Media and Democracy from a European Perspective
- Hannu NieminenHannu NieminenDepartment of Social Research, Media and Communication Studies, University of Helsinki
There is no immediate or absolute relationship between the media and democracy in the sense that, without media, there could be no democracy. Similarly, it does not follow that with the (modern) media comes democracy. Autocracies exist wherein the media supports a political system, and likewise, democracies exist wherein the media works to undermine a political system. However, most often the media and democracy are viewed as supporting each other. This connection is the product of a long historical development, one peculiar to European (and North American) societies, involving not only institutions and practices directly linked to the media-based and democratic processes, but numerous other institutions (such as education, the political system, religion, etc.) as well.
The media are not the only institutions that promote (or do not promote) democratic legitimacy. Other major institutions of such influence include education, religion, public authority, cultural institutions, and political systems, among others. From a wider societal viewpoint, the role of the media is rather reduced in influence. If, for example, an education system is based on ethnic or other forms of segregation, or if there is widespread religious intolerance, or if public authority suffers from corruption, it is obvious that the media has only so many resources to encourage systemic legitimacy. The fundamental interrelatedness of different social institutions makes it difficult, or even impossible, to study the media as a phenomenon isolated from the rest of society. For this reason, we should be careful when making comparisons between the media in different countries, even the media outlets within liberal democracies.
In addition, there is no consensus as to the right balance of media and other social institutions in a democracy. Throughout the history of democracy, the relations between institutions (the political system, economy, media, and civil society) have undergone renegotiations and adjustments during times of crisis. Over the past few decades, this relationship appears to have reached a new crisis, one that continues to this day and still lacks a clear solution. In many countries, civil society–based media reform movements have been established with clear goals to further democratize media systems. One of the key arguments of these movements has centered on the contradiction between the constitutional obligations of democratic countries and the reality that, in practice, these rights do not apply equally to all. There remain major differences today between different social groups in terms of open access to and the unrestricted availability of information, the ability to utilize information according to one’s needs, having a voice represented by decision-makers, and respect for privacy and personal integrity.