One of the foundational commitments of CommGAP is the belief that a national democratic public sphere is an essential and self-perpetuating part of the architecture of good governance. At the very heart of a democratic public sphere is a media system that is independent of government control and is both free and plural. It must be possible for a thousand flowers to bloom; it must be possible for a boisterous cacophony of voices to be heard. We believe that such a media system will be the grand forum for public debate and discussion on issues of common concern. We believe that such a media system will be a grand corrective of political misdeeds. We also believe that such a media system will help set the public agenda: what issues of common concern should each political community be aware of, focus on, and sort out? These three things constitute the potential of a free, plural and independent media system. Which explains why dictators and authoritarian regimes want the opposite: a media system that is under the heel of a narrow unaccountable elite. I have a simple rule: whenever a regime begins to muzzle the media I stop trusting that regime. Anyone who harbors a doubt about these things should please read John Stuart Mill classic text: On Liberty.
Having said that, it is important to point out that a commitment to the fundamental role of a certain kind of media system in securing good governance does not mean that one has to be blind to the weaknesses of any particular media system, even one that is plural and independent of government control. The media system is a system of intermediation. It is filters all the events and issues in a political community and focuses attention on only a few. It cannot report or cover everything. Not only that, media owners have their own agendas to pursue. Editors and pundits are human beings with ideological and value commitments of all kinds. As a result, that filter can and does distort; the prism can and does refract. In the field of international development, this fact often leads to a lot of frustration. You run into colleagues - I listened to a couple in the last few weeks with the World Bank - who attack the relevance of the media to development just because in one country or the other they have run into media systems where 'the real issues' are not covered and elite concerns dominate the agenda or sheer audience titillation is what preoccupies the media. All this is often the case.
Should that, however, be a reason for despair? I don't think so. In the first place, the weaknesses of the media system in any country in which one seeks to improve the quality of governance must be addressed. The diagnostic methods that lead to interventions to strengthen governance in any country must worry about the state of the public sphere, including access to information and the media system. Secondly, no country has a perfect media system, including countries in Europe and North America. Every media system is work in progress. That is why skilled media relations is an important of any development effort requiring public engagement. It is also why it is important to work out ways of engaging the public in debate and discussion beyond the media filter, beyond the media prism.
There is a story in the New York Times of Thursday March 27, 2008 ('Finding Political News Online, the Young Pass it On'), for instance, detailing how speeches by presidential candidates are being downloaded by millions of citizens or watched on YouTube in a world where most broadcasters will take only soundbites from these speeches. What this does is that millions of citizens get the full argument that a presidential candidate is presenting and they get to debate and discuss the arguments with other citizens, whereas the mass media will only present bits of the argument, is at all. But even if YouTube is not yet a dominant player in many developing countries, a media audit - that is, an analysis of how citizens receive information in any environment - always reveals how ordinary citizens can be engaged in debate and discussion around the major issues affecting their lives even without the mass media. Examples exist of countries where regimes had imposed total media control and yet challengers found ways of transforming public opinion and bringing about changes.
The overarching lesson: the distorting filter cannot be ignored; it demands both attention and creativity.
Photo Credit: Flickr user fdecomite