A free, objective, skilled media is an essential component of any democratic society. On the one hand, it provides the information which the polity require to make responsible, informed decisions. On the other, it performs a “checking function” ensuring that elected officials uphold their oaths of office and campaign promises and that they carry out the wishes of the electorate. This paper, produced by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), proposes that the aim should be to transfer the media from direction or control by government or private interest to a situation of editorial freedom exercised in the public interest. The ultimate goal should be to engender diverse, plural and credible voices providing information and opinion to the electorate.
Among the most important questions which actors working to enhance media freedom and capability must address are: Who holds the power to communicate to society; who has access to the means of communication; and to whom are they communicating. This last point is often overlooked, yet it is only through critical audiences that the press can strengthen democracy. The article also notes that:
- An analysis of the problems facing the media sector is necessary so that the appropriate programme is developed. This includes understanding political, financial and technical concerns
- USAID should nurture such allies in media sector reform as consumers, producers, content providers, training institutes, regulators, monitors (polling agencies, advocacy groups, advertisers), professional associations and providers of new technology
- One of the most effective protections against restrictive legislation may be self-regulation by the media, and accountability developed through professional associations and unions
- While spreading resources widely may also spread them too thinly, support for particular media outlets may overdevelop them and so render them unable to continue without ongoing support, therefore biasing them towards the US or other donors
There are four basic steps for USAID to developing a strategy for supporting the media: (1) Defining the problem; (2) identifying opportunities; (3) assessing the feasibility and marginal cost of seizing these opportunities; and (4) evaluating USAID’s comparative advantage in this area. Of the approaches available to USAID, the most important are shaping the legal environment, strengthening constituencies for reform, removing barriers to access, training, and financial support. Within this context:
- Institutions (for example, courts, regulators, the executive, universities and law schools) as well as laws support media development
- It is vital that the US differentiate activities aimed at strengthening the media so as to strengthen democracy, and public information campaigns aimed at creating support for US policies or involvement in the host country
- A free media must have low barriers to entry. This requires ease of licensing, access to means of production and distribution, access to information, and access to different viewpoints
- In some pre-transition or oppressive societies it may only be possible to work indirectly through NGOs, identifying key actors, encouraging pro-free media activism and preparing the ground for future work
- Media people often lack business awareness, and yet financial aptitude is essential if media outlets are to function freely as independent businesses.