Reforming public media was not something that has been considered to be of importance for the Southern Mediterranean Region. This phenomenon arose as a result of the changes that occurred in many countries in the region at the beginning of 2011.
Public media in the Southern Mediterranean Region was considered to be a pawn of the state. Its main function was as a tool for propaganda, used by government institutions, and devoid of any commercial influence or external investment. As a result, it was not subject to any of the artistic standards usually associated with a competitive marketplace, and was judges solely on whether it was considered to successfully accomplish its political goals.
Because the main concern of governments in the region was using the media as a propaganda tool, they invested heavily in official media systems, often over-excessively. As a result, many institutions in countries of the region became bloated and corrupted, eventually experiencing huge losses and debt.
It would be impossible for these conditions to continue in the current context, in particular due to the fact that these countries have seen dramatic change. The public, as well as elites, are demanding the reform and restructuring of public institutions, namely because these countries are facing economic pressure that is increasing their budget deficit, forcing them to review their spending policies.
At the same time, it makes little financial sense to render these institutions obsolete, whether by shutting them down completely or privatizing them. Rather, this situation further emphasizes the necessity of finding successful ways to rehabilitate these systems in order to ensure that they best serve the interests of the countries and peoples they represent.
Confusion still persists around what to call media that is funded by government. They have been referred to as ‘’Official Media’’ or ‘’Government Media’’ at a time when they should have been described purely as Public Media.
What is Public Media?
In developed and democratic countries, state-funded media has taken a number of different forms. The concept of the State in these countries is not restricted to the government (the executive branch) or its institutions (the entities that control society overall). In their case, the State is considered to be a much broader entity, one which protects the interest of the public and supports the participation of the people through democratic means.
This has led to the creation of Public Service Media, referring to media systems whose purpose is to achieve national goals. These include:
- Maintaining national unity and integration
- Representing the different sections of society in a fair, inclusive and balanced manner-
- Facilitating political and public participation
- Providing information and knowledge and protecting the right to communicate
- Monitoring the performance of public authorities, civil society and public actors
- Monitoring and rationalizing the processes of decision-making
- Defending agreed national interests
- Broadcasting what is happening in the world to the citizens of the state, and broadcasting the voice of the nation and citizens to the world.
In order to perform this role optimally, a number of different examples have emerged. The most notable are: the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) as well as examples from Canada, Germany and Denmark. These examples were launched in political systems that are considered to be stable and democratic, relying on the concept of ‘’ Checks and Balances’’ to ensure their stability.
In order that public service media might fulfil its duties, a number of standards were developed in order to assist institutions in their performance. These include the following:
- The regulation of public service media is entrusted to independent bodies whose members and their performance are subject to scrutiny.
- The appointment processes of management are carried out by independent bodies with no interference from the executive branch.
- Similar to the example of the BBC, public service media should be publically funded, possibly via licenses, where citizens pay an annual tax that is collected and allocated to public media. The parliament (or other independent bodies) review spending and ensure the efficiency of operation.
- Civil society actors play a role in monitoring the performance of public media, particularly CSOs and self-regulating professional bodies.
- Parliament has the right to review the performance of public media institutions. Representatives should seek to represent the views of their electorate regarding the performance of the public media.
- The executive authority is barred from getting involved in the decision-making processes of public media, as well as in delivering its principles and editorial policies. This will ensure that the media shifts from being propagandistic to public service.
When assessing the performance of public media in the Southern Mediterranean Region based on the afore-mentioned criteria and especially when comparing them to those in more developed countries, it becomes evident that most of them do not appear able to perform the function assigned to them.
A study conducted by the European Broadcasting Union in 25 countries concluded that countries which have well funded and well managed public media are less inclined to embrace extreme right-wing tendencies, are less inclined towards corruption, and are more interested in press freedom.
The study gives examples of successful public service media models, such as the BBC, ABC and the DR (Denmark). It states that these media have played an important role in ensuring an increased voter turnout during general elections. The study confirmed that citizens became more aware of current events when they are covered by public media.
In order that public media may be able to accomplish this difficult mission and fulfil their assumed role and function, much effort and reforms are needed.
Public media needs to be restructured as soon as possible for the following reasons:
- The amount of public investment that went into establishing and developing the state-owned media in the Southern Mediterranean Region, in order to then privatize them or give them a different ownership structure, would be at a loss. They will be put on the market with no proper direction or credibility, suffering from wastefulness and corruption. This will lower their value in the market, compared to overall costs, and thus represent a waste of public money.
- Most of the countries of this region are facing demands for political and social change. They are therefore keen to develop political, social and economic systems that meet requests for democratic transition and an end to corruption, tyranny and the relationship between power and money. In order to achieve this purpose, these countries need put in place media systems that are able to frame their objectives and convey them to the public.
- Private media in the region still lacks a system of self-regulation and any valid system for monitoring the media’s performance. Further, some private media organizations violate professional rules and codes of conduct and are used as tools to achieve specific political and financial interests.
Political and economic reality often prevents many sectors from easily finding routes that will enable them to act on many of these urgent demands.
The reasons for the failure of the reform plans in the region can be summarized as follows:
- The collapse of state power, for example in Libya and Syria.
- Interventions from the executive branch hoping to maintain some control over public media system. Critics describing this as the situation in Tunisia and Morocco.
- The lack of clarity around the independence of state-funded media. The increase in the challenges brought about by terrorism and security threats sees some governments turn to the media to play a supporting role in their fight war, such as is the case in Egypt for example.
- Neglecting to link reform plans for the public media with the broader political reform plan. All are based on conserving pluralism and diversity, respecting the freedom of opinion and expression and being aware of the rational professional standards. This is a vision that seems to be absent from most of the reform experiences in the region.