< Viewpoints < 2007

“Media diversity: a core element of true democracy”

[01/10/07] Governments often complain about the mass media in their own country; they feel that their messages are distorted and unfairly criticized. True, there are media outlets which are not very serious and professional. However, this problem should not be exaggerated and is not a good excuse for draconian interventions or state control. Instead governments should promote a media policy which encourages voluntary self-discipline and allows for a wide variety of media voices. This is what democracy requires; it also enhances further democratization.

Editors and other media representatives should take careful note of criticism levelled against the quality of some their reporting. Improved training of journalists and a developed system of self-regulation, including codes of ethics and press councils, is of paramount importance.

However, the main media problems are these: too little meaningful information is circulated and too few voices are heard.

Though the internet has created new possibilities for a more democratic dialogue on political matters, the mass media will surely continue to function as the main messenger of common interest news and as the key arena for public debate.

All over the world, governments and strong business interests dominate media production, not least on the television side. This is to some extent inevitable in view of heavy investment costs. However, this makes it even more essential to encourage competition and take steps to democratize media structures. A minimum requirement is that there is transparency about who is behind the various media outlets.

It is sometimes said that the consumers act as a corrective. Media outlets which are too propagandistic tend not to be read, viewed or listened to. However, when there are no or very few alternatives, the problem largely remains. The increased possibility to tune into foreign radio transmissions or satellite television does help but it is still not a realistic option for many because of language and other barriers.

Some principles are particularly essential in democratic media policies: that governments and parliaments encourage genuine competition; that the official public service media act impartially and in the interest of all people in society; and that governments are transparent and allow access to their own information.

First: competition
There are governments and parliaments in Europe which have actively subsidized smaller media, often those run by minorities, in order to secure a broader output. Other governments, however, have actively undermined media they have felt negative about and thereby sabotaged free competition.

The way wave lengths for television and radio are allocated is a test which some governments have failed. State agencies deciding on this should work according to agreed, objective criteria and not discriminate against more independent applicants.

Another problem in some countries is that the government buys advertisement space only in the “loyal” media, signalling to business companies to follow their lead, with the consequence that independent media in reality are boycotted.

A number of other discriminatory measures have been taken against independent media; some of them obviously intended to push these into bankruptcy. Repeated defamation charges in court and obstacles to buying print paper, printing or distributing the papers are some examples. Such actions must be seen as violations of freedom of expression.

It is important that there are real alternatives. I asked once the Ombudsman in one of the former Soviet states what reform he would consider as the most important for human rights protection in the country. His answer was: a truly independent TV channel! This, in his opinion, would be the most efficient way of promoting an open, free debate and an honest monitoring of problems in society.

Second: the role of “official” media
They should operate in an impartial manner in the interest of the population at large. They could indeed be an essential counter weight to the business driven entertainment media.

The “public service” media – often financed from tax money or other common resources – should of course not be used as propaganda instruments for certain politicians. Their independence and impartiality are of paramount importance and ought to be protected through agreed guidelines and an appropriate procedure of appointing directors.

Third: the transparency of the public authorities
Media culture is considerably affected by the attitude of the authorities towards journalists asking for data, also on sensitive matters. The media have a legitimate interest in requesting information about government decisions and actions. They can serve as representatives of citizens who have the right to know how their elected leaders act on their behalf. Open access to government information is therefore a democratic principle of high priority.

It is not enough that ministers are generous in giving interviews. There should be legal affirmation of the right of citizens, including journalists, to obtain written documents and other information from the authorities. Exceptions from this transparency rule should be regulated strictly and allowed only for the protection of legitimate state secrets.

These problems are still more acute in transition countries where news and political information previously were firmly controlled by those in power. However, there is a need to discuss these questions all over Europe: Do we have a genuine competition in the media market? Do the public service media play the role it should? Are governments genuinely transparent?

Thomas Hammarberg


Recommendation CM/Rec(2007)11 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on promoting freedom of expression and information in the new information and communications environment

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