Having spent a considerable part of my professional and academic life thinking and writing about the public sphere, it still amazes me how nebulous this concept is, and how difficult it is to be clear about what we mean when we talk about "the public sphere." Academics write multi-volume books on this issue, and justifiably so: The public sphere is a constitutive element of democracy. Without it, citizens would not have a space in which to develop and articulate "public will," and no means to influence political decision making. As Sina Odugbemi writes in Governance Reform Under Real-World Conditions: the democratic public sphere is a "structural force in politics - a critical part of the architecture of good governance" - and good governance is crucial for the elimination of poverty.
CommGAP's motto is "Towards a New Agora" - towards a new democratic public sphere. Building a new public sphere requires that we know what we're talking about in the first place. This is, more or less surprisingly, not at all clear. There is a problem with all things "public:" public isn't tangible, it isn't locatable, it isn't manifest. "The public" is an imaginary group of people, and the public sphere is an imaginary place. It is a space constituted between the state and the private sphere of citizens, households, and private corporations. It is most of all a communicative infrastructure. This infrastructure allows the free exchange of information and ideas, deliberation on issues of public concern, the formation of public will, and the transmission of public will to official authorities. Authorities then have to be accountable for their actions, again through the communication channels of the public sphere. It is helpful - although rather libertarian - to look at the public sphere as if it were a market, the notorious "free marketplace of ideas." The goods of the public sphere are ideas, and the currency is public opinion.
Understanding the public sphere as communicative infrastructure brings us back to the role of media systems, which has been addressed several times on this blog. In our day and age, communication depends on technology. Communicative structures are to a large part (though by no means entirely) a matter of technological infrastructure, be it traditional mass media or new information technologies. If we accept that a democratic public sphere is central to good governance, development efforts need to look at media systems as an institution of the public sphere. Two-way communications between citizens and public officials constitute the public sphere, therefore we need free and independent media systems that facilitate this two-way flow of communication. Media systems for a democratic public sphere are a means for citizens to build public will, and for public officials to be accountable for their actions. Free and independent media systems are based on nonpartisan ownership and ownership regulation, transparent media legislation, and a strong journalistic profession. Promoting good governance means promoting all of the above - it means promoting free media.
Photo credit: flickr user wallyg