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The Role of Mass Media in Transitions to Democracy

With many rule of law and democracy programs incorporating projects that focus on popular culture and the media in developing countries, I found this new report by the University of Oxford pretty interesting. The paper, “Media and Democratisation: What is Known about the Role of Mass Media in Transitions to Democracy”, looks at Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East to understand what role media has had in shaping democracies and creating institutional change. Check out the excerpts below!

Credit: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP

Credit: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP

The role of the media in the process of democratisation has been greatly underestimated partly because the literature on political science and communication is largely fragmented. Nevertheless, it is difficult to identify a direct relationship of cause and effect between the media and democratization as the available empirical evidence is anecdotal and so cannot be subjected to rigorous empirical testing. For both media and democratisation scholars, the mass media are regarded as one of the key democratic institutions vital in improving the quality of the electoral system, political parties, parliament, judiciary, and other branches of the state, even civil society, and safeguarding their democratic performance.

The Challenges in Transforming Media into Democratic Institutions

Transforming the media into fully democratic institutions is a challenging task mainly because (1) the relationship between government and the media is highly ambivalent, (2) reformed media institutions will still retain elements of the logic and constraints of their predecessors, and (3) journalists in the newly transformed media organisations will still hold values that are rooted in their professional life under the old regime. This transformation is often achieved through liberalization of the media so that an ideal media environment includes two media sectors: a market-led media sector and a non-market sector.

As a challenge to legislative democratisation, emerging democracies are thought to develop unique types of media systems that differ significantly from those in established democracies, and journalistic professionalism is argued to be embedded in the wider cultural traditions of a given country and to reflect the needs and expectations of audiences. This creates several – and larger – gaps between the ‘ideal’ and the reality of journalism than in established democracies. Katrin Voltmer noted that: the media in many new democracies often seem to lack the qualities that would qualify them for playing a key role in promoting accountability and inclusive politics. They are frequently criticized for remaining too close to political power holders to be able to act as effective watchdogs; political reporting is regarded as too opinionated to provide balanced gatekeeping; while commercial pressures on news coverage often encourage an overemphasis on the trivial and popular at the expense of serious and sustained attention to international affairs and complex issues on the policy agenda.

When Media is Most Effective

In the pre-transition period, the media may play a witnessing role, as well as a legitimising role for the changes taking place before the regime loses its hold on power. It may also exert direct pressure and constitute an actual ‘trigger’ for democratization. During the transition period, the media may set the agenda for political debate, offer alternative interpretations of the ongoing events, and create support for emerging political parties. While previous research suggests that the media tend to be most supportive of democracy in the early stages of democratization, their performance is vulnerable to political control which manifests itself in highly opinionated and politicised reporting during transition phases. The media’s role in the early stages of democratisation can be very influential because of its potential impact on political decisions and political orientations.

The media tend to be most supportive of democracy at a particular political conjuncture, when they are themselves emerging from political control, are strongly identified with the process of democratization and, moreover, benefit from the public’s enormous hunger for news and for political change. At an earlier ‘stage’, their contribution will inevitably be more restricted but to the extent that they offer alternative accounts of social and political reality and even that they draw people into a sense of shared public space, they can be seen as helping to pave the way for democratization. As the process of transition approaches the consolidation stage, the media’s contribution becomes more equivocal. When deprived of state financial support and facing a public whose news appetite has been blunted by growing cynicism, they increasingly become prey to the pressures of commercial survival.

Media and Institutional Change in Central and Eastern Europe: ‘Lessons to be Learned’? 

One of the main reasons to focus on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) when examining the roles of media in the process of democratisation lies in the fact that this region, for the most part, can represent more or less ‘complete’ case of democratisation. We have witnessed the beginning, middle, and end of transition as many of the countries of this region have not only moved away from authoritarianism towards democracy but have succeeded in doing so (e.g. with membership in the European Union).

Rapid commercialisation of the media after 1990 has been one of the most frequently quoted reasons for the apparently flawed democratic performance of the media in the CEE countries, particularly in those where privatisation of the news media sector took place at an early stage and to a greater extent while the end of censorship, the diminishing of direct political control, and the overall pluralisation of the media sector created conditions for the media to effectively aid the democratisation process and the creation of the democratic public sphere, the simultaneous process of replacement of ideological control with market‑driven imperatives has quickly made the goal of serving the public interest secondary to the search for profit. Still, not all authors share such a negative perspective on the development of the media’s democratic roles in the region.

As one of the most important achievements of the media, Gross quotes ‘the creation of a public climate of competition between a wide range of competitors for political and economic power or for cultural predominance’. Another positive effect can be seen, according to him, in the media’s informative role, since ‘the media also brought to the fore new issues, new parties, new leaders, and potential leaders, new ideas and possibilities, and contributed to the creation of varied new nongovernmental groups, which is to say, civil society’. His position can be read as supporting a notion that the media facilitate, rather than directly stimulate, the establishment of democratic institutions: The Eastern European media’s most significant contribution to the initial phases of democratization in 1989–2000 has thus been to serve as examples of and conduits for the newly available political, economic, and cultural options, on the one hand, and as facilitators of political, market, and cultural competition, on the other. 

Media’s Interdependence on Other Democratic Institutions 

Quoting Morris and Waisbord, Marta Dyczok summarises that ‘there seems to be an emerging consensus on the fact that “paradoxically, the media’s ability to uphold democratic accountability eventually depends on the degree to which political institutions have adopted democratic structures and procedures.”’ The case study by Stetka (2013), looking at the achievements of investigative journalism in the Czech Republic, found that for the fight against corruption, to be successful, there has to be a joint effort of various accountability institutions, including civil society, the judiciary, and the prosecution authorities, as media pressure itself may not be enough to enforce accountability and safeguard systemic changes.

The Role of Media in Latin America

Drawing on empirical examples of public scandals from several countries of this continent, including Brazil, Colombia, Peru, or Argentina, one author argues that ‘accountability hinges on the combined actions of a network of institutions rather than on the solitary actions of one organization’. However, even within these limits, the role of the press is indispensable in exposing issues which either the state wants to keep secret or which involve corruption of public officials. In those scandals he finds, ‘the press has unquestionably helped to raise accountability by publicizing information and actions that resulted in “throwing the rascals out.”

According to Sheila Coronel, Latin America represents ‘perhaps the most instructive case’ of the watchdog role of media, as it is ‘widely acknowledged that sustained investigative reporting on corruption, human rights violations and other forms of wrongdoing has helped build a culture of accountability in government and strengthened the fledgling democracies of the continent’. The media are playing a central role in exposing abuses and keeping governments in check’, not just by damaging the political capital and reputation of public officials but, subsequently, also by triggering ‘procedures in courts or oversight agencies that eventually lead to legal sanctions.’

Argentina has, however, portrayed the current state of this genre in a less optimistic light, observing that, after two decades of being part of the mainstream, ‘watchdog press had lost its bite by 2005’, which, was caused by the economic crisis as well as by the changing organisational culture of the news media, favouring corporate interests. This trend of gradual diminishing and weakening of investigative journalism – has been observed in many Central and Eastern Europe as well, especially since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2007/8 which put news media organisations under unprecedented pressure and resulted often in the trimming of investigative departments. Such tendencies, revealing the fragility of the news media as an institution whose performance is tightly dependent on external economic conditions, further underscore the necessity to examine journalism’s role in fostering the democratisation process within the processes of commercialisation and tabloidisation of content which quickly followed the growth of media markets in the newly democratising countries have been viewed as obscuring and – at least partly – inhibiting the democratic roles the free media.

Based on the reviewed literature, one might plausibly argue that the contribution of the media to democratisation might well be at its strongest during regime change – including mobilisation against the old regime. In later stages of democratic consolidation, the media get often watered down by market pressures as well as by (newly emerging) political constraints.

Mass Media and Attitudinal and Behavioural Change during Democratisation 

The democratisation literature rests on institutional foundations; yet full democratisation is not realised unless citizens undergo socialisation to new values, attitudes, and behaviour norms of democratic culture. It is not unreasonable to think that the mass media play an important role in political socialisation for the citizens of countries undergoing democratisation. There are several reasons to expect this. One, as turmoil and periods of transitions exist, citizens are more likely to turn to the media as a source of reassurance and information. In turn, they are more highly subject to the effects of media in contrast to a ‘normal’ period in stable societies. Others offer two rationales for this expectation: (a) democratisation is a highly politically charged environment and so (b) there is an increased level of uncertainty associated with that period. This theory of media dependency leads us also to the conclusion that this heightened media use (and thus effects) will subside as countries reach certain levels of political stability and thus to media theories derived from – and designed for – stable, modern democratic societies.

Mass media can also play a salient role in democratising countries, because the requirements of democracy include certain habits, beliefs, attitudes, and values and the role of the media can provide insight into the development of a democratic civil society and individual political development. The responsibilities of democratic citizenship, while perhaps generally considered less acute in stable democracies, are heightened in the chaotic process of democratisation, in which the socialisation process is disrupted or limited and all institutions of politics, economics, and society are in a state of flux. Media are capable of producing changes in values, attitudes, and behaviours congruent with democratic citizenship (see the beginning of this section). Thus, ‘media can play an instrumental role in resocialization and modernization by teaching a new way of participating in politics and socioeconomic life and by encouraging new individual and national aspirations’.

Fundamentally, the study of mass media in democratising countries is an exercise of a different quality than the study of mass media in established democracies. To assume a simple and positive relationship between changes in the quantity and quality of information sources and enhanced freedom of expression on the one hand and successful democratisation on the other hand can be misleading. In sustaining this assumption, we learn little of the implication of changes to the local media landscape in transition periods, particularly during a time where information can be sought from many different sources such as the internet and extended social networks.

Media in Rwanda After the Genocide 

Examine a radio programme aimed at promoting independent thought and collective action in problem solving in post–‐‑genocide Rwanda. Using field experiments of broadcasts to randomly selected communities over one year, the data amassed by the authors indicated that, while the broadcasts were not effective in shaping listeners’ beliefs and attitudes, these same listeners were more resistant to directions and calls for obedience from the authorities and showed evidence of acting independently. Regardless of the mixed outputs of this research, the depth and breadth of data collection in such a project is hard to generalise.

Media in the Arab World

Greater political liberalisation, an expansion of national privatization programmes, and the diffusion of new communications technologies, have given the media a key role in the debate about Arab democratisation. These changes resulted in, among other outcomes, the relaxation of government controls over broadcasting, the creation of more autonomous radio and television corporations, and the abolition of some ministries of information. The emergence of a transnational media market has also intersected powerfully with cross‑national media professionalisation, whereas increased competition has compelled Arab broadcasters to diversify their programming. As research on Arab media audiences is still in its infancy there has been little evidence to support the assumption that the media have massive effects on Arab political opinions and behavior.

To read the full report, you can find it here.


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This entry was posted on November 1, 2013 by in Reports and tagged , , .

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