Role of News Media as Civic Forum
Equality vital, in their civic forum, the free press can strengthen the public sphere, by mediating between citizens and the state, facilitating debate about the major issues of the day, and informing the public about their leaders. If the channels of communication reflect the social and cultural pluralism within each society, in a fair and impartial balance, then multiple interests and voices are heard in public deliberation. This role is particularly important during election campaigns, as fair access to the airwaves by opposition parties, candidates and groups is critical for competitive, free and fair multiparty elections.
During campaigns, a free media provides citizens with information to compare and evaluate the retrospective record, prospective policies and leadership characteristics of parties and candidates, providing the essential conditions for informed choice.
The role of the news media as a civic forum remain deeply flawed where major newspapers and television stations heavily favour the governing party, in the amount or tone of coverage, rather than being open to a parties during campaigns. This principle has been recognised in jurisprudence from countries as varied as Ghana, Sri Lanka, Belize, India, Trinidad, Tobago and Zambia.
There are many cases where electoral observers have reported that pro-government bias on television and radio has failed to provide a level playing field for all parties, exemplified by campaigns in Russia, Belarus, and Mozambique. In Madagascar, for example, Andriantsoa et al argue that the process of liberalisation and privatisation has undermined the older state-controlled media which once consolidated the grip of autocrats across much of Africa, facilitating multiparty electoral democracies.
By, contrast, where the media fails to act as an effective civic forum, this can hinder democratic consolidation. State ownership and control is one important issue, but threat to media pluralism are also raised by over-concentration of private ownership of the media, whether in the hands of broadcasting oligopolies within nation, or of major multinational corporations with multimedia empires. It is feared that the process of media mergers may have concentrated excessive control in the hands of few multinational corporations, which remain uncountable to the public, reducing the diversity of news media outlets.
Contemporary observers caution that the quality of democracy still remains limited where state ownership of television has been replaced by private oligopolies and crony capitalism, for example in nations such as Russia, Brazil and Peru which have failed to create fully-independent and pluralistic media systems. Broadcasting cartels, coupled with the failure of regulatory system, legal policies that restrict critical reporting, and uneven journalistic standards, can all limit the role of media in its civic forum or watch dog role.
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