As people need food, shelter and health care for their physical survival, they need communication for their social welfare. Moreover, for their human dignity people need factors that are intrinsic to genuine democracy; reason, responsibility, mutual respect, freedom of expression, and freedom of conscience, all of which are mediated by communication. A prerequisite of democracy, therefore, is the democratization of communication, which in turn requires the empowerment of individual. (Philip Lee, 1995). The media facilitate this process by providing an arena for public debate and by reconstituting private citizens as a public body in the form of public opinion. It is also necessary to make a public communication an integral part of democracy. People should have free access to the knowledge and information they require, they should be able to discuss matters of public interest with their equals in order to influence actions taken. Otherwise there can be no genuine participation.
Michael Traber (1994), holds that the endeavour for equality and justice for all is based on the democratization of communication. He has laid down six principles. They are:
- The principle of human dignity : Human beings have an intrinsic and unique value, which has to be recognized socially. From this stems not just the right to live, but the right to live a life worthy of human beings (which is the ultimate rationale of all human rights).
- The principle of freedom : Deprivation of freedom makes genuine communication impossible, and the first sign of repression in all societies is usually the curtailment of freedom of speech. The silencing of people as a form of punishment, or still worse, solitary confinement, are utterly subhuman. But freedom for what? Freedom to participate. Freedom to be part of a nation and of the human family. Freedom to shape a collective destiny.
- The principle of truth telling : Communication is about human relationships. All relationships presuppose mutual trust, and the basis of such trust is the assumption that we are telling the truth. Communication inevitably breaks down when we suspect the other of lying.
- The principle of justice : Human dignity, freedom and equality are values which, when translated into social relationships, produce justice, or living-in-justice with all other people. The mass media as we know them stand in almost total contradiction to this view. They portray the powerful in politics and business, and the stars of entertainment and sports. But the poor, the marginalized, the refugees, the old, those with disabilities, people of colour, children, and even today, women, are non-people to the media, or are typecast. Justice in communication is also an international issue. The present global information and communication systems reflect the world’s dominant political and economic structures, which maintain and reinforce the dependence of the poorer countries on the richer.
- The principle of peace : Violence and war mark the ultimate breakdown of communication, both interpersonal and public. The word is replaced by the gun or the knife. Most wars between nations have started with a series of lies - by governments and the media about the threat of the enemy. If war is the ultimate failure of public communication, peace is its ultimate glory. Peace means people in communication. Peaceful co-existence of peoples with different national, racial and cultural identities, and of different ideological persuasions can, in today’s world, only be achieved through communication aimed at conflict resolution. The mass media carry a heavy responsibility in this process.
- The principle of participation : Human dignity, freedom, justice and peace: how do we apply these principles to the mass media of today, and make them operational in the decisions leading to the construction of an ‘information superhighway’ of tomorrow? The answer presupposes a change in direction. Mass and interactive media cannot primarily be considered business enterprises, but are part of the cultural environment in which we live and move. Media, old and new, should contribute to the quality of life of everyone by celebrating all that is genuinely human.
But in reality mass media have moved away from positive expectations of civil society. By the end of 19th century and early 20th century the media instead of being a vehicle for advancing freedom and democracy started becoming more and more a means of making money and propaganda for the new and powerful classes. Globalization and economic liberalization have further contributed to deteriorating negative attitude of the media towards the society. Global competition, profit motive made the media forget about its social responsibility. Money ruled over morals. Media is no more interested in creating citizenship, providing public sphere for dialogue and interaction among the citizens. Instead it is busy transforming citizens into spectators by offering them entertainment to education, knowledge and information.
George Gerbner (2002), in his recent article observed: “Our children are born into homes in which the dominant story tellers are not those who have something to tell but a small group of global conglomerates that have something to sell. Channels multiply but communication technologies converge and media merge. With every merger, staffs shrink and creative opportunities diminish. Cross-media conglomeration reduces competition and denies entry to newcomers. Fewer sources fill more outlets more of the time with ever more standardized fare. Alternative perspectives vanish from the mainstream. Media coalesce into a seamless, pervasive, and increasingly homogenized cultural environment that has drifted out of democratic reach. Even fund-starved public television is fighting for its life.
Other distortions of the democratic process include:
- The promotion of practices that drug, hurt, poison, and kill thousands every day.
- Portrayals that dehumanize and stigmatize; cults of media violence that desensitize, terrorize, and brutalize.
- The growing siege mentality of our cities.
- The drift towards ecological suicide.
- The silent crumbling of our infrastructure.
- Widening resource gaps in the richest country that already has the most glaring inequalities in the industrial world.
- The costly neglect of vital institutions such as public education and the arts.
He also offers suggestions to circumvent the present situation. His suggestions are:
- Building a broad new coalition of organizations and individuals committed to broadening the freedom and diversity of communication.
- Opposition domination and working to abolish existing concentration of ownership and censorship, public or private. That includes extending the freedom of speech and access to media beyond those who own them.
- Seeking out and cooperating with cultural liberation forces of other countries, working for the integrity and independence of their own decision-making and against cultural domination and invasion.
- Supporting journalists, artists, writers, actors, directors, and other creative workers struggling for more freedom from marketing formulas imposed on them.
- Promoting critical media awareness as a fresh approach to a liberal education on every level.
- Placing cultural policy-making on the socio-political agenda to secure the right of a child to be born into a cultural environment that is reasonable, free, fair, diverse, and non-damaging.
The Indian situation is not very different from what Gerbner has described. Both public and private media have failed the nation in creating well-informed and enlightened citizen. Except for the pre-independence Nationalist Press, the performance of privately owned print media, cinema and public broadcasting have not raised to the expectations of a growing democracy.
Sunil Khilnani (2000) warns that “every Indian, poor and rich, can be certain of one thing in the decades to come: individually and together, they will encounter a steady stream of politics-plenty of it, becoming ever more intricate.” And he also observes that “the coming of democracy necessitates a new kind of social intelligence, a different division of intellectual labour in the society. It makes obsolete the idea that there can be a single ‘brain’ of the society (the Ministry of Planning, an intellectual elite, a supreme Think Tank, or Operation Room, or even- as some believe-the market), whose function it is to devise and execute blueprints. Democracy is a recognition that people think for themselves, choose and act on the basis of their beliefs, as they happen to be. It also produces an actual diffusion of cognitive capital across the entire citizenry. In this sense democracy is liable to constant mistaking, to cognitive bruising and injury. But this makes it all the more vital for any democratic society to exercise a constant self-consciousness and vigilance about its own intentions, about its actions and their consequences.”
Emphasizing on the role and responsibility of non-elected agencies and institutions as instruments that can check the power of elected Assemblies, he lists judiciary and judicial agencies, President, Election Commission, Prasara Bharati and other agencies and urges them to “develop real capacities to use against elected public officials”. He has two means for scrutinizing and reprimanding elected rulers and public officials. One, criminal law and two, freedom of information. According to him freedom of information is the core of modern democratic politics and it foregrounds a basic contradiction between the notion of state prerogative and the rights of citizens. And stresses the need to have ‘quite liberal legislation concerning the right to know’.
He is very candid about the role of media. “A press free from systematic political interference is certainly essential to the citizenry’s acquisition of information. But there is an unhappy air about India’s much vaunted free press, in an age when most large business houses make it a point to gain a controlling foothold in the electronic or print media. Newspapers operate with a constricted sense of editorial freedom-editors beholden to their employers and often to politicians (particularly in the regional press) regularly dissuade younger journalists from pursuing awkward stories, preferring instead to print safe plants and handouts from politicians. Such freedom as there is tends to be confined to the editorial pages, which have now become the unique preserve of a select menagerie of wind-bagging superannuated bureaucrats, and pious academics.
“India has one of the most restrictive, archaic attitudes about access to information-this is certainly an aspect of the state that needs to be opened up to the criticism of democracy. The laws on the right to public information combine legacies from the colonial Raj with a more contemporary technocratic secrecy. Governments consider themselves to be doing their citizens a favour in giving them scraps of information, rather than fulfilling one of their core obligations. (Indeed, the failure to educate the vast mass of Indians might be considered the biggest and most systematic withholding of information.)
Khilnani’s observation on the vigilant role of media, free access and right to information and also his criticism on the role of elite media once again re-affirms the need and importance of free and responsible media in strengthening the ‘modern republic’. At the political level, the media play a central role in the working of democracies. Historically, a critical feature of movements toward democracy has been the creation of a ‘public sphere,’ meaning all the places and forums where issues of importance to a political community are discussed and debated, and where information is presented that is essential to citizen participation in community life.
The concept is important because a democratic society depends on an informed populace making political choices. In large and complex societies public participation in political processes is already limited largely to occasional expressions of opinion and protests and the periodic selection of representatives. For this weak participation to be minimally effective the public has to know what is going on and the options that they should weigh, debate, and act upon.
In the view of Jurgen Habermas and others, the public sphere works most effectively for democracy when it is institutionally independent of the state and society’s dominant economic forces. Although such autonomy is difficult to develop and maintain, the point of democratic communication policy-making is to strive toward this goal, although within this institutional shemata there are many different shapes a public sphere may assume.(Herman, McChesney,1998).
But, with the processes of media globalization since 1989, the public sphere is fast shrinking. The central feature of the media globalization is larger cross border flows of media outputs, growth of media trans-national conglomerates, centralization of media control, spread and intensification of commercialization. The ‘commercial model’ has its own serious limitations. It has its on own internal logic and being privately owned and heavily dependent on advertisers support, tends to erode the public sphere and to create a ‘culture of entertainment’ that is incompatible with democratic order. Media outputs are commodified and are designed to serve market needs, not citizenship needs. (Herman, McChesney,1998).
The symptoms of media globalization have started showing prominently on Indian media landscape. The country has gone too far in the process of globalization. It is too late to beat a retreat. Instead of attempting to stop the on going processes or turn back media centralization and commercialization, it will be more prudent to seriously concentrate on developing a set of new communication policies based on alternative media paradigm. There is an exhortative need to shift our focus from traditional mass media controlled by big conglomerates (newspapers, radio, TV and cinema) to alternative, more people friendly, cost effective, small, and interactive media like community radio, community newspapers, video and audio cassettes.
Internet is another medium, which can contribute to free and speedy dissemination of information. No doubt, the technology itself has serious limitations. The lack of infrastructure, access have brought criticism against having ‘digital democracy’ and creation of ‘nettizen.’ But recent events like post 9/11 developments have proved that Internet can be effective medium to express dissent and disseminate the other side of the event. In the Indian context, the reach may be small but its effect can be enormous.
Another neglected area of mass communication i.e. traditional or folk media can be revived and used as vehicles of effective social communication. Harikatha, puppet shows, street plays have evolved as people’s medium. As Pradip N.Thomas (1994) observes; “Traditional forms of communication are part of a larger process related to the making and re-making of communities. They play a vital role in the process of negotiation that is itself a core element in the self-understanding and growth of traditional communities. This is an on-going process, but one that has become increasingly complex in the light of the politics of change. It is this complexity that traditional forms of communication endeavor to decipher and to make intellible. Nothing more and nothing less. Against the juggernaut of modernity and its tendency to homogenize difference in the name of progress, traditional forms of communication are a gentle reminder that true cultural democracy is forged in the interplay of difference, however idiosyncratic that might seem.”
What India lacks is media literacy. Even in developed nations there are media literacy groups, which create awareness among the consumers of media on the functions and responsibilities of media. These non-partisan groups have succeeded in bringing moral pressure on media organizations through their constant vigil and constructive criticism.
Creating alternative media systems is not easy. It needs sustained effort, funding and interest. But, once it is achieved we could create a public sphere in real sense, where people-centric, decentralized and democratized media will become true voices of people, community and the nation. These kinds of experiments are taking place in other parts of the world and some of the Latin American attempts should serve as models to us. According to ‘Democratization of Communication’, a social movement process model offered by Robert A.White (1994), “contemporary theory of social movements not only explains the conditions under which democratization of communication is likely to occur and develop, but will provide a much more complete and internally consistent understanding of the dimensions of the democratization of communication.
There are a number of basic points of intersection between social movement theory and what is commonly understood by the democratization of communication:
- Social movements are a communication pattern, which emerges ‘outside’ and in opposition to the existing institutional, hierarchical (non-democratic) structure of communications in a society.
- Social movements, in order to strengthen identification and loyalty, tend to introduce and legitimate an alternative pattern of communication which, relative to the dominant pattern, insists that all members have a right to obtain and make communicative inputs when they wish, that members may participate in all phases of the collective communication decision-making process, that members may engage in ‘horizontal’ communication between individuals and groups without being vetted by authorities, that communication be dialogical in the sense that members have a right to reply and expect a direct reply.
- Social movements tend to renovate and democratize virtually all aspects of the communication process: the definition of what communication means; the definition of which social sectors and social actors may participate in the public communication process; the employment of new media technology and the democratization of existing technology; the redefinition of ‘media professionalism’ and the training of professionals; the development of new codes of ethics and new values guiding public policy, etc.
What is central to the democratization of communication, most social movements insist, is that members - ordinary ‘citizens’ - should participate in the administration, policy-making and government of public communication. ‘Epochal social movements’, those social movements that introduce a major socio-cultural shift in civilizations also tend to introduce a radically different normative theory of communication and a new culture of public communication.
As a monopolistic regime, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is committed to the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist emphasis on the central control of the press as a tool for public education, propaganda, and mass mobilization. The entire operation of China’s modern media is based upon the foundation of “mass line” governing theory, developed by China’s paramount head of state, Mao Zedong. Such a theory, upon which China’s entire political structure hinges, provides for government of the masses by leaders of the Communist Party, who are not elected by the people and therefore are not responsible to the people, but to the Party. When the theory is applied to journalism, the press becomes the means for top-down communication, a tool used by the Party to “educate” the masses and mobilize public will towards socialist progress. Thus the mass media are not allowed to report any aspect of the internal policy-making process, especially debates within the Party. Because they report only the implementation and impact of resulting policies, there is no concept of the people’s right to influence policies. In this way, the Chinese press has been described as the “mouth and tongue” of the Party. By the same token, the media also act as the Party’s eyes and ears. Externally, where the media fail to adequately provide the public with detailed, useful information, internally, within the Party bureaucracy, the media play a crucial role of intelligence gathering and communicating sensitive information to the central leadership. Therefore, instead of serving as an objective information source, the Chinese press functions as Party-policy announcer, ideological instructor, intelligence collector, and bureaucratic supervisor.
China’s modern media, which were entirely transplanted from the West, did not take off until the 1890s. Most of China’s first newspapers were run by foreigners, particularly missionaries and businessmen. Progressive young Chinese students who were introduced to Western journalism while studying abroad also imported the principles of objective reporting from the West. Upon returning home, these students introduced the methods of running Western-style newspapers to China. The May Fourth Movement in 1919, the first wave of intellectual liberation, witnessed the publishing of Chinese books on reporting, as well as the emergence of the first financially and politically independent newspapers in China. However, the burgeoning Chinese media were suffocated by Nationalist censorship in the 1930s. Soon after the Kuomintang (KMT) gained control of China in 1927, it promulgated a media policy aimed at enforcing strict censorship and intimidating the press into adhering to KMT doctrine. But despite brutal enforcement measures, the KMT had no organized system to rein in press freedom, and when times were good, it was fairly tolerant toward the media. The KMT gave less weight to ideology than the CCP eventually would and therefore allowed greater journalistic freedom.
Chinese journalism under CCP leadership has gone through four phases of development. The first period started with the founding of New China in 1949 and ended in 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began. During those years, private ownership of newspapers was abolished, and the media was gradually turned into a party organ. Central manipulation of the media intensified during the utopian Great Leap Forward, wherein excessive emphasis on class position and the denunciation of objectivity produced distortions of reality. Millions of Chinese peasants starved to death partly as a result of media exaggeration of crop production.
During the second phase (1966-78), journalism in China suffered even greater damage. In the years of the Cultural Revolution, almost all newspapers ceased publication except 43 party organs. All provincial CCP newspapers attempted to emulate the “correct” page layout of the People’s Daily and most copied, on a daily basis, the lead story, second story, number of columns used by each story, total number of articles, and even the size of the typeface. In secret and after the Cultural Revolution, the public characterized the news reporting during the Cultural Revolution as “jia (false), da (exaggerated), and kong (empty).”
The third phase began in December 1978, when the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party convened. Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy brought about nation-wide reforms that nurtured an unprecedented media boom. The top agenda of media reform included the crusade for freedom of press, the call for representing the people, the construction of journalism laws, and the emergence of independent newspapers. Cuts in state subsidies and the rise of advertising and other forms of financing pointed the way toward greater economic independence, which in turn promoted editorial autonomy.
The Tiananmen uprising in 1989 and its fallout marked the last phase. During the demonstrations, editors and journalists exerted a newly-found independence in reporting on events around them and joined in the public outcry for democracy and against official corruption, carrying banners reading “Don’t believe us—we tell lies” while marching in demonstrations. The students’ movement was suppressed by army tanks, and the political freedom of journalists also suffered a crippling setback. The central leadership accused the press of engaging in bourgeois activities such as reflecting mass opinion, maintaining surveillance on government, providing information, and covering entertainment. The once-hopeful discourse on journalism legislation and press freedom was immediately abolished. With the closing of the political door on media expansion, the post-Tiananmen era witnessed a dramatic turn towards economic incentives, allowing media commercialization to flourish while simultaneously restricting its freedom in political coverage. These developments produced “the mix of Party logic and market logic that is the defining feature of the Chinese news media system today” (Zhao 2).
The media expanded more rapidly after Mao’s death than at any other time in Chinese history. As of October 1997, China had more than 27,000 newspapers and magazines. Chinese newspapers can be divided into several distinct categories. The first is the “jiguan bao” (organ papers). People’s Daily and other provincial party newspapers are in this category. The second is the trade/professional newspapers, such as Wenhui Ribao (Wenhui Daily), Renmin Tiedaobao (People’s Railroads), and Zhongguo Shangbao (Chinese Business). The third is metropolitan organs (Dushibao), such as Beijing Qingnianbao (Beijing Youth Daily), Huaxi Dushibao (Western China Urban Daily), and other evening newspapers. The fourth is business publications, such as Chengdu Shang bao (Chengdu Business Daily) and Jingji Ribao (Economics Daily). The fifth is service papers; Shopping Guideand Better Commodity Shopping Guide are two examples. The sixth is digest papers, such as Wenzhaibao (News Digest), and finally, army papers: Jiefangjun Ribao (People’s Liberation Army Dail) belongs to this category. Besides these types of formal newspapers, there are tabloids and weekend papers. The Chinese “jietou xiaobao” (small papers on the streets) are the equivalent of tabloids, which are synonymous with sensationalism in China. In addition to tabloids, major newspapers seeking a share of the human-interest market also created zhoumo ban (weekend editions). In 1981, Zhongguo Qingnianbao (China Youth News), the official organ of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League, published its first weekend edition in an attempt to increase readership. The paper was an instant success. By the end of 1994, one-fourth of all newspapers had weekend editions. Weekend editions sell well because they are usually more interesting than their daily editions, with more critical and analytical pieces on pressing social issues, as well as various entertainment components.
As of March 2000, China had 2,160 newspapers with a total annual circulation of 26 billion (Sun 369). However, these numbers are estimates because newspaper circulation is actually unknown in China. Except for several successful ones, most papers do not give real numbers thus discrepancies exist depending upon the source used. The numbers cited below can only be used as an indication of the general trends. Also, circulation does not necessarily reflect popularity or influence, due to mandatory subscription or larger populations in some areas. The following table lists the 10 largest newspapers with their circulations (Press Release Network, 2001).
- Cankao Xiaoxi (Reference News) 9,000,000
- Sichuan Ribao (Sichuan Dail) 8,000,000
- Gongren Ribao (Workers Daily) 2,500,000
- Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily) 2,150,000
- Xinmin Wanbao (Xinmin Evening News) 1,800,000
- Wenhuibao (Wenhui Daily) 1,700,000
- Yangcheng Wanbao (Yangcheng Evening News) 1,300,000
- Jingji Ribao (Economic Daily) 1,200,000
- Jiefang Ribao (People’s Liberation Army Daily) 1,000,000
- Nanfang Ribao (Nanfang Daily) 1,000,000
- Nongmin Ribao (Farmer’s Daily) 1,000,000
- Zhongguo Qingnianbao (China Youth Daily) 1,000,000
In terms of influence, the next most important newspaper is People’s Daily , whose huge circulation is benefited by the mandatory subscription of all Chinese working units. People’s Daily runs five subsidiary newspapers, including its overseas edition, which is the official organ for propagating the Party line among the Chinese-reading public overseas. The other four editions include two editions covering economic news, a satire and humor tabloid, and an international news edition. Under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, Party and government media organs are no longer simple mouthpieces; they have become business conglomerates.
Beijing Youth News is one of the most influential newspapers among younger Chinese audiences. It began on March 21, 1949, as an official organ of the Beijing Communist Youth League. The paper has been able to make the most of opportunities created by reform and commercialization. Since the early 1980s, it has implemented a series of successful management reforms, refused to accept any “back door” job placements, pioneered the system of recruiting staff through open competition, and eliminated lifetime tenure. From 1994 to 2001, it changed from a daily broadsheet with eight pages to a daily broadsheet with 46 pages, including 14 pages of business information. Its circulation reached 400,000 in 2001, and its advertising income concurrently skyrocketed to 640 million in the same year. In the 1990s, the newspaper grew from a small weekly into a conglomerate that publishes four papers and runs 12 businesses in a wide range of areas.
As of 1997 there were 143 evening newspapers in China. Three of them have circulations of over 1 million. They are the Yangcheng Evening News , Yangzi Evening News, and Xinmin Evening News (China National Evening Newspaper Association). Local evening papers, usually general interest dailies, are among the best sellers. They are under the direct control of the municipal Party propaganda committee and with more soft news content closer to everyday urban life are aimed at urban families.
The huge gap between Chinese urban and rural areas in terms of living standards is reflected in the access to the media and information. Although the majority of the Chinese population are peasants (79%), Chinese media basically serve urban populations since they are more educated and enjoy greater consumption power. Because of high illiteracy rates and the rapid increase of radio and television sets among Chinese peasants, rural residents increasingly use television as their source of information rather than newspapers.
As of 2000, there were 14 English newspapers in China. They are perceived as reporting on China’s problems with less propaganda. China Daily , published by the People’s Daily , was the first English newspaper to appear in China. It serves as the CCP’s official English organ, directed particularly at foreigners in China.
Between 1949 and 1990, almost all Chinese newspapers were distributed through the postal system. However, this changed when Luoyang Daily and Guangzhou Daily started their own distribution company in the late 1980s, followed by a host of other newspapers. As of the beginning of the twenty-first century, 800 newspapers among more than 2,000 distribute through their own networks. Others reach consumers through a variety of channels, such as post offices (both institutional and private subscription), street retail outlets, automatic newspaper dispensers, and occasionally, copies posted on public billboards. While institutional subscriptions provide newspapers to offices, street retail outlets are the major source of newspapers to private homes. In the office, reading free newspapers is considered legitimate political education as part of the job, but newspapers sold on the streets must compete not only among themselves but also with other commodities and for the urbanite’s leisure time and cash.