For Georgia, maintaining a free press has been a struggle: that was the message of a New York Times article earlier this week. But Georgia is only one of many developing countries whose struggle to successfully adopt democracy includes a struggle of adjustment from a former autocratic, nationally-controlled media to a free press. So, let’s look at the article as a guideline for problems encountered by all new democracies, and especially those who are former Soviet states.
The article lays out four obstacles for a free press:
1. Government Interference
Last November, the government staged a raid on a national broadcast outlet which shut the station down. The reason? The government claimed the opposition station was “fomenting unrest” when it aired a statement promising to topple the current government. It’s not quite as bad as the days of the Soviet Union, with nationally-owned media spouting the party line, but in effect, it’s similar.
2. Media Consolidation
Speaking of media ownership, there are very few media outlets in Georgia and they are (suspiciously) run by people very close to the government. The Prime minister blames media consolidation on “market forces” – not enough advertisers to support a larger quiver of TV stations (certainly not a problem here on the home front). And those few news stations in operation are operated by those wealthy few in the country – those who, inevitably, are close to the current government. The most popular television station there, according to the article, is owned by two brothers – one who is a member of the governing party, and one who is the director of the foreign intelligence service. Again, these people who own the news outlets may not literally be the party, but they are very close to it.
One of the more subtle and nuanced factors blocking a free press is the self-censorship by journalists themselves. This, in a large part, is a result of numbers 1 and 2. With the threat of government interference and the few available journalism jobs in a shrinking market, many journalists are on a mission of self preservation. And so, consciously or subconsciously, they are censoring themselves in order to avoid rocking the boat and putting their own career, or life, in danger. Even the most subtle forms of intimidation are enough to shape the tone of public information. The article says that during the breakaway of South Ossetia, “the government asked broadcasters in some cases not to make reports that could incite panic or be used by Russia as propaganda.” And in Georgia, for the government to “ask” for something is much more powerful than it is here in America.
4. Culture of Censorship
The article only briefly touches on the idea of a “culture of censorship,” a term that implies a defunct relationship between the sources of information, the news media, and the public. The idea is that the public is aware of the too-friendly relationship between the media and the government, and consume accordingly. This breeds a distrust of the media. And this culture of censorship is often the hardest problem to solve, because there is a cultural inertia that resists a change in public opinion. Thus, because much of the citizenry was educated and socialized under Soviet rule, with Soviet propaganda newspapers, they still have a very strong distrust of the media. Unfortunately, this issue of news consumption does not respond to immediate changes in the journalism industry, and so it will be the most difficult to remedy.
But as we look at these problems in Georgia, problems we see in most developing democracies, we cannot exclude ourselves from the struggle. We can see these four problems as a mirror for our own media industry. We certainly have an issue with media consolidation and ownership. Most of our major broadcast news outlets are owned by a few big companies not in the business of journalism. And self-censorship? Certainly. How often do journalists underreport a critical story because it’s “not what the public wants to hear.” Though the West is often seen as the founder and the forerunner of fee media we, still, are not perfect. And so, it is important for us to look at the problems of struggling media industries not as helpful mentors, but as journalists who can learn just as much from them as they can from us.