I’ve long been interested in the power of the media and the ability it has to shape political agendas and our everyday lives. From Australia to Vietnam and everywhere in between, the ability (or not) of the media to provide information that can facilitate civic discussion of issues that are (or should be) on the political agenda is a marker of a country’s ability to foster democracy.
A free, independent, diverse and well-managed media can be a strong force for change – helping to foster economic and social development by reducing poverty and promoting transparency and good governance. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said that never in history has there been a famine in a country with a free press. Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, said a free press is one of the few facilitating institutions that could help wrench countries out of poverty. Noam Chomsky is a strong voice against the media misusing its power.
The case for the freedom and development of the media, particularly in post-conflict and developing countries, is clear. But, countries around the globe continue to struggle to foster independent media that are effective in providing information and facilitating public discussion of issues central to participation in civic life.
While the leaders of some developing countries have harnessed the potential of the media to combat poverty, corruption and conflict, there are others who have sought to manipulate the media for partisan political and economic reasons. In the worst cases, leaders have clearly understood the power of the media and used it to perpetrate terror and gross human rights violations. Across the world many journalists do not earn a decent wage and media organisations struggle to be truly independent.
A 2011 publication by the World Bank Institute and Internews stated that despite 50 years of donor assistance, global efforts to create strong and sustainable media in developing countries has made little progress. They estimate that $645 million was spent by donors on international development media projects globally in 2010. However, they argue that efforts were random and haphazard, poorly coordinated with broader reforms and rarely led by the countries themselves that receive assistance.
Without going into a discussion of the effectiveness of development dollars, the motivations of media development donors, multi-stakeholder coordination and political ideological imperatives were the founding issues driving my recently completed Masters thesis entitled: Media development in transitional democratic Cambodia (which you can read in full here).
Case Study: Cambodia
My decision to focus on Cambodia was driven by several factors: I was living in the country, working directly with the media, am interested in the country’s political history and wanted to explore the impact it may have had on the development of its media.
Cambodia has a turbulent and bloody history, and before the 1991 Paris Peace Accords were signed, the country had experienced almost every form of political structure except democracy. The concept of a free, independent and plural media – as opposed to a media that acts as a propaganda machine – is just as new to Cambodia as the democratic political system it arrived with. Like the country’s democratic development, the media has seen remarkable growth, and it too has a long road to travel before it can fulfill its ‘watchdog’ role.
The media landscape in Cambodia has changed significantly since the first days of democracy in 1991. Only 10 journalists survived the Khmer Rouge and RADIO UNTAC was the first example of independent, quality reporting in the country. The media industry in Cambodia has undergone significant growth. However, my research shows that this development has not been conducted in a strategic or coordinated way and efforts seem to be undercut by an inability to fully let go of old communist media concepts and fully embrace democratic media values.
When comparing the media landscape in Cambodia to others in the region, it might not appear to be doing too badly. However, such comparisons are neither advisable (given the poor view of freedom of speech in other countries in the region such as China, Laos and Burma) nor fair (given that Cambodia had to develop its media ‘from scratch’ after the Khmer Rouge). Some of the media stakeholders I interviewed argued that the neoliberal agenda of Western development partners (particularly in the 90s) is at least partially to blame for a media landscape that in part values Western democratic ‘watchdog’ standards while maintaining some communist values such as control and censorship. This dichotomy can be seen not only in the media, but is reflected across the other areas of democratic development – such as efforts to ensure judicial independence and to encourage true civic political participation.
Theorists argue that the development of the media in post-conflict and transitional societies cannot be rushed and these efforts must coincide with efforts to develop other institutions essential to a functioning democracy. My research showed that while some strongly believe that democratic development is not happening quickly enough in Cambodia, the markers of change are clear. For example, the economy continues to grow, poverty rates have halved and democratic elections are held regularly.
For locally-led change to occur – including the improvement of the standard of the media – one critical finding of my research was that media literacy among the broader population must be improved. The media should play a key role in supporting democracy and citizens should know how to use the media to interpret and analyse information. If Cambodia is to progress as a democracy, citizens need to begin to demand quality media. And, an understanding of what constitutes quality media and the role that it can play in promoting good governance, civic participation and transparency is key. And this is true of all post-conflict and transitional democracy (hell, it’s true of all democracies!)
As Cambodia continues to define its ethico-political identity, development partners and the media play a crucial role. While Cambodia’s sovereignty must be respected, the country’s ethico-political identity must be determined by its people – not a group of political elites – and as such development partners and the media must be more effective in advocating for, and providing a more effective and informed public sphere, whereby Cambodian citizens are exposed to issues of public policy, are able to participate in debate, and are able to make informed decisions.
The media – independent, plural and sustainable – remain a critical part of Cambodia’s development and its power should be harnessed and supported by government and development partners alike.