Why and how is the media a critical sector in shaping governance relationships? This practice note, from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), summarises the key global media trends which are leading to changes in country-level governance. It also explains some of the incentives and disincentives driving the sector which can lead the media to play either a positive or negative role in strengthening democratic politics. Donors should better understand how media can enable or prohibit citizen engagement, analyse the political implications of support to the media, and promote an enabling communication environment.
Free, independent and plural media (radio, TV, newspapers, internet etc.) provide a critical check on state abuse of power or corruption. Further, they enable informed and inclusive public debate on issues of concern to people living in poverty and give greater public recognition to the perspectives of marginalised citizens. Engaged citizens need information that allows them to exercise democratic choices.
Transforming the way that media relate to both governments and audiences is extremely challenging, and can best be accomplished through comprehensive media development interventions which address four levels – populations, practitioners, organisations and systems. Key lessons and principles for donors to increase the effectiveness of media development initiatives in order to help build democratic, capable, accountable and responsive states include:
- Identifying how and why media matter in the lives of people living in poverty: Donors should conduct a robust sector analysis which identifies how media enables or prohibits engagement by citizens – particularly poor citizens – in decisions that affect them. This includes understanding the implications of profound and rapid change in technology and communications – such as mobile telephony – on politics, economics and the lives of the poor. It is important to understand how these processes and opportunities affect men and women differently.
- Understanding what can and cannot be supported: Direct support to individual media organisations may be politically or commercially inappropriate (particularly if media organisations are allied with specific political groups). Donors should either work through trusted and independent intermediaries, or invest in cross-sector approaches, such as training and capacity building, press councils or printing cooperatives. Southern intermediaries (e.g. media assistance CSOs) are central to long-term change and impact, and should be both instruments and targets of donor support.
- Directing support to media sectors that explicitly focus on the poor and marginalised – such as community media. This needs to be rooted in a clear development rationale, and should recognise that long-term support to community media may well create dependency problems.
- Treating information, communication and the media as public goods and invest accordingly: Governments and development actors should take measures to enable the greater participation of poor and marginalised people in social, economic and political processes; and invest in strengthening those areas that the market alone may not provide, such as telephone access for poor people or high-quality public interest journalism.
- Analysing the political implications of support to the media: Media development programmes can sometimes be ‘legitimised’ via bilateral agreements between a donor and a host government in transition.
- Supporting an enabling communication environment: Donors and reformers need to move away from a narrow focus on specific policy agendas towards broader support for the enabling environment, including:
- The regulatory framework: An appropriate legal framework and operating environment for the media helps guarantee media freedom and ensures media can operate without fear of retribution or closure. Different regulatory structures are likely to be appropriate to different states depending on where they are on the governance continuum (stable, transitional, conflict etc.)
- Access to information: Information, transparency and good communication are essential to meaningful citizen-state engagement; free and independent media are necessary to make information available to poor people and provide channels for voice. Donors can support legislation on freedom of information, and structures and resources for implementing laws.