In spite of journalism’s transnational nature, there is no common history of the subject and thus no common history of journalism in authoritarian societies, a field which can only be studied by bringing together historical facts about journalism in societies that experienced authoritarian regimes at some point in their history. Journalism in authoritarian societies is closely linked with forms of manipulation and censorship. While censorship is older than journalism, it was the rise of journalism as a profession that prompted authoritarian states to develop fully fledged censorship mechanisms and systems.
The first forms of censorship of the printed word were introduced by the Catholic Church shortly after the printing press was invented in the 16th century. But it was from the 17th century on that censorship models aimed at controlling the emergent periodical press were created by absolutist monarchies. Secular institutions gradually took over censorship from the church, developing a more complex control system that would methodically check on the printed information distributed widely to the general public.
While censorship systems were scrapped in most of Europe for a short period during the 19th century, the following century saw the rise of more sophisticated and repressive forms of censorship. They were developed by fascist dictatorships in several European countries and by the Soviet system in Russia. These models, particularly the Soviet propaganda system, influenced a spate of authoritarian regimes in communist nations all over the globe during the Cold War.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s sounded the death knell of a series of authoritarian regimes, heralding an era of press freedom and independent journalism. But many regimes, particularly in the former Soviet Union, soon revived old authoritarian practices to keep their people under control.
In spite of the limitations on journalistic coverage in authoritarian societies, journalists reacted in various ways to all sorts of authoritarian practices, ranging from harsh censorship systems to less intrusive, yet effective, controlling mechanisms. They did so either by seizing opportunities that appeared during more relaxed political times or by developing circumvention tools that allowed them to reach out to their audiences. The rise of the Internet brought about new opportunities for journalism to reach and engage audiences, as governments struggle to push back by designing new forms of control and censorship.
In the past 50 years, there has been a burgeoning literature on the role of journalism in promoting governance and supporting anti-corruption efforts. Much of this comes from the work of economists and political scientists, and there is a lot for journalism studies scholars to learn from. The three disciplines grapple with many of the same questions; including the effects of journalism on society and journalists’ role as watchdogs and scarecrows. Economists are the boldest about establishing causality between journalism and governance, arguing that a free and open press can curb corruption and promote accountability. However, this is not always borne out in practice as modern technological and political developments have threatened journalism’s business model, especially in regions without a historically robust free press. Media capture continues to be a growing problem in places where government and business interests are aligned and seek to instrumentalize the media.
Further quantitative research and exploration of the impediments to the functioning of a free media will help our understanding of the contemporary problems facing journalists and how they can be solved in order to improve governance across the world. There is much more to be learned about the impact of journalism on governance and studies on this topic should not only cross disciplines but must also be decolonialized so that the field has more information on how the media contributes, or not, to governance in the Global South and in the different media systems outlined by Hallin and Mancini as well as the updated analysis of Efrat Nechushtai.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not-for-profit groups, which are independent of commercial businesses and government agencies. They claim to serve various notions of the public good, including advocacy and service delivery. So the definition of an “NGO” is broad, including many different kinds of organizations, such as aid agencies, human rights, indigenous, feminist and environmental lobby groups.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the predecessors of NGOs—pressure groups—tried to advance their cause by cultivating close relations with the mainstream press, and/or publishing their own periodicals. But from the late 20th century onward, many NGOs started routinely producing their own news content, including written text but also photojournalism, video, and sophisticated interactive projects. Some of this material is disseminated through “alternative” outlets, social media and activist hubs. But it is difficult for NGOs to gain a mass audience in these ways, so most major NGOs recruit or commission experienced journalists to carry out this work for them.
Much of the research in this area has focused on either journalists’ increased dependence on NGOs, or on the restructuring of NGOs’ resources, priorities and working cultures in accordance with news norms. Most scholars have also focused on the work of international aid agencies and/or human rights organizations, as well as particular kinds of crises, such as famines, hurricanes and conflicts. The extant literature is heavily weighted toward organizations which are based in North America or Europe. However, a small but growing number of scholars are challenging this, exploring the news work of other NGOs and/or news outlets, in other countries, and during other kinds of news-making periods, including conferences, summits and “quiet” news weeks.
These more diverse approaches to studying NGOs as news organizations have led to the theorization of NGO journalism becoming more nuanced. Researchers have shifted away from polarized, and somewhat over-generalized, assessments of the effects of NGO news-making, toward a greater awareness of complexity and heterogeneity. This has involved them using theory about organizations, institutions, fields and moral economies. However, the kinds of power which NGO workers are able to acquire by becoming news reporters is still under-theorized, and scholars still tend to avoid examining the frameworks they use as a basis for normative evaluation. Finally, changing media practices (including social media practices) and NGOs’ adoption of new communication technology (including satellite and drone imagery) means that this area of news work is still evolving very rapidly.
The public sphere is a social entity with an important function and powerful effects in modern, democratic societies. The idea of the public sphere rests on the conviction that people living in a society, regardless of their age, gender, religion, economic or social status, professional position, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or nationality, should be able to publicly express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about issues that matter to them and impact their lives. This expression should be as free as possible in form and function and should operate through means and methods that people themselves deem suitable, so not via channels that are official or state-sanctioned. The classic Habermasian idea of the public sphere is that it is used by private individuals (not officials or politicians) who should be able to converse with each other in a public-spirited way to develop opinions that impact state or public-body decisions and policies. Also contained within this classic idea is the conviction that public sphere conversations should be rational (i.e., logical, evidence-based, and properly motivated and argued using an acceptable set of rhetorical devices) in order to convince others of the usefulness of a position, statement, or opinion. In commonsensical, political, and journalistic understandings, the public sphere is a critical component of a democracy that enables ordinary citizens to act as interlocutors to those who hold power and thereby hold them to account. As such it is one of the elements whereby democracy as a system is able to claim legitimacy as the “rule of the people.”
Journalism’s imbrication in the social imaginary of the public sphere dates back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe when venues like coffee houses, clubs, and private homes, and media like newspapers and newsletters were being used by a mixture of gentry, nobility, and an emerging middle class of traders and merchants and other educated thinkers to disseminate information and express ideas. The conviction that journalism was the key vehicle for the conveyance of information and ideas of public import was then imbedded in the foundations of the practice of modern journalism and in the form exported from Western Europe to the rest of the world. Journalism’s role as a key institution within and vehicle of the public sphere was thus born. Allied to this was the conviction that journalism, via this public sphere role and working on behalf of the public interest (roughly understood as the consensus of opinions formed in the public sphere), should hold political, social, and economic powers to account. Journalists are therefore understood to be crucial proxies for the millions of people in a democracy who cannot easily wield on their own the collective voices that journalism with its institutional bases can produce.