Media capture is the result not just of technological and market forces, but of political choices made by political and business leaders. It is a complex problem, but not inevitable. Exacerbated by the economic weakness of the traditional news business and the growing concentration of ownership of media industries, media capture has become one of the major tools for undermining democratic societies and handing them over to authoritarian rule.
Finding a way to deter media capture is a growing priority globally, especially for civil society organisations and the international media development community, but also for a few far-sighted governments. According to Mark M Nelson, senior director at the Centre for International Media Assistance, who contributed a chapter (What is to be done? Options for combating the menace of media capture) in the booklet Media Capture and the threat to democracy, the effort in this regard so far has been miserably inadequate. The following are some pertinent excerpts from it:
Too many countries are finding themselves trapped between rising authoritarianism and a sycophantic media failing to play the critical role of providing oversight and accountability. Stronger efforts are needed at the country, regional and global levels, and media capture should be recognised as a major strategic risk that can derail the political development of countries and undermine international security.
Countries need to include media policy as part of their ongoing debates about effective governance and as a critical element of their overall vision for their societies. This would include a deeper understanding of the kinds of laws, norms, regulations and practices that create a sustainable democratic media environment.
They might examine how countries in other parts of the world, have confronted this problem. They may need to build new independent institutions that can implement and carry out an effective media policy.
And they need to engage at the global level to ensure that global internet and mobile phone governance takes into account the needs of developing countries. Civil society activism and oversight will be needed to bring better governance into this arena and help the national media systems to evolve over time, along with technology and new developments in the global media.
Better governance should be coupled with a broader strategy to understand the business and competitive challenges that news media organisations are facing, particularly in developing countries. More complete data is needed to track the spread of media concentration and capture.
Innovation and new thinking is needed about how to finance independent media, and how to create economic and political incentives for corporate social responsibility among media owners and the broader media industry. Media literacy needs to be included in schools and made available to a much wider range of people. Everyone needs to understand how to recognise high-quality information and how to produce and share it on social media.
International players should integrate media reforms into the overall development agenda. Organisations like the World Bank should expand policy work on the media sector, following the recent World Development Report with concrete action, the most important of which is comprehensive policy advice to countries struggling to improve media sector governance. The OECD and other international organisations should continue to build policy knowledge and coordination and fund media policy reform processes.
Ultimately, establishing effective governance and the rule of law will require that news media companies operate within a legal framework that defends freedom of expression and establishes a level playing field to promote a diversity of views.