The quixotic pursuit of media independence

National and international media development and aid programs often embrace the objective of developing independent media as a means of promoting democratic development.  They do so in hopes of reducing political power over media, but fail to acknowledge that all media and communication infrastructures are systemically influenced by economic and social, as well as political power. And they often seem to ignore the reality that the history and cultures of nation states affect how that power is exercised. Media systems and their content, and the degree of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, are reflections of the alignment of the dominant cultural elements in society.

Even in the West, most notably within European Union and Council of Europe governing institutions, efforts to promote media independence are gaining significant support—particularly when applied to media in Central and Eastern Europe.

The term media independence is often used naively and imprecisely, consequently those pursuing it often appear to be pursuing something that exists nowhere and is an impossible dream.  Independence is really evidenced by its opposite; it is indicated by degrees of dependence or interdependence and their consequences, because full independence is impossible. Very often the term is used as an objective without even specifying independence from what and for what. 

Independence is affected by factors internal to media, such as ownership, decision-making control, and dependence on resources and revenue sources. It is also affected by external factors such as influence through persuasion and criticism, cooption through financial and other material support, and coercion through threats and retaliatory exercise of power.

One needs to be wary of the assumption that ownership determines independence of media. Many assume that state media are dependent and non-state media are independent. In reality, public service, privately owned commercial media, and foundation-supported media may or MAY NOT be independent. In Saudi Arabia, for example, state media are owned and operated by the monarchy and private media are owned by princes and persons close to the crown. There is little difference between them with issues of politics, economics, and social lives are addressed.  The press is relatively separate from government and politics in Germany but not in Hungary, yet it still represents an elite perspective.  Public service broadcasting is reasonably independent of government in Sweden, but not so in Serbia.

The state, the government, social elites and powerful individuals, funders such as sponsors, advertisers, and foundations, and media consumers all influence the amount of independence. The more those influences align, the greater independence is diminished. 

Programs aiding democratic development usually promote private, commercial media. Few efforts to support not-for-profit media outlets exist, however. Not-for-profits are emerging in response to independence challenges in private commercial media and public service broadcasting. Not-for-profits tend to be the most independent of media firms, but they can be dependent on sponsors and funders (parties, unions, churches, NGOs, foundations) and many face sustainability issues.

To create greater independence all media must ensure levels of dependence on any single source of funding are relatively low and that there are multiple sources of income (sponsors, foundations, consumers, members, advertisers, events) to spread dependence risks. A good rule of thumb is that if more than one-third of income is from one source, a media firm becomes vulnerable to influence and may become unsustainable if it is rapidly reduced.

Media independence is a lovely ideal, but can only be partly achieved in practice.

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