For a Democracy, It Is Vital to Be Able to Tell Facts Apart

Our editor Robert Nemeth talks to Marius Dragomir and Astrid Söderström, authors of a recent study on the state of state media globally, which covers 546 state media outlets in 151 countries in the world, and it found that government control has reached extremely high levels: nearly 80% of these state-administered media companies lack editorial independence.

Marius Dragomir is the Director of CEU Democracy Institute’s Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS). He previously worked for the Open Society Foundations where he managed the research and policy portfolio of the Program on Independent Journalism in London. He has also been one of the main editors for its flagship research and advocacy project, Mapping Digital Media, which became the largest policy research project ever. He was the main writer and editor of OSF’s Television Across Europe, a comparative study of broadcast policies in 20 European countries. Marius has been advising international organizations including Council of Europe and UNESCO.

Astrid Söderström is a political science and international relations student in Budapest, with a minor in journalism. She worked as a research intern in CMDS throughout the summer. She has a long background in working as an administrative assistant for open access journals as well as in different data-related projects. Originally from Finland, she’s been living in Hungary since 2017 and even represented the country internationally in her sport, synchronized skating.

Robert Nemeth: Why did you look at state media, and why now?

Astrid Söderström: Well, I can’t take much credit for what inspired the study. I wanted to join CMDS for an internship because I study both political science and journalism. And I was interested in joining Marius in this study because there was an opportunity to do something comparative.

Marius Dragomir: Well, the answer to the first part of the question, we looked at the media because state media is very important.

These are dominant media outlets in most of the countries in the world, simply because they have a privileged position,

they get funding from the state, they get infrastructure from the state, they are owned by governments. And in many cases, they reach out to most of the population. So they are very important to study and to understand. Why now? In fact, I have collected data about state media for the past 18 years, we have created a database of all the state media in the world, and from time to time we check how they are doing, how independent they are. And the study that we recently released is the result of such a recent check of the health of state media in 151 countries.

What do you think is the value of public service media today? Why is it important?

AS: Well, I see it as a servant for the citizens and a leader in objective journalism, and the quality of journalism in the country as a whole. And at best state support, such as funding, can contribute in keeping the overall media field competitive and always developing.

MD: The question here is whether we have really public service media everywhere in the world. The answer, that you can find also in the study, is that we do not have. In fact,

in many countries, these media are politicized. They are controlled by the governments.

In many cases they play a propaganda role. We need public media that are independent, that do not depend financially on the state, and public media where governments do not meddle, especially when it comes to ownership structures and governance structures. This being said, I think public media in many countries have to reform themselves. It is true that many young people do not use public media. But if public media offer good content, and if they are recognized as being credible and neutral, I think they will manage to attract more audience.

Do we need public service media, especially when young audiences turn more and more to social media platforms, watch less TV, and consume less traditional media?

AS: I’m not sure if it’s completely true that young people turn to social media. They use social media, for sure, also to find news, but they might not consider social media as a credible source of news on its own. This is now country specific to Finland, but there the trust in mass media is relatively high at around 65%. And at the same time, trust in social media is around 8%. So, the role of state media is to work as a kind of filter, for example, for disinformation, and

it can be utilized to reach young audiences, through social media.

Trust in different types of media differ greatly on a country basis. And for good reasons, because in some countries and regions, state media have historically functioned as a mouthpiece for the government. In other regions, there is an ongoing media capture by the government. In those cases, social media could be an important or even preferred source of information. But ideally, I don’t think social media is a good leader in this and I think the best way would be for them to work in cooperation.

MD: Yes, indeed, we need public media. Now more than ever.

You mentioned a few times in the report the expression media capture. What is media capture?

MD: This is a phenomenon that is very troubling in many countries in the world. There are various scholars writing about the phenomenon of media capture, we have done some work into that at the Center as well in the past five years or so. The media capture is essentially the situation when people with political power,

people in government, usually associated with powerful and wealthy businesses, take over media outlets, as many as possible, to use them for propaganda or for their own interests.

We came up with a model that I hope is useful for those looking to recognize situations of media capture, where media capture is a combination of four things. One is control of regulation, the second is use of public funding to control the media, the third is control of the state media, and the fourth is takeover of ownership of private media. When you tick all these four boxes in a media environment, you surely have a situation of media capture, which is indeed very bad for the quality of journalism and for editorial independence.

The report also introduced a new typology, the state media matrix. Could you please describe it?

MD: We felt that it is important to have this taxonomy that we introduced in the study, because it’s not very useful or very productive for anybody to look at state media just in terms of black and white. Usually, we talk about state media and describe it as state control, if they are controlled by the state and used as propaganda channels, or public service media that are independent from the government. But in between, we have a lot of examples and models where the situation is not black and white, where for example, a media outlet is financed or managed by the state but has editorial independence. Or we have situations when a media outlet doesn’t have editorial independence, but at the same time is not financed by the state. And I think we have to study all those to really understand the nuances and the complexity of the state media sector.

The report identifies seven state media models and each of them is characterized by various degrees of independence. Can you describe these models, if possible, with examples?

MD: The seven models came through the application of a methodology that consists of three key sets of criteria. The first set is funding of the state media. Here we wanted to see whether the media outlet is funded by the government or through public resources. The second set of criteria has to do with governance and ownership. Here, we wanted to establish whether a media outlet is owned by state bodies, by ministries and so on, or whether its governance structures are appointed by the government. The third set of criteria has to do with the editorial independence, and here obviously, we measured whether a media outlet is editorially autonomous and able to report with total freedom.

When you apply these three sets of criteria to the 546 state media in the world, you come up with this seven-model metrics. Now, when it comes to these models, I think, we can start describing it by saying that at the opposite ends of the spectrum,

we have the state-controlled media on the one hand and the independent public media on the other.

Obviously, the state-controlled media is the worst model in terms of editorial independence in the whole matrix. These are usually media outlets that are funded and owned by the government, and whose editorial coverage is sanctioned by censorship boards. The model is widespread in the world. In fact, two third of all the state media in the world fall into this model. We find such state-controlled media in countries such as China, several Southeast Asian nations, numerous countries in the Middle East, most of Africa, which is quite worrying, but also a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America.

In contrast, when it comes to the independent public media model, which is the ideal model, where media outlets are not controlled by the government, they are not funded, and are not in any way dependent on governments. We have, unfortunately, a very low number of such outlets. In fact, out of all the media outlets that we have analyzed only 18 fall into this model, most of them in several Western European countries such as the UK, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, some Nordic countries, and some in Central and Eastern Europe and Asia.

Then when we talk about the other models between these two pure extremes, we have five hybrid models. To understand them, I would divide them into two groups. On the one hand, there is the group of independent media that operate independently of the government when it comes to their editorial agenda. Then there are the group of captured media. These are state media outlets that are editorially controlled by the government.

In the independent media category, we have three classes of state media,

one, which is in my opinion, closest to the independent public model, is the independent state managed media model. These are usually media outlets that are majority owned by the government, but they are not reliant on state subsidies, and they enjoy editorial autonomy. Examples include Channel Four in the UK, the public broadcasters in Norway, Denmark, France, and some news agencies in countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and some media outlets in other parts of the world: the TVNZ public broadcaster in New Zealand, and the public media outlet in Costa Rica.

When it comes to the independent state funded model, this is the model where they get state funding, but are not owned by the state, their governing bodies are not controlled by the government, and they also enjoy editorial autonomy. This is a rare model, and it’s found only in some Latin American countries. Here we have, for example, the university broadcasters in countries like Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Mexico, and we have such outlets in Europe, such as the Cyprus news agency, public broadcasters in countries like Estonia or the Netherlands, also in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Jamaica.

And finally, to finish with the class of editorially independent models, we have the independent state funded and state managed media model where we include media outlets that receive funding from the government, and are owned by the government, but they enjoy editorial autonomy. I know that it might be paradoxical. Anybody would ask, why would the government fund and own a media outlet without controlling their editorial coverage? It’s a very good question, and it’s quite unusual to have that situation, but we have examples, including a newspaper publisher in Cote d’Ivoire, public broadcasters in countries like Taiwan, Israel, Moldova, Ukraine or Latvia, the regional broadcasters in Spain. And here I would include the US Agency for Global Media, the company that operates the American owned global broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe.

To finish, we have

the hybrid captured media category, with two classes of media outlets.

On the one hand, we have what we call the captured public state managed media model. This is characterized by government control over governing structures and ownership, and of course editorial coverage. These media outlets are usually very close to become fully state controlled media, and the group includes newspaper publishers in some African countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe or Ghana. Here we include public service media whose editorial coverage is controlled by the government in countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Japan, or the United Arab Emirates. We also include media conglomerates that run both broadcast media outlets and print media in countries such as Angola, China, or Russia.

Finally, we have the captured private media model that is characteristic for media outlets that are editorially controlled by state authorities, but they do not have any kind of state ownership or formal intervention in the governing bodies of these media outlets. Here we have a number of outlets in countries as diverse as Morocco, Cambodia, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Turkey, Serbia, and of course, the most extreme cases here are Hungary and Poland.

Among these seven state media models, there are some where public service media are fully or partially independent.. But is everything shiny and bright in these countries? For example, Astrid, you’re coming from Finland and, the Finnish public service media is included in the report. What’s the situation there?

AS: Finland in this study is editorially independent, but it is still state-managed, and even though it’s not predominantly state-funded, it still receives sizable funding from the government. The point of this study is also to show that

there are different types of influence that the government can have on a media outlet.

Editorial control is only one of them. We also looked at funding and ownership. When there are these types of ties to the government, it creates a certain dependency for that media outlet, and when there is a dependency, it lays a fertile ground for media capture. Even though the media outlet might now be editorially independent, there is always a risk in the future.

So, in this study we looked at editorial independence, state ownership, and funding, and in Finland’s case there is a sizable funding, but it’s not more than 50%.

Does this funding affect editorial content? What have you seen?

AS: It is proven in this study, that Finnish public media are editorially independent. But the funding is important for our state media company, YLE. It is keeping the field competitive. Finnish state media kept up really well with modernization and uses modern tools of journalism really well. That is, for example, credited to the state funding, but furthermore, it keeps the whole field competitive. Other outlets are also developing together with the state media, and the whole media landscape in Finland is going through leaps in technological developments.

This is really crucial in connection to social media as well.

The Finnish state media have utilized social media really well.

They have a good presence on Instagram and Facebook, for example. I myself click on Instagram posts and stories on a daily basis to read the corresponding articles. This is something that all media outlets, also state media outlets should think about.

There is a division in the Finnish state media called YLE Desk. They specialize in data journalism and use, for example, interactivity and multimedia really well, and that works in cooperation with social media because they both engage young audiences. They use all these tools to work on stories that inform the public about disinformation that helps people to expose deepfake stories and so on. This is, I think, one of the most important things that modern state media could be doing.

What happens in countries where public service media do not fulfill their functions? We see it in several Central European countries, for example, as you also mentioned. What kind of challenge does this present to democracy?

MD: To focus on the positive side, you have many studies showing that

if you have a solid public service media system that is editorially independent, well-funded, and in which the government has no influence, then you have better quality of information,

you have more lively debates, more participation of the citizens in democracy, you have a lot of good things, so to say. In countries that do not have such public service media, usually what happens is that you have a very politicized public sphere, you have a very politicized narrative, and you have a very high level of polarization, many media outlets are controlled by the government and propagate the interests of the government. On the other hand, you have a small sector of independent media that are trying to counter the narrative of the government. In such places, you lose much of the role that journalism should play in a democracy. You rarely have media outlets that are only focused on reporting facts, and you have a very ideology-focused narrative, which has a very bad impact on the quality of information you have, very bad impact on how the citizens are getting informed, and very bad impact, for example, on the quality of elections.

AS: For a democracy, it is vital to be able to tell facts apart. And if state media is disturbing the access to factual information or they are hazing, then it is a problem for democracy.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In cooperation with Karen Culver

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