Media Freedom: Myth Or Illusion?


On the face of it, media- all its forms – are free. A whole theoretical edifice goes on to support and articulate the idea and concept of media freedom. But is this true? Is media really free? Or is media freedom illusory and a bit of a charade? If so, what are the constraining factors that militate against media freedom-globally, locally? Media or the fourth estate is supposed to have many functions- one of these is to check power and abuse of power especially by the state. This very function places the media at odds with the state. 

The problem is compounded by the fact that media is dependent on advertisement revenues- both state and non state. So, by virtue of this dependency, media freedom can be compromised. This is an in your face power that the state has in terms of constraining media freedom. The state can be more subtle in altering the policy of media; while stopping ads is the obvious mechanism but this can be obscured by other means.  

This condition becomes more acute in conflict zones where the state is vested in propounding or at times muzzling discourses and narratives. The state, in these conditions, employs a range of means to either co-opt the media or muzzle it. These means can include overt pressure, threats, harassment or the plain old trick of withholding monies. Free media in these contexts becomes academic. This, however, is not the whole story. There are societal and cultural forces and factors at play too.

Societal sensibilities and cultural mores, at times, either lead to self censorship by media in deference to these sensibilities. As such, pure freedom of media gets compromised. This is more salient in traditional and conservative societies. In this sense, journalism –print or visual- is easier in the West wherein cultural pressures do not exert such pressures.

There is another aspect and a set of factors at work in terms of media freedom. Given neo liberal reforms of the state where the state withdraws from some functions and focuses on pure public goods, there is a vigorous attempt at state or capture of functions of the state. This includes the media. Big Corporations step in the void and take over newspapers, news channels and control or attempt to control and direct the slant of news and editorial content control. Given that money is power and these corporations have massive amounts of capital, they can exert their influence and power to control or redirect the slant of news, and exercise disproportionate influence and discretion over editorial boards and content. 

All these issues are well documented and recognized and as a reaction, alternate forms of media have developed to accord different or alternate perspectives but alas, this form of media is hamstrung by lack of capital and hence accessibility and reach. All in all then, there really is no such thing as “free media”. The lack of free media , alternate perspectives and genuine news is a travesty for it means that discourse and narratives in society from where people draw conclusions, frame issues and form opinions are compromised. This naturally affects the tenor of civil society with extra state actors having undue influence and control over news and discourse. This besides being negative means that increasingly peoples’ intellectual and public lives in terms of opinions over issues are really neither original nor theirs. This can only be tragic for in a way it compromises the very autonomy individuals and societies upon which most societies are based on. In the final analysis, this means the boundaries between the state, civil society and the media are blurred and there is no such thing as “free media”. Alas!

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