With press freedom on a worldwide decline, implementing successful media reform remains a key challenge for media development practitioners today.
But many working in the field have come to realize that media and governments must work together to create independent news environments where they are lacking.
“Media needs government, and government needs media,” said media and communications consultant Marguerite Sullivan at a recent panel hosted by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA).
The panel examined topics discussed in CIMA's latest publication, "The Politics of Media Development: The Importance of Engaging Government and Civil Society," by Paul Rothman.
Sullivan explained that in order for media development to work as it should, government officials and media development donors must work together to create a politically enabling environment.
In this environment, the public sector doesn’t just pass laws that support the media. Government officials must take an active role in facilitating sustained communication with citizens. Some country leaders who remained vocal supporters of independent media and used their power to promote press freedom include Poland's Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Indonesia's Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie and South Africa's Nelson Mandela, the CIMA report states.
But how can media development practitioners encourage governments to take a stronger role?
“I think there’s a simple answer,” Sullivan said. “Get governments to understand why it’s in their self-interest to do so. Providing citizens with adequate info on government priorities and programs can help ensure the legitimacy of the government and stabilize the political situation.”
The CIMA report also cites Uruguay as a prime example of successful media development. For years, Uruguay's media operated under strict laws lingering from its years of military rule. Beginning in the 1990s, development practitioners and reform leaders worked alongside left-wing opposition parties to convey media as a human right to Uruguay's ruling party. The coalition of opposition parties won the 2004 elections, allowing Uruguay's congress to pass landmark media legislation that guaranteed press freedom, such as the Audiovisual Communication Services Law, in the years since.
If the solution is so simple, why aren’t more governments pursuing it? The answer, Sullivan said, comes not just from a lack of understanding — it also stems from a lack of capacity.
“Too often, government communication capacities lag behind those of the media,” she said. “Too often, government officials just don’t get journalism basics. There’s no plan for communication, and there’s no one or too few people to do it. There's no intragovernmental coordination of policy and messages, so citizens are left confused on what the government is trying to do on an issue.”
To overcome these challenges, Sullivan said change must take place from the ground up. Media development practitioners can facilitate mutual understanding by holding meetings between journalists and government officials. At these meetings, plans for two-way systems of communication between the government and citizens can be more effectively created.
Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed, stressing a need for development donors and implementers to think and act politically.
“It means focusing very closely and carefully on what the processes of change are and how developmental change occurs,” he said.
In contrast to an apolitical approach, which involves giving money or media training to a country without much direct involvement, the political approach recognizes that these processes of change are complicated, Carothers explained. It requires acknowledging that there is no such thing as a neutral agenda when it comes to media development.
Yet thinking and working politically isn’t just about understanding — it also requires action.
“It means having a more complex toolbox that you apply in more complex ways,” Carothers said. “You don’t just come in to a country and say ‘We have a capital of knowledge or money to give’ — instead, you think of yourselves as agents of change and what it’s like to be part of processes of change.”
To read the full text of CIMA’s report, “The Politics of Media Development: The Importance of Engaging Government and Civil Society,” click here. To view the full panel discussion, watch the video below:
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via IAEA Imagebank.