In this article, I trace media freedom back to its democratic foundations before demonstrating that private media ownership can be just as menacing to democracy as state censorship, suppression and control of the media; particularly when a line is not drawn between media freedom and property rights of media owners.
The basis of democracy is the participation of citizens in governance. There are several indispensable ways in which this participation occurs, such as during elections when citizens vote for leaders of their choice or when they offer themselves as candidates for leadership. In between elections, citizens participate in governance through public debates, petitions, protests or dialogue with their leaders. These modes of participation, among other democratic means, enable citizens to have a say in the decisions and actions of those they have elected to lead or represent them.
But then, for participation to be effective, citizens require information about relevant issues. When they queue up to elect leaders, the citizens will need information about the candidates so that they can make informed choices. They will also need information to enlighten their debates, petitions, protests or dialogue or to form and express their opinions. This information must be truthful or it will misguide the citizens’ participation. Imagine being informed about an important event taking place in Livingstone, when in fact that event is taking place in Chililabombwe. You would certainly have driven to Chililabombwe rather than waste time and money going to Livingstone, but for the false information you were given. A story is told about how some Zambians were cajoled into voting for UNIP in the independence elections in 1964 because they were promised ‘an egg a day’. In 2011, some people in rural Zambia were warned that if elected, late President Michael Sata would cast all old people into the sea. Ridiculous as this falsehood may sound, it may have swayed some voters. Some of the Americans who voted for Donald Trump did so because they genuinely believe he is going to build that wall along the Mexican border (I’m just as curious).
Therefore, truth is crucial if information is to guide citizens to correctly participate in the democratic process. Truth, however, is not easy to locate because there are usually competing claims to it. Thus, there are many theorists who suggest that to arrive at the truth, as many perspectives as possible should be admitted and interrogated within the flow of information and debates in a democracy. One of the thinkers of the mid-19th Century, John Stuart Mill, idealised what emeritus Professor at the University of Amsterdam, Denis McQuail, in his book Mass Communication Theory, describes as a ‘self-righting mechanism’ in which if both the truth and untruth are expressed and published freely, the truth will triumph. Of course, the realities of propaganda over the years will tick this off as utopia, but that’s an argument we can reserve for another day. Suffice it to say, the long and short of Mill’s theory is that freedom of expression, speech and opinion (and I would add freedom of information) are fundamental conditions that facilitate the search for truth.
In this pursuit of truth, democratic societies have always depended on the media as an interrogator and ‘common carrier’ of information and debate (or free expression, speech and opinion as it were). This is what makes the media so central to democracy. However, throughout history, the media has been a target of censorship and control from authorities and others wishing to circulate only information which serves their interests and limit media access only to those who agree with their views. Thus, the need for media freedom arose out of the desire to allow the media to freely investigate and circulate information as well as facilitate debates and access to, and of, divergent views. In short, media freedom is firmly rooted in democracy and is, therefore, an issue of public interest.
Nonetheless, the problematics of media freedom usually begin with its narrow definitions, which appear to insinuate that the government is the main, or even the only, actual or potential violator of the freedom of the media. The First Amendment to the US constitution, for instance, states that ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…’, thus effectively guaranteeing the freedom of the media from the state, but overlooking the media’s possible enslavement by the market, among others. There have also been anomalous interpretations given to the First Amendment which seem to suggest that media freedom has been won for its own sake. A related problem is that media praxis in the market place has time and again been characterized by the equating of media freedom with the property rights of media owners. These problems fly in the face of the primary purpose of media freedom, which is to enable citizens’ democratic participation. As a member of the 1947 Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, William Hock wrote: ‘Inseparable from the right of the press to be free has been the right of the people to have a free press…and of the two rights, it is the right of the public that now takes precedence.’ Media freedom is, therefore, clearly a matter of public interest and not a synonym of property rights of media owners.
State ownership and control of the media rarely sit well with democracy because the government and, before it, the church, have historically been the worst offenders against media freedom. That is why in Zambia and much of southern Africa, there has been protracted advocacy by media activists for reforms to guarantee media freedom by legislating against state ownership, control and suppression of the media. These are noble efforts. However, the fight for media freedom should not end here. When media freedom is taken to be synonymous with property rights of private media owners, its purpose for democracy becomes secondary to the interests of these owners. This results in media owners doing as they please with the media, pretty much the same way those who own a private jet, ranch or yacht do as they wish with their property, including reserving the right of admission. Furthermore, this ‘property rights’ approach has the effect of excluding journalists and editors who work in these media organisations from any entitlement to media freedom since they must do as the ‘property owner’ says. The consequence of this has been media that are partisan in line with the ideological, economic and other interests of their owners. The intellectual or professional judgement of journalists and editors is ignored in practice. Nevertheless, there is a view that rather than be controlled by media owners, journalists should enjoy the level of freedom akin to academic freedom because like faculty members, they are involved in the interrogation of information and knowledge (albeit in a slightly different way) and are obliged by their professional ethics to not only respect evidence and facts, but to also separate opinion from fact when they publish their content.
Those who have been around the media in Zambia long enough must have come across stories of media owners ordering staff not to give news access to individuals or institutions that were not in good books with these owners. The editorial line taken by some media outlets is often driven by personal relationships or grudges harboured by the owners, and sometimes by these owners’ worldviews, political dispositions or personal ambitions. However, this experience is not unique to Zambia. Under the heavy influence of baronial ownership, a partisan press has continued to be a hallmark of the British media landscape. Conrad Black did as he pleased with the Telegraph and other newspapers he owned. Lord Beaverbrook used his Express newspapers and the London Evening Standard to champion his political causes just in the same way Rupert Murdoch tilts the editorial line of The Sun and The Times to suit his Right-wing leanings or political/business interests of the moment such as when, in a rare twist of his allegiances, he commandeered his media empire to back the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour in an obvious exchange for policy favours (Generally, however, you’ve got to feel sorry for the Labour Party, whose main constituency, the working class, mostly read Murdoch’s The Sun, a paper staunchly allied to the Conservative Party). Even in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi used his large media empire in self-promotion to successfully become Prime Minister. Indubitably, media can express their opinion over issues, whether driven by the personal standpoints of the owners or not, but where the line is not drawn between fact and opinion, democracy is underserved. At this point I’m reminded of the reflections by Nelson Mandela when, in the throes of apartheid, he explained why he preferred to communicate face-to-face with people on the ground:
“…newspapers are only a poor shadow of reality; their information is important to a freedom fighter not because it reveals the truth, but because it discloses the biases and perceptions of both those who produce the paper and those who read it” (Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom)
Justifications have been articulated in favour of partisan media, but even scholars who see democratic positives in partisanship are quick to highlight its downside: James Curran, for instance, warns that ‘partisan media can promote government based on a clientelist system of patronage’ and that ‘it can also lead to systemic oppression of a minority by the majority in a form that is democratically sanctioned.’ Bob Franklin, writing with others, warns of ‘sloppy journalism’ and polluted debates as consequences of partisan media. I have read and heard people say that balance in the media should not be based on a single media outlet but rather across the entire media landscape consisting of divergent partisan media. However, this argument ignores the realities in practice where, as the case in the UK or even the USA suggests, there is widespread market failure and hence no real balance across the entire landscape because media is concentrated, firstly, in few hands and, secondly, on one end of the ideological continuum. Some media are simply bigger, stronger and more influential than others and if left to operate according to the interests of their owners, the political playing field can never be levelled and diversity is severely undermined.
The foremost reason media freedom should be distinguished from the property rights of media owners, and the reason media should in fact be prevented from becoming fiefdoms of their owners, is because media affect people’s lives in ways that real estate property, supermarkets, chain stores or other enterprises cannot. As conveyors of the information needed by citizens to conduct informed debates and to make informed choices, including the choosing of leaders, and by being platforms for public debates, media are the nexus between citizens and democratic institutions, and thus have far-reaching consequences for society. As such, media sit at the pinnacle of public interest. It is this public interest that should take media freedom down to the echelons of editorial functions and content production especially when media grow beyond certain limits in size and influence. So, a line must be drawn between property rights on one hand and media freedom on the other: property rights are for private interest while media freedom is for public interest. Property rights benefit the owners while media freedom should benefit the public. Media profits may benefit the owners, but media content should benefit the citizens. A suggestion worth considering is that standards must be implemented within media organizations when they attain a certain level of influence (however this can be measured) to restrain owners from interfering with public interest such as when they impose content policies that attenuate diversity of views or promote bias.
However, this is where a word of caution must be sounded, and very quickly: these suggestions do not apply to systems where the media is under suppression or constant threat and where media freedom is not legally and institutionally guaranteed, otherwise there exists a real danger of creating loopholes for repressive governments to take back control of the media through the backdoor. An important point to underline is that government should have no business owning or interfering with media in the 21st Century, but once government is out of the picture, regulatory and policy dialogue should be channeled towards ensuring that media owners do not allow their interests to hijack the very public interest we are working hard to defend against government, and for which media freedom is really meant.
About the author:
Fellow, One World Broadcasting; MA, Communication, Media and Public Relations (University of Leicester, UK) Areas of expertise, experience and research interest include:
Media development; democratic and development communication; journalism, media and democracy; political communication; communication research and strategy; political economy of media; critical public relations; and critical research.