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How media and politics shape each other in the New Europe

Authors:

Abstract

Denying the huge influence of ‘new’ media over politics in our times would be foolish: and since politicians are no fools the development of the new media seems to be accompanied by the development of new strategies to control media contents and influence. While it remains undeniable that the social control patterns of a given society have a considerable influence over how the media system is shaped, I believe that globalization has opened the door to outside influences on a scale undreamed at the times of Four Theories of the Press.
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* Mrs. Alina Mungiu Pippidi is the director of the Romanian Academic Society and teaches at the National School of Political Sciences and
Administration, Bucharest.
Alina
Mungiu-PPippidi*
Abstract:
Denying the huge influence of ‘new’ media over politics in our times would be foolish: and since politicians are
no fools the development of the new media seems to be accompanied by the development of new strategies to
control media contents and influence.While it remains undeniable that the social control patterns of a given
society have a considerable influence over how the media system is shaped, I believe that globalization has
opened the door to outside influences on a scale undreamed at the times of Four Theories of the Press.
Keywords:
Media, media freedom, captured media, censorship, Eastern Europe, democracy
How
Media
and
Politics
Shape
Each
Other
in
the
New
Europe
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Line
of
inquiry
How well do media theories from the devel-
oped West fit postcommunist Europe? Surely since
the late eighties of the 20th century to nowadays the
evolution of the media in Eastern Europe (EE) was
spectacular and often unpredictable for media theo-
rists. In their classic Four Theories of the Press, authors
Sibert, Peterson and Scramm1famously claimed that
‘the press has always taken on the form and col-
oration of the social and political structures within
which it operates. Especially, it reflects the system of
social control whereby the relations of individuals and
institutions are adjusted’. How does this fit the role
that media seems to play in prompting revolutions,
insurrections and other forms of rapid political
change, a role so obvious in Eastern Europe that it
shaped the budgets of democracy promoters donors
everywhere for the last two decades? The ascension of
Al-Jazeera, ignored for many years by the American
government also opened the door to fresh reflection
on the influence of media. Some believe that have
entered an age where electronic transnational media
can be more influential than any government. It can
mobilize or discourage government action, but can
also play a role towards other politically influential
groups: political oppositions, subversion movements
and civil society. In American military academies
media studies re-experience the flourishing of the
Vietnam War days, the previous war lost by US in
newsrooms prior to being settled in the battlefield.
Media researchers side either with classical theory,
which denies much political influence to the media, or
new, post-CNN theory, which goes to great length
emphasizing it. It is only fair to say that history moved
faster than theory and there is considerable catching
up to do by scholars in this field.
The history of the media in postcommunist
Europe in the last two decades could find an equiva-
lent in a history of the French media between 1788,
with the invitation by the King to citizens to address
pamphlets to the General States and 1800, with
Bonaparte’s law, which reestablished control. In-
between, one can find moments of triumph and
moments of agony, journalists rising to be heads of
legislatures as well as journalists sentenced by revolu-
tionary tribunals. One needs a broad historical frame-
work to examine the relationship between media and
politics before, during and after times of upheaval, or,
depending on the point on the time curve a study
focuses (ascending-revolutionary or descending
counter-revolutionary) results may seriously distort the
general picture. Alexis de Tocqueville famously said
that the Revolution that began in 1848 was not
another one, but another chapter of the one which
had started in 1789. This sheds some light on what
could be a good time frame to study revolutionary
times.
The new era of media influence we entered
with the 1989 revolutions is certainly related to tech-
nology progress. The main newspaper of the
Ukrainian Orange Revolution, Ukrayinska Pravda, was
an Internet based publication which had 1.5 million
hits a day during the 2004 elections. When Serb
authorities cracked down on Belgrade B-92 radio sta-
tion it could move to the Internet and continue to
broadcast. Classic media consumption may be path
dependent of the national context2: however, it is the
‘new’ media which has a growing public, and the
exchanges between the new and the old, as well as
directly between new media and politics allow a
media system presently to develop more independ-
ently from the local circumstances. This gives the
media higher potential for playing an influential role
and makes it harder to control by traditional means.
To understand the relation between media and
politics in postcommunist Eastern Europe this paper
builds on scholarship that presumes a two-way rela-
tionship3and discusses a circular model. It also looks
at a broad timeframe, to cover revolutionary after-
maths as well as revolutions themselves. I attempt ini-
tially to propose a historical explanation for the birth
of free media in postcommunist Europe, and the dif-
ferent paths that national media systems travel from a
moment on, as well as the causes of this divergence
and of change more generally. Once this framework
established, I discuss the direct influence of media
over politics looking at two different periods. For rev-
olutionary times, and the influence of media on
changing governments, I review briefly the role of the
media in the recent ‘colored’ Revolutions in non-
European Union accession countries Georgia and
Ukraine. For aftermaths, and the role of media in ‘nor-
mal’ policymaking, I use a survey of cabinet members
in ten (postcommunist) new EU member countries.
Divergent
Development
Paths
The fall of Communism triggered intense
processes of change across Eastern Europe, especially
the part geographically closer to the West and sub-
jected to greater Western influence. The transitions
that followed were supposed to accomplish transfor-
mations from command economies to market
economies and from authoritarian/totalitarian
regimes to liberal democratic ones. In fact, even more
complicated processes were initiated in order to
accomplish these goals. These can be defined as
nation-building (agreeing who belongs to the political
community), state building (moving from despotic to
1Siebert, Fred. S, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Shramm (1956). Four Theories of the Press. Urbana. University of Illinois Press (1956: 1,2)
2Hallin, D. and C. Mancini (2004). Comparing Media Systems. Three Models of Media and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
3For a review, see Robinson, Piers 2001 Theorizing the Influence of Media on World Politics. Models on Media Influence on World Policy.
European Journal of Communication, Vol 16 (4) 523-544.
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infrastructural power), and, last but not least, society-
building. Out of the social standardization imposed
by Communism new social categories were needed
to emerge during transition, in order to build capital-
ism and democracy, the entrepreneurs, the politicians,
the journalists. Politicians and journalists are therefore
equally newcomers on the public scene of Eastern
Europe, at least in the democratic framework, and
both the political system and the media system had to
be created from scratch.
To what end? Following the fall of
Communism, nearly all East European countries
embarked in the building of a new, free media.
Countries that have made the most rapid progress
with the reforms did also privatize the state media,
took it off the budgets of the national and regional
authorities, and pursued economic and regulatory
policies aimed at creating an environment in which
the media business could take hold. As in Western
Europe, there was one great exception to this- state
broadcasting. In the same time, an alternative, unau-
thorized and unregulated media erupted in many of
these countries soon after the fall of the wall, some-
times preceding the privatization of state media.
By 2006, the Freedom of the Press survey
captured a mixed picture of postcommunist Eastern
Europe. Less than half of the former communist coun-
tries are free (EU new members plus a few Balkan
countries), with the rest stranded between partly free
and not free. If we look back in time, we find Poland,
Hungary and the Czech Republic evolving from not
free to free in the space of only two years (1989-
1991), with a year of ‘partly free’ in between. This is
‘revolution’. Countries that secede from federal USSR
(Baltics especially) or Yugoslavia also record the great-
est evolution for the media during the political
upheaval. But later the trends become more mixed,
and even revert in some cases. Countries like
Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus, the Ukraine have known
alternate periods of progress and regress. So trends
do not only vary across countries, but also over time
for some of them.
Source: Freedom House 2004, www.freedomhouse.org
Legend: Greater scores mean less freedom.
Table
1. Freedom House scores of media freedom in EE
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By and large, we can identify two first phases
common to all the countries, liberalization, or the pas-
sage from total control to limited pluralism, with cen-
sorship and repression replaced with self-censorship
and partial control. The second phase is of deregula-
tion, mixing planned and spontaneous elements.
From here on, national paths travel in different direc-
tions. The explanation of these divergent paths far
exceeds the role of the media and falls within more
general democratization theory. The trajectory of a
country is greatly influenced by its proximity to the
West and all that derives from it (Western interest,
affluence of FDI), and of its own social pluralism
(development of civil society, itself influenced by a
range of other factors). However, it is fair to say, as
Way does4, that a phase of pluralism by default of the
early nineties (due mostly to the inability of incum-
bents to enforce authoritarian rule) is followed by a
divergence of paths, postcommunist countries
becoming either more democratic or, indeed, more
autocratic. I do not discuss more distant traditions
here, as none of East European countries, with the
exception of the Czech Republic, had a serious demo-
cratic tradition. And yet, the European Union and
Freedom House consider many of them accomplished
democracies presently. Whatever it is at the source of
path divergence in Eastern Europe, it is not pre-
Communist tradition.
Communist tradition seems to matter more,
and indeed different types of Communism operated
in Eastern Europe. Censorship in Soviet Union,
Romania and Albania was far harsher than in Poland
or Yugoslavia, and this impacted on the formation of
a class of real journalists with aspirations to be more
than just propagandists for the party. Otherwise, cen-
sorship was a general rule, broken only by
Gorbachev’s decision to replace outdated appa-
ratchik-censors with professional editors with the task
to urge self-censorship from journalists themselves.
The first two phases, from full control to par-
tial control during glasnost, and then next to deregu-
lation, either partial or total were common to most
postcommunist societies, excepting some Central
Asian countries. The fall of the Berlin Wall brings fast
deregulation and anarchy, with underground newspa-
pers surfacing without license, pirate radio stations
and a strong Western pressure to liberalize the media.
The state media is first de-monopolized, and then lib-
eralization follows as state frequencies are offered for
the bidding of the private sector. The deregulation
went faster and deeper in Central Europe than in for-
mer Soviet Union, except for the Baltic States, where
freedom of the media was inseparable from the
nation building process. In any event, more decisive
steps were taken to protect the new nascent free
media in countries where anticommunists won the
first round of free and fair elections. As shown in
Figure 1, from deregulation on following the demise
of Communism, three different paths were available,
so as national political systems traveled different jour-
neys so did the respective media systems. In some
countries, politics became more and more competi-
tive, and the media more and more pluralistic,
although it has remained a complex mixture of pro-
fessional with partisan media. In others, control of the
media returned, as the media was captured again,
either directly by governments or by vested interests
networked with politics.
At the extreme end of path 2, in some FSU
countries, the media, even after a promising begin-
ning, ended up captured. On the other end, in coun-
tries with very competitive politics, the media land-
scape has become gradually more plural and mostly
free, with considerable partisanship and only limited
capture. The freedom of the media score computed
by Freedom House and presented in Table 1 correlates
strongly with the corruption scores of postcommunist
countries also given by Freedom House within its
Nations in Transit project5. This means that in an envi-
4See Lucan A. Way Authoritarian State Building and Transitions in Western Eurasia’
A paper prepared for the workshop on “Transitions from Communist Rule in Comparative Perspective”, Encina Hall, Institute for
International Studies, Stanford University, CA. USA, November 15-16. 2002.
5Correlation between Nations in Transit Corruption Score for 26 postcommunist states (scores range from one to seven, with seven the
most corruption) and the FH Freedom of the Press scores (scores ranged from 17, for Estonia and Latvia, as the most free, to 96 for
Turkmenistan and 86 for Belarus, where the greatest infringements of media freedom were found. The correlation was highly significant
with a Pearson index of 0.81. The two scores are both ‘subjective’, but as they are computed through two different methodologies they can
be correlated.
Figure
1.Divergent paths from Communist media control
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ronment of systemic corruption we are likely to find a
captured media alongside a captured state. By media
capture I mean a situation in which the media has not
succeeded in becoming autonomous to manifest a
will of its own and to exercise its main function,
notably of informing people, but has persisted in an
intermediate state, whereas various groups, not just
the government, use it for other purposes. State cap-
ture in a postcommunist context designates the situa-
tion in which the postcommunist state has not suc-
ceeded in becoming an autonomous actor towards
interest groups or vested interests. Media capture in
postcommunist Europe is therefore not necessarily
captured by the state. As the groups which capture
the media either have already captured the state or
seek to do so, capture of the media (either public or
private) should be seen as a companion of state cap-
ture, a complementary phenomenon. Among the fea-
tures that make the landscape of media capture we
can count concentrated, nontransparent ownership
of media outlets, with important political actors con-
trolling the media, a strong linkage between media
and political elites, and important infiltration of the
media by secret services. Indicators of media capture
can give us important information on the trend the
media is on, towards more freedom or more capture.
We can find precise indicators to measure capture,
although indirectly. For instance, a large sector of
nonviable media living on covert sponsorship6indi-
cates a captured, not an autonomous media. The
expectation towards media in democratic countries is
of economic viability, if not of clear profit.
Capture distorts the main role of the media:
captured media outlets exist to trade influence and
manipulate information rather than to inform the
public, a phenomenon hard to fit into the classic gov-
ernment-perpetrator and media-victim paradigm. This
also indicates that media influence does exist,
although it could not be further from the influence of
professional journalism, be it more or less framed,
measured in laboratories of Western universities.
When media practices ranges from sheer disinforma-
tion to blackmail it can be remarkably influential in
politics. An influential media mogul in Romania creat-
ed a small party, and despite its never passing the
electoral threshold he managed to participate in both
left and right government coalitions. He has even
managed to prevent the first nominated Romanian
politician to become an EU commissioner, claiming –
without any foundation – that he was an informant of
Communist secret police. Disinformation wars raged
‘transitional’ Russia and are frequent in other coun-
tries as well.
The extent of media capture varies across the
spectrum of countries taking path 2. Scandals have
surfaced even in the most advanced democracies in
the region bringing evidence to document ‘capture’
attempts. In the Polish Rywingate scandal, director of
Gazeta Wyborcza Adam Michnik, who needed a
change in legislation so to buy TV network Polsat was
offered an informal ‘deal’ by a government intermedi-
ary. Such deals are actually carried out in other coun-
tries and nothing more is heard of them. Path 2 and
Path 3 (simple regression to censorship) can go sepa-
rately, or can coexist, for instance the private media
takes path 2 and the public one returns to path 3.
Ukraine and Russia are countries where the system
has been ‘mixed’ during most of the transition. Prior
to the 2004 Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian govern-
ment had fallen back to ‘temnyky’, written indications
for the media to know how to interpret the news. In
the leaked transcripts of the 2000-2004 Romanian
government meetings, two major government char-
acters compared the two types of control: capture
(indirect control) and open censorship (direct), to find
the latter much more effective. In their words: ‘I keep
wondering why do we continue to support the media
with the old tax breaks, with sponsoring and advertis-
ing, while what we get in return is just some vague,
individual reprieve’7.
Governments unable or unwilling to resort to
direct media control contribute to media capture
either directly or indirectly. State subsidies, bailouts in
case of debts, preferential distribution of state adver-
tising and tax breaks for media owners are traded in
exchange for favorable treatment of the media. In the
case of public broadcasting, anticommunists and
post-communists alike showed remarkable firm
beliefs in direct media effects8. Inheriting a system in
which public broadcasting was legally and financially
depending upon government, they have slowly
reformed it so to make it dependent of the political
majority in Parliament, practically legalizing political
control, a model also found in some EU countries.
Tenure of top executives, for instance, general manag-
6Belin, L. (2001). “Verdict against TV-6 is Latest Warning to Opposition Media,” in Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty: Russian Political
Weekly.1: 25.
7The Standing Committee of PSD, Oct 20th 2003. Stenogramele PSD. Editura Ziua, 3 volumes, Bucure?ti: 2004. The leaked transcripts of
the Romanian then government party Social Democrat (postcommunist) were under investigation by national anticorruption Prosecutor
beginning 2005. Former Affairs Minister Mircea Geoana was quoted by BBC World Service acknowleging the transcripts are genuine.
Several others PSD members made similar statements to the Romanian press. The Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (after January 2005 chair
of the Chamber of Deputies) denied their authenticity. See the review of transcripts in Romanian Journal of Political Science, fall 2004, pp
54-56, www.sar.org.ro/polsci/
8See Sukosd, M. and P. Bajomi-Lazar (2003) Reinventing Media. Media Policy Reform in East Central Europe. CPS Books. Budapest: Central
European University Press: 2003: 11 and Hall, Richard A. and O’Neil, Patrick (1998) “Institutions, Transitions, and the Media: A Comparison
of Hungary and Romania”, in O’Neil, Patrick (ed.) Communicating Democracy: The Media and Political Transitions. Boulder and London:
Lynne Rienner Publishers: 143
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formal regulations, but as those are influenced
strongly by international actors, it also uses less overt
means to control the media. External influence of var-
ious types varies greatly across the countries. Unlike
for other regions of the world, however, Western
influence mattered enormously in postcommunist
Europe. First, for providing an accessible cultural
model to be followed by journalists and politicians
alike; second, for the conditionality related to Council
of Europe, NATO and EU accessions; third, through
the permanent channels of communication between
professions, contributing to the re-socialization of
Easterners according to Western standards. This third
influence is mostly exercised directly on the media,
through training and assistance programs.
A mix of incentives and penalties, conditionali-
ty played the most direct and impressive role.
President Francois Mitterand famously called
Romania’s President Ion Iliescu in the summer of 1990
when opposition newspapers were closed to argue
for a softer handling of political opposition and the
media. International influence tuned Ion Iliescu into
an EU accession promoter and this conversion eventu-
ally changed the path of the country. No such call on
record exists for Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian
President, already elected four times (Mr. Iliescu
stepped down after a third mandate). International
conditionality seems to be powered only by strong
incentives, such as a prospect of EU accession, which
converts captors into more or less convincing pro-
Europeans. Most of the behavior described here
under ‘media capture’ falls in the realm of ‘informal
practices’. Practices can complement formal regula-
tions, but can also be competitive or substitutive in
others, where formal freedom (as enshrined in the
Constitution) is effectively sabotaged by capture or
direct control.
The public has an important feedback, to the
media via audience and circulation, to the govern-
ment through elections or opinion polls. The question
is why should governments care about media, if they
can buy or bully it at their will? The model suggests
two important answers to this question. The first is on
the role of the international community. As EU acces-
sion progresses or non-EU countries ask for foreign
assistance (such as grants from Millennium
Corporation) the cost of repressing the media grows
and becomes unaffordable for any government but
an isolated one, which either does not care for the
opinion of the international community or is able to
buy a good one by resources (such as oil or gas).
Capture develops as a substitute, but Freedom House
Nations in Transit or IREX Sustainability Index devel-
oped precisely in order to be able to look more quali-
tatively at media freedom. The second explanation
refers to the direct feedback of the public to the gov-
ernment presented in the model. In electoral democ-
racies or in times when revolutions occur as ‘waves’
er and news director, was less than a year during tran-
sition excepting the Baltic States and legislation has
often been revised to provide fresh opportunities to
dismiss executives who were not obedient enough.9
By and large, a model summarizing the com-
plex relationship between press and government in
transition accession countries is approximated in
Figure 2. The government regulates media through
9See Mungiu-Pippidi, A. (2004). ‘State into Public: the Failed Reform of State TV in East Central Europe’, Shorenstein Center on Press and
Politics, Harvard University, Working paper 2000#6, http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/presspol/publications/pdfs/alina.PDF
Figure
2. Context of the interaction media-government
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defying the media can only be afforded by popular
governments. Some governments, such as Putin’s or
Lukashenko’s had enough resources to subsidy house-
hold energy and come up with a variety of perks for
the public. These governments will not be brought
down by the media, as they are genuinely popular.
The largest share of the budget of the city of Rostov,
in Southern Russian Federation, is used to cover utili-
ties bills from private households: the majority of
inhabitants are beneficiaries. A comparable city,
Bucharest in Romania dedicates less than 3% to the
same purpose, at a comparable purchasing parity
power of the population. But most countries cannot
afford such strategies, they do not have the natural
resources. In those countries the voters’ feedback is
likely to work and the media can be very influential.
The three paths of the relations between media
and government in Figure 1 thus amount to three
government strategies: 1. direct control through
repression 2. indirect control through capture 3.
accommodation. The third strategy might be inspired
by genuine concern on how to sell policy acts to the
media or incorporate the views of public opinion into
policy, as well as by rational calculations of how to
‘look good’ to the media.
Media
Strikes
Back
The overriding concern of the first years, both
in Eastern Europe itself and the West, was on secur-
ing media freedom in postcommunist Europe and
establishing it on a firm legal and economic basis. But
even prior to setting up media as an autonomous
actor – a process completed only partly in some coun-
tries - media had been at the center of political
change in Eastern Europe, right from the very begin-
ning. Starting with the 1989 Romanian Revolution,
public television became not just a mouthpiece of
government or the victim of abuse, but also a crucial
actor. In 1989 Romania, public television extended
what could have arguably been a manageable revolt
in Bucharest only, into a national scale collapse of
Communism, by broadcasting the news that
Ceausescu had fled. One year later in Bulgaria, a shift
in the attitude of journalists working in public televi-
sion led directly to the fall of Communist PM Petr
Mladenov, and opened the door to radical political
change. Seen as the main reason why the Milosevic
regime was still popular in rural areas, Serb national
TV was bombed by NATO in 1998, on charges of …
disinformation.
Two more recent examples illustrate how media
can help prompt decisively a breakthrough for radical
political change. The Ukrainian Orange revolution had
its origins in the President of the country losing his
patience with a journalist. A tape alleging that the
President was involved in the killing of investigative
journalist Georgy Gongadze, recorded by a former
presidential bodyguard was posted on the site of his
newspaper, Ukrayinska Pravda, turning this small
Internet publication into number one rated Ukrainian
media website. This also made the support for the
regime an ‘immoral’ option. During the electoral cam-
paign the number of Internet users tripled in Ukraine,
as official censorship pushed voters to Internet cafes
in search of real news. Only three days before the first
round of elections 40 journalists, representing five TV
channels, publicly declared that they would not work
under “temnyky.” Later representatives of another 18
TV channels and media companies joined the petition.
The breaking point was November 25, when the sys-
tem of censorship and capture fell like a house of
cards, in the words of a journalist10. On the day when
official results were to be reported by the central elec-
tion commission the sign interpreter Natalia Dmytruk
ignored the text of the main presenter about the out-
come of the election. Instead she gestured to her deaf
viewers: “The official results by Central Election
Committee are falsified. Do not trust them.
Yushchenko is our president. I’m really sorry that I had
to translate the lies before. I will not do this again.
Not sure if I will see you then.” Her statement trig-
gered others as well.
Georgia’s Rose Revolution was another bet
won by donors who believed in the power of the
media. The key actor was a provincial TV, Rustavi-2,
founded in 1994 in the town of Rustavi, not far from
Tbilisi. It was initially a tiny private local TV station. Its
main founder, with help and advice from the U.S.
media assistance Internews (USAID backed), built it
into a professionally sound media company, both in
economical and journalistic terms. In the space of
mere two years Rustavi-2 moved into Tbilisi, survived
two attempts of the regime to close it, was made
stronger by the assassination of one of its journalists
and became a national model where other stations
and journalists looked for inspiration. Current
President Michael Saakashvili, then the challenger,
later said that ‘Most of the students who came out on
the streets were brought out by Rustavi 11”. Its role
became crucial on elections’ day, as it ran a scroll at
the bottom of the screen 24 hours a day showing the
official results compared to a credible NGO exit
polling and parallel vote count.”
The assembled evidence that democracy pro-
motion of this kind can be more effective than embar-
gos or military interventions, has by now persuaded
the donor community and endowed it with a strong
argument when facing policymakers12. In the ten years
leading up to the Georgian revolution, the U.S. gov-
10 Based on Olena Prytula, Journalism at the Heart of the Orange Revolution, an address to Knight Fellowships Reunion and Conference,
Stanford, California, July 9, 2005
11 See David Anable ‘The Role of Georgia’s Media—and Western Aid—in the Rose Revolution’. Joan Shorenstein Center on the
Press, Politics and Public Policy Working Paper Series 3:2006 Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
12 Idem note 11.
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Influence on policymaking is, of course, much
harder to prove than influence on revolutions. The
study of the media’s direct effects on politics general-
ly looks at how media might influence who makes
political decisions through the selection of political
personnel; how media affects political styles and pro-
cedures, therefore how it influences political actors
behavior; how media might co-determine about what
decisions are taken due to their agenda-setting role;
and finally, how media might affect the actual con-
tent of political decisions, via their directional cover-
age or framing through bias or partisanship. The role
of the media in elevating issues to the systemic agen-
da and increasing their chances of receiving consider-
ation on policy agendas is subject of considerable
controversy nowadays, after being nearly orthodoxy in
the seventies15. In their influential overview of agenda-
setting research, Dearing & Rogers state that “The
mass media often have a direct influence on the poli-
cy agenda-setting process16. Reviewing a large body
of research, Walgrave and Nuytemans17 found that
the media’s impact on agenda setting depends on
place, issues, political agendas, media agendas, and
time.
ernment spent just over $154 million on democracy
assistance projects in Georgia, most of it under the
Freedom Support Act of 1992.13 In Eastern Europe
and the former Soviet Union as a whole, $350 million
has been spent since 1991 specifically to develop
independent media.14 Some critical reservations were
made that following the victory of opposition in elec-
toral revolutions, media again did not show much
autonomy, but instead became more partisan. This is
in all likelihood true, and the concern is justified.
Good media is autonomous media. Partisanship,
however, is an indication that pluralism exists, and
pluralism is superior to autocracy. There is another
evolutionary cycle to go from pluralism to substantial
democracy.
What about ‘normal’, non-revolutionary times,
for instance during and after EU accession, does the
media still matter? Seeing the public trust in media
(television especially) and government the likelihood is
that media has a good position. It enjoys far more
public trust than the government does. Around their
accession date in 2004, even EE governments with a
good record on EU accession were facing major pop-
ularity problems; after accession, a period of political
instability followed in Poland, Czech Republic and
Hungary. Television has more than double the popu-
larity of government in most countries, three or four
times in some. Television is a strong actor, and TV
owners a force to be reckoned with.
13 Office of the Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to Europe and Eurasia, U.S. Dept. of State.
14 O’Connor, Eileen and David Hoffman, International Herald Tribune, “Media in Iraq: The Fallacy of psy-ops” December 16, 2005.
15 See Cobb, R. and T. Elder (1971). “The politics of agenda-building: an alternative perspective for modern democratic theory.” Journal of
Politics 33: 892-915. Also Kingdon, J. W. (1995). Agendas, alternatives and public policies. Boston: Little Brown.
16 Dearing, J. W. and E. M. Rogers (1996). Communication concepts 6: Agenda-setting. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage: 74
17 Walgrave, S & Michiel Nuytemns (2004) "Specifying the media's political agenda-setting power. Media, civil society, parliament and gov-
ernment in a small consociational democracy" (Belgium, 1991-2000) Paper presented at ECPR's Uppsala Workshop Session, April 2004
Table
2. Trust in media and the government
77
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Romanian Journal of Political Science
Romanian Academic Society
What does evidence from Eastern Europe tell
us? In 2003-2004 I participated to the organization of
a survey in the ten East European EU accession coun-
tries asking cabinet members on the role of media on
policymaking. Ministers were asked to provide their
subjective views on the amount of media influence
during their tenure, specifically in reference to topics
of cabinet discussions, amount of time given to media
in cabinet discussions, presentation of decisions and
finally substance of cabinet decisions. These questions
should be judged together to get a complete picture
of media’s weight. If the media influence government
topics and prompt discussion in the cabinet, this
means it influences agenda setting. The third question
on presentation or wrapping up of cabinet decisions
is more ambiguous, referring both to the communica-
tion skills of the government as well as to the media’s
influence. The fourth question, on influence over sub-
stance of decisions, which should provide the clearest
cut evidence of impact, depends strongly of aware-
ness of politicians of being influenced and their readi-
ness to admit this publicly. While politicians love to
present themselves as oversensitive to media’s policy
warnings, they do not want to give the impression
that they are ruled by the media.
The results of the survey suggests that media
in East Central European countries influence both
agenda-setting and substance of policy decisions.
From our pooled sample of ministers, 47% acknowl-
edge influence over topics, 49% over discussion time,
and 33% over content of decisions. Variation is mini-
mal across political ideology and type of cabinet, and
is significant by country only. The great exception
seems to be the Czech Republic, whose ministers
steadily denied influence of media, to the extent that
none of them named an influential TV program. The
countries where ministers acknowledged that media
influences the substance of decision to a greater
extent are Bulgaria, Hungary and the Baltic states.
Lithuanian ministers come on top with the greatest
participation of the media to their agenda, and
Romanian ministers seem to lose considerable time
discussing in cabinet meetings what they have seen
on TV the evening before.
Answers show some inconsistency of respon-
dents. Slovak ministers allow discussing topics raised
by media a lot in the cabinet, but claim their choice of
topics and decisions are their own. This makes us sus-
pect that ministers are reluctant to admit that they are
influenced by public opinion as expressed through
media. The Czech and Slovak ministers did not indi-
cate any specific programs and newspapers as more
influential than others, although it is hard to believe
that those do not exist. In other countries, with
Romania on top, ministers acknowledge the particular
influence of some newspapers or TV programs. Some
governments seem more professional in passing their
message to the media, especially the Czech and the
Baltic ones. Countries which do better on freedom of
the press seem also to be more careful in dealing with
the media, while a great difference between the time
allocated to discussing media (73, 64 respectively) as
in Romania and Slovakia and the relative carelessness
towards communicating to media (24, 14 respective-
ly) might be because other informal means of han-
dling the media are preferred. The survey of East
European ministers seems to confirm what Robert
Dahl wrote in his classic Who governs?: ‘The more
Table 3. Media influence as acknowledged by cabinet ministers
78
DEFECTIVE
DEMOCRACIES Romanian Journal of Political Science
Romanian Academic Society
uncertain a politician is about the state of public opin-
ion or the more firmly believes in the ‘power of the
press’ the more reluctant he would be to throw down
the gage to a newspaper publisher’18. In other words,
power of the media in normal times depends on the
extent that decision makers believe in it, and this
might explain the wide variation of media effects
studies, as this belief varies greatly across national
media environments, and from one moment in time
to another.
Conclusion
Research often ends up in more questions.
Rather than asking ourselves if the media is influen-
tial19, and if investment in freedom of the media by
the international community can bear fruit – it clearly
is, and it clearly does - I suggest we focus on the cir-
cumstances that empower the media. This means that
a comparative politics research design across a broad
interval of time, rather than generalizations from the
cross-sectional study of one country might provide
better answers as to what specific set of circum-
stances makes a politically influential media. I also
suggest that informal aspects of media control and
media behavior should not be neglected in favor of
classic ones, and that corruption of the media is an
underrated and understudied phenomenon.
Does the history end if a country reaches the
relatively happy phase of accommodation, and we
witness far less interaction between media and poli-
tics, as in liberal democracies? By and large, judging
by the EE experience I would say it does, but actors in
the field might not agree. The media in most of the
countries discussed here differ sharply in style from
the rest of continental Europe. The violent critical tone
and the poignancy of the investigative journalists in
Eastern Europe (as well as their inaccuracy) are hard
to accept in some Western European countries, such
as France or Switzerland, with their mild media, and
are closer to the British press only from ‘old Europe’.
One would be tempted to say that such governments
deserve the media that they get, and the other way
around. It would be an easy way out, though. East
European governments rule through exceptional
times, when the constitutional and economic order is
daily overhauled to push transition further towards
what their citizens black-humouredly call ‘the light at
the end of the tunnel’ . Politicians are often amateur
policymakers trying to acquire some skill during office.
Publishers and journalists often picture themselves as
better at the job of government and give strong indi-
cations what policy decisions should be taken. Some
may even get a position in the next government. Until
the process of consolidation of new professional elites
make such shifts between professions the exception
rather than the norm, governing in Eastern Europe
would remain a sort of athletic game in which specta-
tors are allowed to throw in various objects and even
descend from the amphitheatre into the playing field,
while the results of the game are established by their
open vote. It would sound anarchical and unprofes-
sional indeed if the mere word ‘democracy’ was not
born precisely on such amphitheatres.
18 Robert Dahl Who Governs? New Haven: Yale University Press 1974: 259
19 See K. Novak, 'Effects no more?' in U. Carlsson (ed) Beyond Media Uses and Effects, Gothenburg University: Nordicom, 31-40
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