Friday, August 18, 2006

Book Review: Media & Democracy in Asia

Nepal's experiment in democratic media received a heavy jolt in the past few years. This book, published in Singapore, helps to contextualize that experience regionally, and historically.

Media & Democracy in Asia. An AMIC Compilation. Singapore: Asian Media Information and Communication Center. 2000, 250p.

This book, Media & Democracy in Asia, is the product of a conference hosted in September 2000 by Asian Media Information and Communication Center (AMIC) and Fredrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), a German non-profit foundation. Although the title of the book suggests that the subject of inquiry is Asia, it is mainly focused on South East Asian countries of Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, India, and Pakistan.

Coming after the economic crisis of 1997, the book offered some valuable insight into the debates and directions in the field of media and democracy in the region. The papers, presented by an array of experts—scholars, media professionals, policymakers, activists, and government officials— attempt to illustrate that “the link between media and democracy is more than casual. It is more often casual.” Not surprisingly, like in much of the scholarship on democratization with oriental connections, the book is largely characterized by the dichotomy between the so-called Asian value of responsibility and the Western value of freedom.

The overwhelmingly normative work is devoted to discussing whether free media are a precondition for the development of democracy, or whether the development of democracy leads to the emergence of free media. The contributors suggest that the question is not which school of thought is right, rather to what extent each school of thought is right, and whether a compromise can be reached in the Asian context. However, the articles in this volume also devote considerable space to discuss the historical and cultural differences and commonalities in the region.

The 19 articles broadly capture the continuum of media development in the region: at one end of the spectrum are the vibrant media systems such as India, and Philippines, and Thailand with other increasingly democratizing countries in the middle, such as Indonesia, Cambodia, and Pakistan; followed by authoritarian systems, such as Singapore and Malaysia at the other end. The first two and the last two chapters in the volume discuss the conceptual and theoretical debates about media role in democracy. The rest of the chapters are devoted to country profile and commentaries.

The opening two chapters discuss the Asian context of media role in democratization. The volume opens with a welcome address from Erfroed Adam (“Media and Democracy in Asia”) of the FES. Highlighting media support programs aided by FES in the region, he calls for a balance between political change (democracy) and economic change (globalization). These two developments, he argues, show that change is not one-dimensional, and that often it can be rejected by the public (p.2). Hence, the need for the media to play a role in facilitating or interpreting this change. But he writes that first the media should reform themselves. He is particularly concerned with the growing media concentration and monopolization, commercialization, cultural erosion, digital divide, lack of media professionalism and ethics, and government control or censorship.

Simon Tay (“Democracy and the Media in ASEAN and Asia”) appears enthusiastic about the future of democracy in the region. He points out that democracy is now increasingly a factor in the post-crisis Asia, as never before; that democracy will complicate governance within the states and relationships between the states of the region, that media can both assist and detract in a country’s and perhaps the region’s transition process. Like Adam, he sees the need for the media to reform themselves, for the media are themselves in a stage of transition (p.12). Tay also points out that there is no such single Asian media model, the picture is varied, and that since the crisis the subordinate role of the press has come into question.

The last two chapters provide a western perspective on media role in democratization. In chapter 18 (“Democracy and the Press: The Reality and the Myth”, p.211-16) John Merrill raises doubts about the ability of the media to promote democracy. He argues that the press has other priorities, such as entertaining the people and making money, and that it gives “scant aid to the democratization of a country.” He believes that democracy, if it develops at all, develops from the roots of the society. However, he asserts, that every country must develop its own way and provide a political system that best reflects the realities of its own culture. Merrill’s opinion is shared in part by Michael Kunczik in his rather detailed article (“Media and Democracy: Observations from the Europeans Perspectives”, p.217-48). He looks at the media-democracy relationship from various Western trends--Marxist perspectives, the historical struggle for press freedom since the late 15the century, normative theories of the press (Four theories of the press: authoritarian, libertarian, the social responsibility, and the democratic participant theory), journalistic roles (objective, active, neutral, mediator) and argues for political and commercial independence of the media.

Broadly, the 8 countries examined in the volume can be grouped into three different categories: those that are vibrant and have embraced the western model of freedom, those that are in transition toward greater freedom, and those that espouse relatively controlled and responsible media system.

India, the Philippines and Thailand, more or less, fit in the first category. With the exception of a brief period in 1975-77, India’s press has enjoyed full freedom since the independence of the country in 1947. Sunanda K Dutta Ray writes that in the early years following independence, the media took their job as a public mission, and voluntarily remained subservient to the government. However, in the subsequent decades the symbiotic relationship between politics and the press has taken several turns, from close allies to ferocious foes. Also, the extremes of poverty and wealth have affected public access to media. Television and the new media have further democratized communication, but it is only the print media in India that have contributed to political participation and exchange of ideas. The Indian press, writes Ajit Bhattacharya (“Rise and Decline of the Democratic Press In India”), is one of the freest in the world yet it faces many of the same problems that persist in the region, such as increasing trend toward concentration, commercialization, the media’s hostility towards media reforms, and the challenges of balancing the long-held responsibility of sustaining national unity of a culturally and linguistically diverse country with the expanding business interests (p.66-71).

The Philippines’ media is back-dropped by a long history of governmental control, especially under Spanish, American and Japanese colonial rules, and then the repressive martial law (1972-1986). The nation’s media appear vibrant and free but are also accompanied by a range of problems. Glenda M. Gloria (“Media and Democracy in the Philippines”) lists slow electoral reforms, harassment of media from government and organized groups, media concentration and commercialization, media corruption, pre-occupation with expose-and-oppose type of reportage as some of the major vexing problems. However, Higino A Ables (“Country Report: Philippine”) writes, the 1986 military revolt that brought power to the people and a democratic constitution, has given way to an increasingly democratic media, and that the mass media have never been stronger than at present in relation to the government (p.161). Thailand is another example. Prangtip Daorueng (“Media and Democracy in Thailand: A Journalist’s Experience) writes that the Thai press now enjoys “concrete freedom” (p.203), and that several steps have been taken toward the development of media infrastructure, such as drafting liberal media policies and establishing training institutes. The media’s role in promoting free market economy has been acknowledged, but commercial freedom remains a challenge to the media.

Indonesia, Cambodia, and Pakistan are seen geared towards greater freedom. Abdul Razak (“Role of Media in Promoting Democracy”) provides a brief history of politics and media in Indonesia, and cites some of the major problems for democratization since the 18the century when the country was colonized by the Dutch: extreme cultural, ethnic and linguistic polarization, continued wars in earlier part of the century, political factionalism, partisan press, and a loyal press during the “guided democratic rule of President Soekarno. M Alwi Dahlan’s (“The Indonesian Experience”) case study of the interaction between government and the press in the context of Asian crisis provides a focused look into the contemporary democratic role of the press in Indonesia. He shows that the Indonesian media is undergoing an ideological transformation following the crisis. Media control, and growing demand for mass media are things of the past, and media reform is the next stage. Analyzing the various political, cultural, and economic factors that contributed to the crisis, he calls on the media to report on business ethics, rule of law, corporate morality, and promote good governance, transparency and public participation in policy issues (p. 94).

The third and the fourth chapters explore the chaotic political and media history of Cambodia. The controlled environment during the French colonial rule until late 50s, devastating civil war during the early 70s, and democratic reforms following U.N. interventions in the 80s have largely shaped the history of Cambodian media. Today, Sekh Barisoth (Country Report: Combodia”) writes, the press enjoys full freedom but their role in democratization is quite limited. He blames the “paternalistic” leadership (p. 29) for the poor performance. He calls for a responsible partnership between the government and the press, because he believes that democracy and development cannot be realized unless they work together. Lor Chandra (Media in Cambodia’s Emerging Democracy) cites factionalism, political patronage, lack of journalistic skills, culture of intolerance and violence against media professionals as the main obstacles to the democratic process.

Jehan Ara (“Country Report: Pakistan”) traces the history of the press in Pakistan and analyzes current trends. He writes that initially Pakistan enjoyed a free press for a year since independence in 1947, but practiced violent control of the press under military rule for many years. The military rules, coupled with instable and short-lived democratic governments, poverty, illiteracy, military ownership of the press, corruption, and cronyism only worsened the prospects for democracy. However, he notes, under the current military ruler, the press has enjoyed relative freedom. Nisar Ahmed Memon (“Pakistan, Media and Democracy”) adds people’s political apathy, sensationalism, provincialism, and religious fanaticism as other hurdles to democratic media in Pakistan.

Malaysia and Singapore represent the controlled media system. Mustafa K Anuar (“Country Report: Malaysia”) and Hoo Ban Khee (“Media and Democracy In Malaysia”) discuss the British colonial tradition of press censorship, contemporary government control, draconian media laws, media ownership by partners of the ruling coalition, racially motivated press, media concentration, and efforts to control the Internet as the hindrances to the democratic process. They write that the state demands full loyalty from the press, and the “Asian values” of responsibility have been promoted and enhanced through development journalism, aimed at building the nation, and maintaining social harmony.

Singaporean system is also antithetical to the western model of free press. Like in Malaysia, the emphasis is on responsibility, order, and nation-building. With massive economic growth over the years, the media are now more preoccupied with the issues of the business communities and civil society in general, rather than the government and political structures. Ooi Giok-Ling’s (“Country Report: Singapore”) notes that the increasing prosperity is accompanied by growing demands for freer press, and the advent of the Internet has given new meaning to this desire (p.192). In Ivan Lim Sin Chin (“Media and Democracy: A Viewpoint”) words, the main constrains on democratization include the dominance of one party system, media indifference to opposition parties, and limited choices in terms of content.

The compilation provides insight into South East Asian media in general and the eight countries discussed above, in particular. In terms of approach, the contributors look at the media from a macro perspective, mainly focusing on structural and institutional level, elite compromises and conflicts, and competitions. The extended discussions on the historical and cultural roots provides a solid background to each of the democracies, and the accompanying commentaries provide depth and breadth to the issues thus making the book useful for both novice students and advanced scholars. At best, the book is quite successful in showing the interaction between media and politics in these countries over the years.

There are few editorial lapses as well. The book lacks consistency in citation. It also lacks thematic organization, and despite its title tends to ignore the fact that “Asia” also covers other countries such as Bangladesh, China, Japan, Korea, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. The articles indicate that media studies in the region is still in a formative, conceptual, definitional stage, with much of the discussion focused on the idea of press freedom, independence, media responsibility, and ethics. This points to the need to diversify approaches to media studies. This volume’s focus is much on traditional media. New media such as the Internet may have far reaching implications for democracy in such high tech countries such as Singapore and Malaysia.

The contributors do not provide a broad methodological variation. They take mainly a combination of historical, legal, and policy research approaches, and to some extent, critical analysis. There is a need to look at the various facets of media-democracy relationships, such as finding out empirically through content analysis or textual analysis how the media have been covering issues and events rather than heavily depending on personal opinion or experience, though these may be valuable in many instances.

Published in the Nepal Monitor, August 17, 2006.