Civil Society Debate on “Inclusive Democracy”, organised by the Conference of INGOs in connection with the World Forum of Democracy on 7 October 2012

Round table on “Building Inclusive Democracy through Media”

Moderator: Igor Kohut (Ukraine) Director of the Ukrainian School of Political Studies;
Speakers: Larbi Chouikha (Tunisia) Independent Electoral Commission, Tunisian League for Human Rights, Peter Lemish (USA), Civil Society, Communication and Media Practices Programme, Southern Illinois University, Pavel Marozau (Belarus) Third Way Organisation;
Rapporteur: Nadia Bellardi (Switzerland) Community Media Forum Europe

The roundtable on building inclusive democracy through media discussed the challenges and opportunities of the new media environment with regard to the empowerment of civil society and its role as counter-power.

One of the key questions, raised in the opening session by the Council of Europe’s Deputy Secretary General Ms. Battaini-Dragoni, is how to reconcile representative democracy with direct democracy as facilitated by new media.

In his opening remarks, Igor Kohut reminded that the media landscape today is marked by increasing dissatisfaction with public service and so-called traditional media, as well as by a lack of recognition of alternative media channels such as community media.

So what kind of participation and inclusion is possible?

In his presentation, Peter Lemish invited civil society organisations to become more creative in their media work through the use of participatory informatics. This means exploiting the full potential offered by Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 technology in building exchanges with and inclusivity of the base. Instead of adopting corporate communications models within NGOs, with tightly controlled messages and a topdown approach, civil society organisations need to develop the role of the critical communicator/knowledge liason. This is a new professional figure, attentive to civic engagement in governance and public policy debates. This role will be aware that the process by which citizens can get involved is just as important as the outcome. It is in the process of communication and participation with people and communities that social change starts to happen. Technology is a tool that can facilitate this process. A critical communicator will exploit the capabilites of all available communication systems to engage with and mobilize multiple audiences. The results of these exchanges will then be included into the work of the organizations.

The plea to civil society is to be imaginative, investigative and use the full potential of all media tools in policy making. Increasing awareness in civil society of these opportunities can strengthen active citizenship and inclusive democracy. This applies also to the implemenentation of the Conference of INGOs “Code of Good Practice for Civil Participation in the Decision-making Process”.

An excellent example of civic engagement is the work of the second panelist, Pavel Marozau, activist from Belarus currently in exile. Through the use of humor and satire Pavel and his organization are using Internet to share information and promote democracy in an authoritarian system. Facing the issue of state control over traditional media, used as a propaganda instrument, and despite strong limitations and control on civil society, Pavel started an NGO in 1998. The activities of the NGO, which resulted impossible to register, were transferred online, creating a “kitchen on the Internet” where social and political discussions could take place. Thus Internet-based visual media became a replacement of the printed samizdat of the Soviet times, attracting also interest from international media. Internet in Belarus can reach almost 4 million people, representing about 40% of the total population. The majority are young and middle-aged people, dynamic and ambitious, who would not choose strictly political “opposition” media, but who can benefit from humor and satire as a form of non-violent society activation and liberalization. The experiences collected show that animation and satire can reach out more effectively to people on topics such as human rights violations, and that creativity is needed to overcome barriers of censorship and control.

Creativity also marked the work of Larbi Chouikha in Tunisia. The void of power left after the toppling of an authoritarian regime is providing the opportunity to develop the media landscape with respect of human rights and freedom of the press. Larbi Chouikha was involved in the independent council organizing elections, with a direct responsibility for media, and identified several challenges. All media laws, also related to elections, had been erased. A co-regulatory approach had to be developed to preserve impartiality between candidates, guarantee the right of citizens to free information and the work of journalists. With 1600 candidates participating in the elections, public service television had to develop a system to give a minimum of air time to each. The press was asked to autoregulate itself. Despite some issues, such as that the day of silence was not respected, it was all in all a positive experience, pointing to the need for more education and media literacy. Following the elections a consultation body for media reform has been created. Its recommendations, which have yet to be translated into effective legislation, focus on three areas: freedom of the press and online media, freedom and regulation of broadcasting, free access to administrative documents.

In conclusion, the round table reaffirmed that democracy and pluralism require a diverse media landscape in order to flourish, including public service, private and community media. In particular under authoritarian regimes the use of the Internet and online media is central for civic engagement. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press and of the Internet as well as media literacy need to remain at the core of the policy work done at the local, national and international level.

The challenges of the new media environment can be tackled from the perspective that technology is a tool facilitating distribution and participation. Civil society organisations can be at the forefront by using alternative and online media to include citizens in governance and public policy, keeping in mind that the process by which citizens can get involved is just as important as the outcome.