is needed more than ever. It is here that Culturelink finds its place, and this is the reason why the effort is worthwhile.
- In this context, I speak primarily of television. It is perhaps not surprising that the state of regulation of access to international computer networks is not yet included in the scrutiny, as this is not yet on the agenda of the Western European countries. But the discussion is already under way in the US, and it is only a question of time when their importance will be correctly judged on the old continent. A first experiment with the use of electronic computer networks in a democratic procedure was performed recently in the US in the questioning of candidates in a local election.
- Although Keane groups this argument under the theory of utilitarianism, the concept of the public control over government is actually a concept stemming from the liberal theory, which has been incorporated into the democratic theory. The second group of arguments (basing the argument for free press on the basic rights) rests on the basic liberal principle.
- Although the countries in question are also hoping for membership in the European Union, and although the democratic character of the applicant country is one of the formal prerequisites for membership, the actual accession will depend much more on other factors, primarily the decision on the nature of the Union by the present members. The Council of Europe is an organisation with a different logic and scope, and it has already accepted as members most of the post-communist European countries.
- The question of the economics of publishing is another question, and because of the limited market potential the possibility still exists for 'undercover' governmental pressures in the guise of privatisation techniques, financial support, taxation decisions, and the sometimes still not fully dismantled monopolies of the printing presses and distribution channels.
- Although this still applies to the Central and Eastern European countries, owing to their old-fashioned technological infrastructure, the frequency spectrum is no longer a limitation in information exchange on the world scale. The microwave, the cable, the satellite, have all made interference an almost obsolete concept.
- Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the freedom of expression, recognises this right, which extends even to the absence of a requirement of the State to justify its licensing requirements or practices. Even the governmental broadcasting monopolies were found to be compatible with Article 10. (Appls. Nos. 3071/67 and 4750/71, in: Donna Gomien. Short Guide to the European Convention on Human Rights. Council of Europe, Strasbourg 1991, p. 81)
- Mattelart, Armand. 'Unequal voices', The Unesco Courier, February 1995, pp. 11-14.
- Keane, John. The Media and Democracy. Polity Press, Cambridge & Oxford, 1991.