In this era of fake news, alternative facts, falsification, my truth, their truth, your truth, it might quite rightly seem that the media have not, and cannot fulfill their obligation in society. So too is the persistence of the idea that media houses are mere representative organizations that exist to further the interest of ruling economic classes, powerful trade unions and political parties. On the other hand, there is the view that media, especially in democracies, are not primarily politico-centric with political leaders managing them but rather, that public communication and discourse is media-centric.
Former Prime Minister of Australia John Keating certainly recognized the symbiotic relationship, maintaining that in so far as Australia was concerned, “It is an industry that operates behind a cloak of secrecy and insider knowledge. It is riddled with nepotism, back-scratching and interlocking interests…” And that is certainly not in the interest of society and good governance for we expect zealous oversight.
But we should also concern ourselves with the leverage and blackmail potential that parties often exert over media organizations. In Argentina for instance, the ruling political party as government, has been accused of routinely manipulating the distribution of official advertising to limit free speech. While, for instance, the newspapers Clarín and La Nación account for 60 per cent of the readership in Buenos Aires, they receive approximately 2.5 per cent of government advertising. Other newspapers with a small fraction of the national readership are awarded far more official advertising. In Mexico, research has also shown that the ruling political party engages in soft censorship through the use of selective funding to media outlets via advertising designed to shape editorial and to push partisan agendas.
In its 2014 report, the World Association of Newspapers and Publishers (WAN IFRA), cited the use of paid content as a commonly used method employed by political parties (primarily ruling parties) to achieve their political agenda. Paid content then is used by media outlets and disguised as news. The public (readership) is then denied the honest and impartial reporting that one expects of professional journalism. But WAN IFRA also contends that in many cases, “arrangements formalized with media outlets go far beyond ad hoc bribes or payments and institutionalize biased coverage of crucial matters.”
But it is not just the management of media houses that have opened the door to charges of soft censorship and outright colonization, it is also the behaviour of some journalists in countries across the globe. So WAN IFRA notes that “Journalists, editors and media outlets are often offered—and sometimes seek—direct payments or other compensation to shape or slant their reporting. It is a form of soft censorship often used in countries where journalists are poorly paid as a way to favour and reward positive coverage.”
In addition to the above, WAN IFRA identified several other commonly used strategies including:
– Onerous licensing regimes;
– Ultimatums to fire vocal journalists – a form of government and powerful private sector and political parties’ pressure that may be very powerful and direct.
– The selective denial of access to government information or broadcast licenses. These strategies, according to WAN IFRA, are subtle and disguised under a veil of supposed legality. In this context, access to information acts and an open data policy would enhance the media’s capacity to resist such strategies as it would reduce the dependency on government for information which can be routinely obtained in the public domain.
– Restricting access to physical means of production. In June 2010, the government of India for example, stopped newsprint shipments from India for Nepal’s Kantipur group newspapers for over a week as retaliation for reporting critically on Indian Government activities in Nepal.
– Inspections and tax audits (used to harass media outlets unsympathetic to ruling political parties). The effect of this is the imposition of unnecessary costs, not to speak of the inconvenience that those targeted media outlets and / or individuals, must face. WAN IFRA cites the example of Turkey where tax investigations and fines were used to punish media outlets. In February 2009, Dogan Media Group, one of the largest media organizations in Turkey, was fined USD$500 million for alleged tax evasion and fraud. Many have contended that the action was motivated by the government’s irritation with the exposure by the one of its newspapers of governmental corruption. Dogan Media Group was forced to sell the newspaper to another company reputed to have strong ties to the government.
In The Price of Silence: The Growing Threat of Soft Censorship in Latin America, published in 2008, the authors argued that Latin America was defined by the “pervasive abuse by government officials who manipulate distribution of advertising for political and personal purposes—in clear violation of international and regional free expression norms.” Whether the soft or hard approach is employed, these and others are designed to solicit compliance from the media or worse, strangle the media, and in these ways thwart the democratic impulses.
It is therefore useful to speak of the media, Government, and business in the context of a colonizing mission. Ten years ago, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi described media colonization as “… a situation in which the media has not succeeded in becoming autonomous to manifest a will of its own and to exercise its main function, notably of informing people, but has persisted in an intermediate state, whereas various groups, not just the government, use it for other purposes.” Twenty years before that, Colin Seymour Ere contended that there have been very obvious historical associations between press and party systems and that in both democracies and pseudo democracies, there has been a tremendous effort made to control the media in general, and the public service broadcasters in particular. The obvious purposes are two-fold:
– to influence the public with respect to policy choices made by governments, ruling political parties and also opposition political parties or/ and
– to restrict media freedom in a context where the media have become critical of governmental and opposition politics as well as opening the behaviour of the private sector to examination.
The degree and the impact of such colonization varies depending on the nature of the party system, and research has shown this is more manifest in countries which are marked by one party domination.
In democracies, our concern should be with the tendency of state capture and colonization to engage in decisions in a non-transparent way. This is in contrast to partisan media outlets which operate transparently given that the public is generally aware that these organizations are associated with political parties. Where the media is colonized or captured by the political party, we are confronted with a situation where editors and journalists are subservient to the dictates of the political party. In a nutshell, party capture and colonization clearly operate as an eroding force on the media’s capacity to act in a professional manner. Worse, it often results in corruption as public resources are, according to researchers, traded for partisan loyalties with the attendant implications for the media‘s ability to perform its oversight role in society.
Like all other areas of governance, the relationship between the government, political parties, and the private sector must be monitored to ensure that backdoor attempts to interfere with media freedom and editorial independence are always exposed. But of course, the media is not always in a position to do so itself given its vulnerability and so much will depend on civil society watch dog groups. Doing so is difficult, as these abuses of power which WAN IFRA describes as soft censorship, remain largely invisible to the public, but cast “a long, insidious shadow on free expression.” An unmuzzled press is after all a public good.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)