There are places in the world that appear to be democratizing. Their governments claim to be working toward institutionalizing a free press. But authoritarian control can still be imposed behind the curtain of make-believe. Let me share a real-world example from a country that shall remain unnamed.
A colleague in international development, let’s call him Abdul Kanak, is originally from a self-professed newly-democratizing Asian country. We met up for coffee recently, and he told me about how things really work in his country’s media sector. Having worked as a journalist before moving to the United States, Abdul experienced firsthand how the government effectively controlled the mainstream news media and its coverage of political issues. Two forces worked in tandem to create the conditions for control. First, concentration of ownership among privately-owned news organizations. Second, the placement of cronies in positions of influence within the newsroom.
In Abdul’s country, there are less than five private television stations which enjoy national scope and dominate the news industry. They were bought up, over time, by one media conglomerate (which also owns a large number of newspapers). Although each station maintains its own news division, they all answer to one executive news director.
Abdul worked for the news outlet of the oldest privately-owned TV station. He disclosed that a few years back, when a new head of government had assumed office, a staunch ally and former press secretary was appointed news director of the private station. After this happened, when reporters met with their editors after covering an event in the field, they were told which soundbites to use, which not to use, and what to write in the script. This, of course, resulted in slanted coverage invariably favorable to the sitting government.
Did these arrangements have the desired effect? According to Abdul, people started distrusting the mainstream news. Citizens with higher education levels sought alternative sources of information, which caused the rapid growth of blogs and online news outlets. At first, the government cracked down on these outlets, raiding offices, taking down websites, and arresting bloggers. But a large number of people spoke up against these activities and called for the boycott of media outlets perceived to be government mouthpieces. In response, the authorities initially modified their draconian behavior and stopped the arrests and intimidation. The government launched campaigns in the hope of building public support behind its programs. But it didn’t give up its influence within the newsroom. It’s also sad to note that recently, bloggers have again come under attack, fined for "offenses" such as improper use of the internet to being charged for sedition.
The government response has been mixed. On one hand, it has apparently learned that even the powerful need to compete in the public sphere. On the other, it insists on controlling the mainstream news media by refusing to let go of the puppet strings. To be sure, campaigns have their place in the public sphere. But to be truly effective, they should be coupled with efforts toward increasing citizen competence and sincere attempts at public participation for more informed policymaking and improved public service delivery.
And the news media’s true potential should be recognized and appreciated. Sources of information and analysis are most effective when perceived to be legitimate, trustworthy, and credible. Abdul put it well: “The people are not stupid. The more these news divisions are run the way they are, there will continue to be a backlash.”
Photo credit: Flickr user Phillie Casablanca