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Fragile democracy, volatile politics and the quest for a free media

A free media system independent of political interference is vital for democracy, and yet politicians in different parts of the world try to control information flows. Silvio Berlusconi has been a symbol of these practices for many years, but recently the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has been in the spotlight. The latter case shows that young and emerging democracies are particularly vulnerable to media capture by political and corporate interests because of their fragile institutions, polarised civil society and transnational economic pressures. However, we know very little about these young and often deficient democracies in different parts of the world. Most of the existing literature concentrates on the United States, Great Britain, or Germany, and their experiences are anything but universal. Most of the new democracies lack the socio-economic conditions and institutional structures that characterised the evolution of media in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Politicisation of the state represents one distinctive and often troubling feature identified in new democracies. ‘Business parallelism’ represents another common feature, with some media owners actively engaged in politics and in business at the same time. Media ownership in these countries is quite fuzzy and not sufficiently transparent. Journalists are often underfunded, poorly trained, divided and disoriented. All this makes it difficult for the media to act as independent and unbiased providers of information.

Numerous deficiencies in democratic structures make it difficult for the media to perform properly. A weak state, hegemonic and volatile at the same time, dysfunctional parties, and unconsolidated democratic procedures, all lead to media capture by political and corporate interests. Continuously changing institutional structures produce uncertainty in the field of journalism and prevent the establishment of clear professional norms and routines. Political and journalistic cultures in the countries under consideration often reveal basic features of what a Polish sociologist, Piotr Sztompka, called civilizational incompetence: the lack of respect for law, institutionalized evasions of rules, distrust of authorities, double standards of talk and conduct, glorification of tradition, idealization of the West (or the North.) They lead to lax and non-transparent “Potemkin institutions,” “economies of favours,” hidden advertising (also known as “pens for hire,”), the practice of “compromat” (i.e. smearing political or business competitors), and ordinary corruption in some cases.

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Journalist by clasesdeperiodismo. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Many of the liberal solutions adopted or aspired to in the early years of democratic transition have been abandoned or undermined in the countries under consideration. Some governments in these new democracies adopted sophisticated new methods for controlling journalists and information flows, sometimes to the point where the demarcation line between so-called democratic and authoritarian regimes becomes blurred. Traditional forms of coercion and corruptive practices are not abandoned either, making it difficult for the media to scrutinise politicians and civil servants. It is not by chance that foreign investors have progressively abandoned the media field in some of the new democracies; they have seen their investments generating fewer and fewer profits, while pressures from politicians and governments have become more intrusive.

That said the media are not just innocent victims of political and economic manipulation. Rather than acting as an independent watchdog and provider of non-biased information, they have often sided with their business or political patrons, indulging in propaganda, misinformation, or even smears. Manifestations of journalists’ intense or even “intimate” relationships with politicians and media owners abound. Informality prevails over formal normative and procedural frameworks and those informal networks are maintaining and even increasing their importance.

The media and democracy condition each other. Democracy cannot thrive without a free and vibrant media, but the opposite is also true. Democratic deficiencies make it impossible for the media to function properly. Examples of these corrupting interdependencies abound in new democracies, blurring the line between democracy, autocracy and despotism.

However, despite all the deficiencies and problems new democracies reveal the persistent quest for transparency, for equal treatment under the law, for plurality and independence in the world of the media. Media freedom may well be compromised by vested economic interests, political manipulation and cultural habits, but it remains a cherished value in all the countries under consideration.

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