How should media policies be adapted in countries affected by crises and war? Do privately owned media contribute to democratic development in fragile states? This report is based on the outcome of discussions at a workshop organised by the Crisis States Research Centre, the Stanhope Centre for Communications and the Annenberg School for Communication. It argues that neo-liberal templates for media development do not work in fragile states and that unsophisticated liberalisation of the media can potentially undermine the state building project.
The neo-liberal reforms of the late 1990s coincided with calls for the creation and strengthening of independent and privatised media organisations that were believed to be a crucial element in the advancement of democratic values and economic growth. However, there are serious problems when relying on media freedom to build national consensus in fragile states, especially those recently emerging from periods of violent conflict and war:
- In the case of fragile states, it may be misguided and potentially dangerous to assume that encouraging the creation of free and independent media will automatically strengthen civil society, or help establish a democratic system that will hold governments accountable. This approach underestimates the complexity of the contexts of fragile states.
- In the North there are institutionalised mechanisms to regulate and restrain the media where necessary, but these mechanisms rarely exist or function properly in fragile states.
- In situations where national cohesion and consensus is lacking, state or public involvement in the media can actually be a constructive force for the social, economic and political reconstruction and development of a country.
In situations where the state is fragile and where the political process is unstable and de-legitimated, the primary objective of donor assistance should be supporting the formation of a functioning state. Specific recommendations for policymakers include the following:
- Customise media development strategies to context. Undertake a detailed diagnostic analysis of the complex political, economic and social background of the country, as well as of the nature of conflict, and the structures of government and citizens’ participation before and after violent conflict.
- Recognise that the development of an open and free media environment requires the presence of a strong state which includes, among other features, a well functioning legal and judicial environment to apply checks and balances.
- Where appropriate, allow and encourage judicious state regulation of the media during the initial phases of state building in order to minimise the potential for divisive violent conflict and maximise the potential for building national cohesion.
- Encourage national and local media initiatives not simply as a check on the state, but rather with the aim of contributing to the establishment of effective state organisations where they have collapsed.
- Consider supporting the establishment of a national broadcasting corporation with a national reach and detached from vested interests, where this can be governed by an independent board according to principles of journalistic integrity and public service provision. Such support needs to be long-term.
- Support media training programmes among journalists and members of political parties. Programmes that promote greater reflection on the part of media practitioners themselves should be encouraged.
- Support the establishment of professional associations of journalists that are committed to an ethos of journalistic integrity and investigative journalism, which can eventually serve as the conscience within media sectors based on public and private ownership.
- Support research that examines the role of media in both state unravelling and reconstruction, and encourage the development of regional networks of local media researchers.
- Support domestic and international laws that protect information flows and constrain hate speech.
- Support dialogue (through conferences and workshops) among international and local actors that examines the complex ways in which media is interconnected to broader development and reconstruction efforts.