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Role of the Media in Democracy

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Published: Wed, 18 Jul 2018

What do you understand by the concept of democracy? What role, if any, does the media play in a democracy? Discuss these using examples from different parts of the world.

According to Almond & Verba (1989) democracy this ideology was raised after World War Two from Western countries such as European countries and especially at the same time United States was rapidly expanding society through the movement towards technology, great uniformity of rationality of organisations in the world, and it made the direction of political change less important. Moreover, Amartya Sen (1999) argued that the ideology of democracy was originated in ancient Greece, back to two millennia ago, there were piecemeal efforts at democratisation, the idea of democracy was put into practise before it collapsed and replaced by authoritarian form of government. He continued explained that democracy cannot be identified with majority rule as in democracy should be defined as a complex demand including of respect the voting rights and election results, in a way it also requires protection of liberties, freedoms, legal entitlements, rights to freedom of speech, uncensored distribution of news and fair feedback.

Besides that, the concept of democracy give a general meaning of legal and equal practise political self determination which hold within social, economic and cultural condition. It is a system of government that is formed through a fair voting system by all eligible citizens either directly or indirectly vote to elect their representatives. However, this is a long process which needs to take time to emerge, strengthen democracy, and gradually develop as a working system of governance. There are a lot of influential and factors causes the rise of democracy in different parts of the world, for instance, time changes, financial economic, educations, advanced technology and so on.

Nevertheless, media does play a critical role and a big part in shaping democracy due to the invention of radio, television and especially the internet. Apparently media is an important mechanism to deliver information to the people in terms of political, social and economical current activities happening around our surroundings and the world. The form of news can be current issues and it also can be in a form of forewarned people about future problems and issues so that the people are aware of all kinds of activities happening. This is the main function of old media, one-way communication to the public. On the other hand, the introduction of internet has changed into two-way communication between the public and media, which has become the global attention today. The media are becoming more pervasive nowadays than they were back to few decades ago. The availability has expanded and usage of mass media are facts of everyone’s life. People nowadays are bombarded with all kinds of information everyday more efficient than back times, and media is part of everyone’s life. Meanwhile, it enhances the public awareness of what is happening within and outside the country. Hence, people have become more knowledgeable than living without consuming media, it can strengthening democracy due to making comparison with the other regions or countries’ influential.

According to Mccombs and L. Shaw et al., (1997 cited in Swanson and Mancini, 1996), summing up the importance of mass media especially the television news, continue explained that citizens’ voting decisions reflect impermanent public opinions instead of historical allegiances has eventually led to a struggle political situation depending the independent media establishment such as who in charge of the agendas of campaigns.

In many ways, political system has a strong bond depending on the media just like how the media has to depend on politics too. Media has been always present, however, it is simultaneously always been blamed and praised from the people for many aspects of political issues. Nevertheless, the role of government is essential in democracy, and then media has a role to inform the public about government’s action, in fact they should also analyse and give opinions without bias on their significance. Media might not be able to report news hundred percent without bias but they should try to minimise the biasness when reporting news. Journalist will investigate stories, reveal wrongs and raise issues that should be addressed. Hence, media is justified to play a big role in democracy as a balancing factor to enable the public aware of government’s movement to enable good government. However, media industries can play a role in democracy but it is not easy to achieve. There are certain factors such as ownership power, profitability purpose, reduce risk and so on that will influence the role of media. So, further analysis of three countries, United States, China and Malaysia about their media system.

Basically the media industries in United States can be divided to three types, media conglomerates, mainstream media and a lot of small media companies. Focus on the media conglomerates, there are six “media giants” in the United States which is the category of media conglomerates, major media companies. The “Big 6” are GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, The Warner and CBS currently in control of 90% of what the people read, watch and listen to. Back to 1983, 90% of American media was approximately owned by 50 companies but now the “Big 6” owned the same 90% American media. Their international revenues are increasingly a large percentage of the income of these media companies.

The implications of major media companies is that they has the ownership power to control over the media content as in their aim is to maximise profits. Corporate ownership of media is a factor that influenced media role. The news information will avoid biases of owners, advertisers and journalists themselves. Moreover, commercial advertising causes commercial media sending information to meet expectations of people due to market competition. These major media organisations has the power to influence media performances, thus, media democrats can considered not exist in the United States.

In the United States, the press was assigned the label of the “watchdogs of democracy” and also “fourth estate” based on the American tradition of journalism due to media often exposing the act of offence of the power holders within a democratic system. (Jebril and Stetka et al., 2013 cited in Waisbord, 2000). Media in United States often been expected their press freedom would rank top in the world but in year 2013, press freedom of United States was ranked at the 32th in the Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders whereas actually Finland has got the first rankings press freedom for the third year, it has distinguished as most respects media freedom in the world. Therefore, media in United States is always been a lot lower than people thought or expected. US has ranked in a lower numbers for a few years especially during the period when Bush Administration’s “War on Terror”. However, after Barrack Obama takes over, it was looking better but in the recent years.

American media has a lot of issues in these recent years. Problems such as scandals about media manipulation, plagiarism, political propaganda, sliding profits, lower audiences and so on, those issues challenge the reliability, inaccuracy and bias in the United States media industry. It made it very difficult to let the public to obtain an open and objective view of many issues in terms of cultural, economic, political and military activities that involve in the United States. Media control and free press is crucial for balancing and functioning democracy, because if it is not truly free, there will be manipulation and concentration of views, that will undermine the democracy system.

On the other hand, China has a different media system, China is authoritarian capitalism but becoming less authoritarian because their economy is booming. Zhao (1998) argued that during Mao Zedong’s administrations, the media in China underlies a “Party principle”, it means that news media has to accept the Party’s guiding ideology, propagate the Party’s programs and policies, and the Party’s leadership, follow the Party’s organisational and press policies. Later on, he continued explain the Chinese media was reformed in the late 1970s and practices the Cultural Revolution, the objective from media has changed in the new era of economic openness and reform as in reporters began to report news in a more truthfulness, timeliness and broadened the scope of reporting news to the people.

In year 2013, China is ranked at 174th in the Free Press Index from Reporters Without Borders. China is placed at such a low rankings because of several factors, internet censorship, action of extrajudicial arrests and controlling news and information system by the government. There is a special case in China which is the government restrict the people to use Google, Facebook, Twitter, and etc. These websites are very popular in the world but they are not available to access in China because of government’s restriction and law enacted. However, China has their own version of Google that is called Baidu, and a social website in Chinese language called Weibo, these Chinese version of websites are popular and widely use among the citizens in China. Hence, it can be argued that media in China has limited freedom reporting news although they has gone through a market reformation. Chinese is still at the stage of struggling for democratisation and mass media in China is not transparent, hence, the media in China does not play a good role in democracy as well.

Besides that, Malaysia is the next country chosen as example to further explain and compare with the concept of media democracy. Case (2012, p.26) argued that Malaysia’s political system always been labelled as a “newly contested semi-democracy”. Moreover, Mauzy (2006) continue explained that Malaysia has the characteristics of hybrid regimes which means it is a combination of both democratic traits and authoritarian features in Malaysian government system. Besides that, Heufers (2002, p.40) mentioned that Malaysia is steadily moving forward and strengthening democracy. Thus, Malaysia is a semi-democracy country, the mass media in this country has gained attention from the public because people tend to seek for transparency of media but then the media is under government controlled.

Malaysia is moving forward to democracy as mentioned by the scholar Heufers, but the media in Malaysia is not transparency at all and there is no freedom of press. It can be described that media works for the government, every published press will not revealed the truth against the government or even the government servants. According to George (2006, p47) argued that the Malaysia government uses licensing systems to control over media industries by require publishers to apply annual permits, in fact, journalists and publishers can be cancelled or suspended publications’ licenses through state force. Wang (1998) also mentioned the Minister for Home Affairs using The Printing Presses and Publication Act to gain absolute control over the mainstream media in Malaysia. When the media is under government control, published news and information are not credible, then, media does not play a role in democracy as a balancing factor to ensure the action of government.

The three countries chosen to discuss above, United States, China and Malaysia, they represent democratic, authoritarian and semi-democracy systems of government. Mainstream media in these countries are either dominant by big organizations or control by government. Subsequently, new media in these countries have a freedom to publish news except for China which has restriction in access to some websites. United States and Malaysia are free to have online journalisms publish news, internet blogging and freedom to express in social websites. In conclusion, media has the role to play in democracy to provide information to the people, analyse and give opinions about politically, economically and culturally activities without bias. That is the journalism professional standard role to fulfil public needs. But it is very difficult that media to achieve to play a role in democracy and free from interferences. Every country in the world has their own government and media system, it depends on how the government system works. No matter media industries are private own or government owned, the ownerships have their intentions to gain interest for themselves and put public at the second.


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