Just before the holidays I participated in a UN conference on the role of the public sphere in post-conflict societies. The one-day event, titled “Media and Communication in Peacebuilding” was organized by the UN Department of Public Information (DPI) in collaboration with the United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office.
In most of the post-industrial democracies of the global north there is a growing worry about the fate of newspapers. Many are dying or in trouble, including some venerable titles. Agonizing essays are being written about all this, and the issue is dominating more and more seminars on the future of democracy.
One can be forgiven for suggesting that the South African Broadcasting Corporation is a microcosm of South Africa’s changing political landscape. In a way, this correlation between politics and state broadcasting has always been the ‘curse’ of the SABC, the legally sanctioned provider of public service broadcasting in the country. Prior to the ‘blessing’ of the multiparty democratic elections of 1994, the ruling National Party used the state broadcaster to inculcate the ideology of apartheid or racial separatism. 14 years after ushering in a multiparty dispensation, there is a sense of political déjà vu in the operations of the SABC.
The operational chaos being witnessed at the SABC is indicative of the fast changing political terrain in South Africa. Under the SABC Charter, the SABC is governed by a board of directors. Board nominees are vetted by a relevant portfolio committee of Parliament.
As some of you will know, there are these spectacular palaces around the global north where 'quiet seminars' regularly take place, usually over the weekend. I call them quiet because they are not advertised or broadcast, and they usually involve influential players; above all, no participant gets quoted. Ditchley Park, just outside Oxford, in the United Kingdom is one of these spectacular settings. It is the seat of The Ditchley Foundation. Established by Sir David Mills in 1958, the Foundation brings together experts from around the world to discuss key international challenges/issues.
And so it came to pass that during the weekend of December 4-6 I joined others for a conference on Media and Democracy. It was first rate, and I learned a great deal. However, rather than give my personal impressions, I will yield to the voice of the current Director of Ditchley, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. I don't think I can improve on his masterly summary of the weekend. At the end, you will find the list of participants. Here goes:
Development economists used to argue that elections were THE best instruments of accountability. But events have overtaken that idea and now there are many, including Oxford economist Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, who are focusing on the limitations of elections: “If you have an uninformed citizenry,” Collier says, “elections just won’t work.”
Once articulated, it makes sense that the sine qua non of good government and economic development is an informed society. And on the face of it, getting critical news and information out to citizens should be an easier and easier task in today’s digitalized, networked and hand-held world. But Collier and others note that most media—across regions and on any platform: print, radio, TV or online—aren’t interested in serving the public good, because “there is no finance to that public-good role. Indeed far from there being finance for it,” says Collier, “there is actually a hostile environment to it….”
In certain circles, democratic governance is seen as something of a luxury in the developing world. What people really need are the basics: shelter, food, livelihoods, etc., the argument goes. Yet what frequently goes unsaid is the importance of democratic institutions and practices to such basics. Nowhere is this more apparent than during public health crises.
In the birthplace of democracy will be discussed the strengthening of a bastion of democracy. The 2008 Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) will be held in Athens, Greece, next week and will draw hundreds of people from around the world who promote, study, and work in the me
Each time I attend a meeting where public officials are gathered and the subject of the mass media comes up, the room lights up. The stories of deep frustration with the media simply flow out of them like melted butter out of a jug. The complaints are legion:
- Those terrible journalists distort my views.
- The media are instruments of terror...virtually.
- They don't get anything serious; they are lazy and uninformed.
- They are in bed with sinister forces, and corrupt proprietors.
- They are not to be trusted at all.
- As the discussion progresses, the authoritarian impulse comes out. You hear calls for strict regulation of the mass media in the particular developing country. Yes, the officials say, the media must be brought to heel, reigned in.
Much has been said lately about the prospects for global institutions to promote media democracy and good governance. The jury is still out, however. How can a diversity of trasnational actors, including intergovernment bodies, donors, UN agencies, civic groups and business, be effective? Are all actors equally positioned? If national governments retain power over key decisions shaping media environments, how do global actors manage to influence opportunities for media pluralism and participation?
Latin America offers an interesting petri dish to examine the germination of regional movements promoting media pluralism.
You are familiar, I believe, with the authoritarian objection to a free, plural and independent media system. Authoritarian leaders always say: at this stage in the development of our country we cannot afford a free press. Too dangerous, you understand, too disruptive. Let's secure national unity first, let's get rid of poverty, let's be as rich as the West, then we can talk about a free press. Or they deploy the cultural norms argument. This is Asia, they might say, and Asian values do not support imported notions like a free press, free speech and such nonsense. Others will say: this is Africa; we have to do what makes sense in Africa. A free press causes nothing but trouble. We can't afford that now.
Well, you can imagine my reaction when I read the following story in the New York Times of Thursday November 6: 'Malay Blogger Fights a System He Perfected'.