Sunday, October 29, 2006

Book Review: Communicating Democracy

Patrick H. O'Neil's book does not provide any universal blueprint for media’s role in democracy, but its comparative case studies help capture the major issues and debates in democratization across the globe.

Communicating Democracy: The Media & Political Transitions. Edited by Patrick H. O'Neil, London: Thousand Oaks, 1999, 225p.

This book basically looks at two equations that have characterized comparative media studies in recent years: the relation between the media and the process of political transition or democratization, and the impact of globalizing communication technologies on democracy. Against this backdrop, and as is typical of transitional media systems, the authors in the book are occupied primarily with questions centered on freedom of the media, professionalism, media role in democratization, commercialization, and foreign investment, all relating to the structural dimensions of a society.

A flurry of research has been conducted on democratization since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet, few studies have actually focused on the nexus between media and democracy in the post-communist Eastern Europe, or in other former authoritarian regimes around the world, be they in the so-called Second World or the Third World. Patrick O’Neil, in his introductory chapter (“Democratization and Mass Communication: What is the Link?”) writes that the media systems in these transitional regions have not received adequate attention, despite the fact that the changes that have taken place within these places have been unprecedented. (p.3) The few existing studies on the subject have concentrated on a few countries or regions, especially in Eastern Europe or Latin America. Problems concerning the comparative study of this subject accentuate the questions that seek to identify the most appropriate approaches, and relevant theoretical frameworks. This book dwells on these crucial problems, and makes some recommendations.

The book, a compilation of articles by ten authors, provides a comparative look at the media and democratization in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. Although the authors approach the subject from the media-democratization theories largely developed in the U.S. and Western Europe, the book does not cover “developed” countries or regions, including Oceania or Australia. Most authors view the political transitions in the countries under study marked by a general move from a communist, totalitarian or authoritarian setup towards a more liberal, open and democratic system. The authors illustrate that the extent of democratization has been varied across the regions, but these transitions have also been usually characterized by changes in mass media and their relation with politics. Again, these changes have been varied, depending on the institutions, environment, culture, and history of the particular country or region. Hence the book is marked by diverse scenario in the field of media and democratization, a trend that a single book could hardly manage to analyze. Yet, O’Niel’s introductory chapter is fairly broad in its efforts to bridge the divergent gaps in theory, trends, approaches and problems in the field.

O’Neil highlights the limitations and flaws of the structuralist-functionalist approach to media studies that characterized the field until the 1980s. His argument is that this approach, grounded on modernization and dependent development theories, ignored the contextual, cultural and historical realities, emphasizing the Western-style political and social institutions, and elite power struggles. (p.3-5) He writes that our understanding of the role media play in the actual process of democratization is extremely poor and largely anecdotal; and the lack of a conceptual framework in many studies on the relationship between mass communications and political change, particularly in the normative discussions on how to democratize the media so that it could support a democratic order, have rendered the field problematic. (p. 6) However, this book does not prescribe any definitive conceptual framework, perhaps owing to the fact that media systems around the world, even in democratic nations, are not monolithic. Hence, the papers, which focus on varying media systems, could hardly recommend a single theoretical framework. In this regard, O'Neil’s observation that changes in the media during political transitions have to be examined in a wider context (p. 7) resonates with contextual realities. His argument is that each country or region is unique in its culture and history, so while studying a country’s media and democracy one must take into account not only the contemporary social, political and cultural structures but also the past political legacies, history, and media culture and media economics. The bottomline, then, is each individual country or region could be studied uniquely, looking for the defining, inherent, and not always obvious contextual features.

Differences, however, are accompanied by commonalities of issues. O'Neil outlines four features shared by democracies in transition. Firstly, the types of mass communication in use, and their resulting influences, such as the strength of the print media (less-centralized and hence less-controlled than electronic media) and their influence on the rate of literacy, could lead to greater democratization. Secondly, most transitional democracies confront some degree and form of control exerted by the state, manifested in censorship. (p.9) Thirdly, media ownership, state or private monopoly, becomes a debatable topic. Questions such as who funds media ventures, how advertisements are solicited, whether the media are subsidized or wholly owned by the government, and whether they serve as the instrument of both democratic consolidation and pluralization under such circumstances, become crucial. (p.10) And finally, the effect of media globalization is also a recurrent theme in transitional democracies. He writes that electronic or transnational satellite media, and foreign ownership issues cross cut many transitional democracies. (p.11-17)

In fact, these are recurrent themes throughout the book. Most prominently, the issue of media globalization is the subject of discussion in many of these essays. Media globalization is seen as both positive and negative. It is positive in the sense that with pervasive and instantaneous technological developments, the scope of freedom of information and opinion flow is dramatically increased. As a result, censorship and state control over media content become more difficult (p. 11). The potential of foreign ownership to bring larger capital, refined skilled, and sophisticated technologies, and to introduce and solidify professionalism can also be an added bonus. However, it could also have a negative impact because foreign ownership could stifle the development of indigenous media industries and of civil societies.

The book is mainly divided into four sets of essays, devoting each set to the respective continent. The first essay generally focuses on the history and the changes in the media of the particular region, followed by a case study that examines and analyzes in detail the media system in a country from that region.

The first set of essays is devoted to Latin America. Elizabeth Fox (“Latin American Broadcasting and the State: Friend and Foe”) argues that media and democracy relationship in Latin American media have been different from other regions covered by the book. One distinct feature of the Latin American broadcasting, she writes, has been private control and commercial ownership from the very inception. This has resulted in the regions’ current monopolistic, and largely unregulated domestic media giants. Problems of political participation, cultural representation, wider accommodation among the different domestic actors like civil society and government, conglomerization, and weak enforcement of regulations persist. (p.36-38) Silvio Waisbord’s (“The Unfinished Project of Media Democratization in Argentina”) essay goes further and concentrates on the Argentinean experience. He writes that in Argentina media’s commercial interests have largely prevailed over state interests. However, he argues that the media’s excessive antagonism towards the government has ignored other forms of powers in society. (p.59)

The second set of essays focus on Africa. Robert Martin (“Notes on Freedom of Expression in Africa”) writes that the state of free expression in Africa, except in the country of South Africa, has continued to be dismal, owing largely to the perpetuation of colonial tradition of the control of free speech and free press. Even in a country like Nigeria, once a vibrant democracy, the media have become subservient to the military that took over the power in recent years. Louise Bourgault (“Nigeria: The Politics of Confusion”) argues that the Nigeria’s political economy, ethnic politics, and civil society have largely defined the role of the media there. He looks at media from a postmodern perspective, as weaving in and through events, uniquely patterning fragments of human history separated by time and space. (p.80)

The third set of essays concern Eastern European countries. Unlike Africa and Latin America, where democratization of media system has less often required conversion from state owned to privately owned media institutions, Eastern European countries share the legacy of inheriting the post-communist press. Owen Johnson (“The Media and Democracy in Eastern Europe”) provides a historical overview of the development of media in the region, their role in overturning the communist regimes, and in the continuing transformation processes. His core argument is that the relationship between media and politics in the region carries historical legacies of communism, such as allegiance towards the authority. Although the transitional movement carries specific characteristics due to the legacies of history and communism, the post-communist media, nevertheless, faces problems that are characteristics of Western media systems—commercialization, marketization, disconnection with the public (p. 121). His view, then, is that not only historical factors do have bearing on the role of media in democratization but variations within liberal market-oriented media systems can also influence media performance.

Richard Hall and Partick O’Niel (“Transitions, and the Media: A Comparison of Hungary and Romania”) examine this inconsistency in their essay. They argue that common typologies of media-democratic theorizing, such as ownership or political regime, do not always work. Hungary and Romania, both former communist countries, with seemingly identical media structures and characteristics, actually have different political and media cultures (p. 196). Hungary, he writes, had some elements of media independence and freedom even during the communist rule, while Romania did not. (p.144) He attributes this phenomenon to media and political culture of individual countries, suggesting that regime type alone does not determine the nature of media performance. However, he also notes that the past communist legacy of media control continues in the hands of even the democratic leaders who attempt to monopolize the media, or control it, if and when they can.

The final set of essays focus on Asian democracy and media. Unlike in other parts of the world, media’s relation with democracy in Asia has been consistently linked to economy, development, national identity and stability rather than freedom, liberty, and independence. John Lent (“The Mass Media in Asia”) writes that though South East Asian authoritative regimes managed to control the media for long, the media have begun to shed off their subservient roles since the Economic Crisis of 1996. In the past decade, even development dictatorship in South Korea has given way to genuine civilian democracy, and with that to an increasingly critical press. Kyu Ho Youm (“Democratization and the Press: The Case of South Korea”) writes that despite these remarkable changes, new problems such as deteriorating journalistic ethics, flooding media lawsuits, and diminishing public faith in the media have posed new challenges to the democratic media. (p.188-189) Youm notes that the Asian media’s role in democratization is affected by several factors, such as media concentration, media globalization, continuing subtle forms of control, commercialization, and corrupt political and economic practices.

The last chapter serves as an epilogue to the book. Here, Lance Bennett (“The Media and Democratic Development: The Social Basis of Democratic Communication”) observes that the new technologies have liberalized communication but the irony is that free and open communication has often generated more noise and cynicism than reasoned debate and stable participation in the newly democratized nations. (p.196). He argues that as the case of Hungary and Romania shows, familiar typologies for finding a theoretical pattern, such as regime type and ownership, are not adequate for the study of the subject in diverse environments (p. 196). Bennett writes that the media’s role and potential for democratization are far from transparent, and makes a policy recommendation regarding the regulation of media. The twin aims in a transitional system of achieving freedom and independence for the media from the state, and developing a democratic participatory media have created a sort of conflict in the objectives of the media. He proposes the formation of an independent communication commission that would pursue and administer the latter goal that may include the promotion of communication autonomy, pluralism, public participation in communication management, and limiting global media’s domination of domestic media. (p.204) Since ‘unregulated media systems are sure formulae for chaos and public disillusionment’ (p. 205), he believes that the creation of such commissions will provide a sense of direction and responsibility to the media. It is, however, debatable how feasible or effective such communication commissions would be given the power of partisan politics and vested interests in many new democracies to influence appointments, and also the lack of consensus among actors to reach any crucial decisions for the sake of change.

To conclude, the book does not provide any universal blueprint for media’s role in democracy, but its comparative case studies help capture the major issues and debates in democratization across the globe, and that almost at the risk of generalizing a wide range of trends. No doubt, the book is a valuable asset in the gradually expanding field of international comparative media studies.

Published in the Nepal Monitor, October 28, 2006