Media and democracy: a dossier for de-commodification
As the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day May 3, for many journalists like Pham chi dung it was a black monday. Dung, a freelance journalist who produced work for the BBC and Voice of America, languished in a Vietnamese prison. Accused of producing and disseminating distorted anti-state information, he was found guilty and sentenced to an effective 15-year prison term by the Ho Chi Minh City court.
He is not the only one.
Right here in a neighboring country, Ibraimo AbÃº Mbaruco, Mozambican radio journalist and human rights defender, has been missing for over a year. His family, friends and colleagues have had no idea where he is since he sent a distressed text saying he was “surrounded by soldiers”.
These are the dangers journalists face on a daily basis. Here at home the South Africa National Editors Forum‘s Secretary-General Mahlatse Mahlase said he “saw politicians actively agitating to assault journalists”. While journalists have a crucial function in our democracy, they do not operate in a vacuum but within oligopolies that are marketed with concentrated ownership.
South Africa has a proud history of journalists like Zwelakhe Sisulu, Percy Qoboza, Joe thloloÃ©, Mathatha Tsedu and Aggrey Klaaste who used their profession to fight for democracy. However, the post-apartheid media structure has stifled the role of journalists to transcend the impact of commercialization, populism and even possible elite manipulation. While the apartheid edifice was based on information control, secrecy and repressive state regulation, the post-apartheid media have reconfigured themselves along liberal lines that emphasize free market policies. Ultimately, it is the journalists who bear the brunt of the harassment, arrests and even death.
The limits of commercial media in a democracy
Our media have come a long way since the democratic breakthrough of 1994, which marked a end repressive state regulation. Today, media freedom and freedom of expression are among the rights enshrined in the Constitution. However, the current crop of journalists faces a different battle than their predecessors.
The battle includes appreciating the ideological orientation of the media system itself. Our media landscape, just as in many liberal democracies dominated by capitalism, is dominated by the commercial media. This system is owned and controlled by private companies and is distinguished by its market characteristics that target both advertisers and consumers. As such, it is tied to the laws and capital accumulation strategies under which it operates, which reduce citizen audiences to products that must be sold to advertisers.
As the media are firmly anchored in the capitalist system, through models of ownership, they become tools to reproduce the ideas of the ruling class in society and to diminish democratic space for the poor and marginalized. With management structures in newsrooms resembling our society divided into classes, this helps to prioritize the issues of the elites. What is covered and how it is covered is a function of selection and “description bias” where even unpacking of the underlying causes in neutral stories is avoided.
While the less powerful in society can still have access to information, it is powerful societal actors who set the tone and have the power to decide what is of interest. It is precisely this asymmetry of access that allows powerful societal forces to set the tone for national discourse. Often hidden from the naked eye, the economic logic of commercialized media is a fundamental limitation of the role of media in democracy.
Media ownership and concentration
Almost three decades after the start of our democracy, the commercial media remain concentrated and controlled by a handful of large conglomerates. This alone makes the media vulnerable and likely to be used to promote the values ââand goals of competing political interests. Thus, renowned scholars like Edward S. Herman and Noam chomsky has long argued that the media operate on behalf of the powerful societal interests that control and fund them.
Of course, many researchers have shown that this is not achieved by crude interventions but rather by subtle business practices that include the employment of “good-hearted” personnel. Of course, those who own and control the media have influence over the hiring and firing of staff and determine the editorial direction of media outlets.
Another critical structural factor of the media is advertising and market forces. It is an open secret that the survival of commercialized media lies in their ability to attract an audience to sell to advertisers. This leads to editorial pressures and possible political discrimination which is structured in this process. The current bloodbath of South African media jobs can be understood and firmly anchored in this reality as ad revenues decline and migrate to digital platforms with their sophisticated tools such as pay-per-click and click-through rates. Advertising is indeed the lifeblood of commercial media.
When this pressure intensifies, it will likely affect the sources of information. To this end, the responsibility for defining and interpreting complex developments lies entirely with the elite. Since the production of information is based on “objective” and “authoritative” statements from “accredited” sources, it is inevitably the elites who are privileged and to whom access is granted. Often, this leads to omissions and silence from marginalized sources, as well as over reliance on the views of elites to decipher complex issues while granting them easy access to the media.
This situation has not been helped by the disappearance of the alternative press in South Africa. Largely funded by donors, these media have played a central role in the struggle for democracy. What set them apart from their traditional commercial counterparts was the ability to go beyond the surface of political rights to address redistributive issues aimed at redressing centuries of cumulative socio-economic neglect.
Towards a de-merchandised alternative media
Part of the inability of the media to play a democratizing role is due to commercial factors. It stifles journalism. Commercialized media are based on the principles of producing information as a commodity, packaged and sold to citizens – increasingly seen as audiences ready to buy information. These audiences are in turn sold to advertisers, the lifeblood of commercial media. At the origin of commercial media, which includes pay walls on digital platforms, is the commodification of information based on the will to buy principle, effectively denying access to many subordinates.
The media are at the heart of democracy because they contribute to the development of informed citizens. The commodification of information is therefore problematic. If the media are to play a more important role in democracy than it does now, then the de-commodification of information should be considered. Platforms must be created for the re-emergence of those alternative media that serve the general public rather than narrow business interests.
With the escalating socio-economic crisis in South Africa, there is no better time for media that will emphasize use value rather than exchange value. An alternative, non-merchandised public medium that is easily accessible to all can play a vital role in the advancement of general education in marginal sub-classes.
Although the post-apartheid commercial media have played a vital role in safeguarding democracy by exposing serious issues such as the VBS mutual Bank looting and Steinhoff’s corruption, increased commercialization and the disappearance of alternative media threaten to reverse these gains.
Without interventions that will reinvent an alternative decommissioned media to strengthen and anchor democracy, the counterrevolutionary elements will gain the upper hand and perhaps prosper. SM / MC
Mandla J Radebe is Associate Professor in the Department of Strategic Communication at the University of Johannesburg and author of Building hegemony: the commercial media SA and the (mis) representation of nationalization (UKZN Press). This article is based on his chapter âMedia and Post-Apartheid Democracy in South Africaâ in the book Destroy democracy: neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian policies, edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar.
This is the seventh in a series of 10 essays written by chapter authors of Destroy democracy, neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian policies, Volume 6 in the Democratic Marxism series recently published by Wits University Press and edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar.
Part 1: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-08-the-crisis-of-democracy-the-importance-of-reclaiming-democracy-from-neoliberal-capitalism-and-creeping-authoritarianism/
Part 2: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-08-populism-and-fascism-lessons-from-the-1920s-ku-klux-klan/
Part three: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-10-brazil-faces-an-inglorious-end-to-a-democratic-experiment-that-has-marked-two-generations/
Part 4: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-10-how-do-we-explain-indias-descent-into-religious-majoritarianism-and-empty-promises-of-prosperity/
Part 5: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-11-the-dialectic-of-democracy-neoliberal-capitalism-and-its-populist-backlash/
Part 6: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-14-the-ancs-failure-to-fully-embrace-the-right-to-know-signals-a-retreat-from-a- peoples-democracy /
Destroy democracy is an invaluable resource for the general public, activists, academics and students who wish to understand the threats to democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in the south and north of the world. It is available free of charge in open access on https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/50256