Saturday, April 25, 2009

Retarded Democracy

The spread and increasing popularity of the so-called ‘new media’ has been nothing short of a revolutionary transformation. This new media has redefined the journalism, dissemination of the news, public engagement in current affairs, politics, and our everyday lives. Indeed, it has redefined our culture.

Especially fascinating is the fact that like it or not, politicians have had to wake up to the reality that old ways of controlling and manipulating information are now obsolete. As much as the political establishment may lament the loss of those ‘good old days’ when the only source of news the public had was that which was largely controlled by those who also held the reigns of political power, there remains a deep schism and tension between the old, which are largely the state-controlled outlets, and the new media, which are clearly far more democratic, competitive, and ever-changing.

Obviously, while the old establishment media has sought to make in-roads on tapping into the technologies and formats of the new media, it remains the case that the fundamental principle of monopoly and control which has been typical of the old media has been rendered less effective and less consequential than ever. To be sure, that monopoly and control is still relevant; it still has a significant impact on shaping the public agenda, manipulating public opinion, and in promoting a particular ideology.

But the new media – which almost by definition have enabled the increased democratisation of society posses a fundamental challenge for the political establishment. Prepared or not, it presents the establishment with an unavoidable conundrum: how to retain control of information in an increasingly democratised information age?

It is in this backdrop that one must interpret recent developments regarding media and politics.

In early April, Najib was reported to have backed the idea of a freer media – where reporting can be done "without fear of consequence".

But not long thereafter, we also began to confront the fact that the government seemed intent on restricting the reporting of various news stories that might not reflect so favourably on various political figures. How ironic. Precisely how would one reconcile these two obviously contradictory signals? Of course the cynic might be inclined to insist that the former claims by the prime minister is nothing more than the typical posturing we’ve come to be accustomed to. And there might after all be some truth to this particular interpretation.

But more than exposing the potential lack of sincerity in such purported claims about wanting to promote a freer media, these contradictory tendencies reveal a fundamental flaw of the system of information control that has prevailed till now. That is, the continued presence and influence of the government in the media, and even more critically, the notion of state-owned media, cannot but stifle the democratic process.

I am not so naïve as to believe that we will see the demise of state-owned media anytime in the foreseeable future – not even with the growing popularity and credibility of the more independent outlets prevalent in the ‘new media’ which have emerged as a counter-weight to the state-owned forms of media. Nevertheless, the growth of ‘new media’ serves as a powerful reminder of precisely how archaic and problematic it is for a society to have state-owned media.

State-owned media cannot be anything but a propaganda machine. A democracy, on the other hand, can only be nourished when the media is allowed to champion the free expression of ideas.

So long as state-owned media prevails, democracy suffers.

G. Krishnan