The role of the media is considered to be an intrinsic component of the democratic system. Considering the freedom of the press vital for the functioning of democratic societies, its role has become extremely important for the development of the global citizenry. As such, the progress towards information societies depends on the ability to access, produce and disseminate information in the right perspective
Democracy is an ideal that is accepted in theory but is, more often than not, mitigated in practice. Moreover, the very people who cry out for democracy when out of power are the ones, when in office, who find the challenges and difficulties of governing with democracy more difficult than they thought or that power is just a little too good to give up. Bending the rules, hiding the truth and even changing the law are all tools in the arsenal of those jealous of power. None of these problems are new of course; the emergent democracies of the 18th and 19th centuries were beset by corruption and many of the same problems that countries in the developing and developed world face today.
Similarly, the instruments to deal with such problems were also present in early democracies– the most important being, of course, the press. So important was the press that it was even considered to be an intrinsic component of a democratic system. The 19th centuryBritish author, Thomas Carlyle termed the press the “Fourth Estate” of democraticgovernment after the executive, legislature and judiciary.
According to such classical democratic political theory, the media fills two central functions in a democracy – it functions as a watchdog chastening those in power, and it keeps the citizenry informed of the actions of those in power and provides enough information so that informed choices can be made.
Since the late 18th century, a number of radical transformations have taken place in the political systems of various Western societies. In Western Europe, the gradual decline of the absolute rule of the monarchy along with the emergence of new merchant classes led to the change from ‘subjects of a monarchy’ to ‘citizens of a country’. Moreover, in the later half of the 20th century the disintegration of the British Empire and the French Overseas Empire (La France d’outre mer) saw the emergence of numerous new republics with citizens, not subjects, populating them. Indeed, the ideals of freedom of speech are written into many constitutions particularly those that had a strong US influence.
In recent years, the pace and breadth of political, technical, economic and cultural transformation, the very processes of globalisation, and particularly those referred to as the ‘information revolution’ have necessitated and indeed brought about a number of changes in the role (and even the nature) of the media. Three of globalisation’s much noted tendencies: its deepening of links between – while at the same time fracturing links within – societies; the increased awareness and actuality of threats and collective risks, e.g. terrorism and environmental catastrophe; and the maturation of truly global systems of financial, institutional and cultural activity have brought about a new way of thinking about our relationship with politics and power.
The Global Citizen
Increasingly, we are witnessing the emergence both semantically and in reality of what may be termed ‘global citizenship’. By this we are not only talking about the realisation that we are all part of the same world and actions in one area affect people in other areas but also that because we all get affected we should all have a say. This is the much-touted ability to ‘speak back’ or answer the historically one-directional flow of information and is often viewed as stemming directly from the qualities of new communications technology. The global citizen is a way of conceptualising our role in the world where global citizens are not just passive recipients of the policy of other nations, organisations and pan-national conglomerates but are internationally active (electronically at least) agents, engaging in discussions and seeking to further their own interests.
Of course, this is an idealistic view and quite clearly we do not normally have a say in how those in power behave and many do not have the ability to ‘speak’ at all, being on the wrong side of the feared digital divide. Even those who live in the particular political constituencies that select the powerful elites and have the technical and social capital to be able to use the new technologies, may not have much say in the actual selection of the leaders due to a number of factors.
George W. Bush’s win in 2000 eventually depended on a majority of 537 votes in the state of Florida (and some even dispute this). Moreover, with the gradualtransformation of societies that occurred with industrialisation and more recently the emergence of the ‘information society’ and globalisation, the media has also become subject to overt corporate and commercial pressures that are deeply tied to the political elites. Many would argue that the watchdog role of the press is now extended to both the corporate world as well as that of the political one. Indeed, the lack of a significant division between the corporate and political spheres of activity means that the press must pay attention to the actions of large corporations if it is to function properly as a watchdog.
However, if the state and commercial interests are becoming more overtly integrated (and perhaps they always have been deeply linked, the British state has never been shy of initiating military conflict for the benefit of a few well placed commercial actors) changes have also taken place in the organisation of the citizenry. Indeed, one of the most important social phenomena in recent years has been the startling rise of NGOs and social movements. This can be understood as the emergence of a form of ‘global civil society’, a way of thinking about the collected actions of individual citizens outside of the traditional model of states and nations. The sheer number of NGOs and other components of civil society and the volume of comment made by these groups have had a dramatic effect on international politics. Whereas previously we have seen political leaders meeting in private to discuss issues and communicating the decisions to a largely passive audience, we now have ‘global summits’ attended not just by political leaders but representatives from grassroots organisations the worldover.
Advocating and Defending RTI
It is for this reason that those engaged in civil society work must advocate activities that promote the right to fair information at all levels and across international boundaries. Challenging as it may be, there is ground to be won and advances to be made in the furtherance of global citizenry and it is towards this end we, along with many others, argue for the following fourpronged approach: Promotion of open and transparent decision making in government:
To promote citizen empowerment and accountability, the governmentald ecision-making rocess must be open and verifiable, stakeholders must be clearly identified and their interests declared. State and quasi-state administrative processes must be open, and this includes making documents such as the minutes of meetings available. More importantly, the criteria used to make judgements should be available online. To encourage the freedom of information, records held by state agencies and private organisations should be available to individuals to check for their accuracy.
Continued and critical evaluation of state restrictions on media and communication: Whilst it is accepted that a state may seek to restrict the passing of military secrets these should be the exception. The freedom to share, duplicate, and publish information should be the norm and attempts to restrict the flow of information should be continually challenged and examined by legally empowered independent arbitrators. The state and legal machinery should be used absolutely minimally and with great reservations to restrict the flow of information. Stringent policing of anti-monopoly media ownership controls: Ownership of the media, editorial control and restrictions upon the ability to publish and disseminate information should be carefully monitored. Media ownership (state as well as private interests) has traditionally played a large part in editorial control of the press and accordingly freedom to publish controversial information is often curtailed. The right to disseminate information in spite of media ownership needs to be rigorously advocated and defended.
Advocacy of pluralistic media and communications ownership and production: ‘Small’ media such as community radio and television, independent presses, and the various forms of Internet journalism should be encouraged. Support should be given to activities that encourage community and citizen participation in media production and dissemination and forms of civic communication between citizens.
These activities are of course very idealistic but the pursuit of them does provide direction. They represent a goal towards which we may aim and a benchmark against which we may chart progress. At the very least, they offer general orientation for those concerned about what the information society offers to those traditionally without a voice.