Attacks on Public Media are an Attack on Democracy
Released at 12:17 pm on 12 August 2020
In early June, Facebook announced that it had begun labelling content originating from state-controlled media organisations. This is the most recent manifestation of an ongoing discussion about the distinction between state and public media organisations that is vitally important for citizens of democracies worldwide.
Both state and public media are created by and can be funded via national governments, but their roles are utterly different.
State media exist to further the interests of governments. Their role is to ensure that the information people receive conforms to the account of events preferred by those in power. While some of their reporting may be accurate and uninflected, too often they are used by states as a means of countering critical voices and writing problems, opponents and embarrassments out of history.
Public media organisations, by contrast, have been established to serve the needs of citizens. While no two are the same — reflecting different countries and cultures — they all embody a set of core values that include commitments to independence, the public interest, impartiality, universality of service, diversity, accuracy and high journalistic standards. It is because of these values that many public media organisations enjoy high levels of trust among the publics they serve.
Public media organisations likewise share a common duty to inform, educate, entertain and engage with the peoples of their respective nations. They play an essential role in reflecting the diversity and creative cultures of the countries they serve. Most importantly, public media share a common duty to support democracy by informing citizens and holding governments to account.
For any government to support and protect the remit of an organisation whose purpose includes public scrutiny of its activities requires courage and a commitment to the public good; yet, for much of the past century, governments of democratic nations have done exactly that, often with broad Parliamentary support. Their nations are stronger for it.
Implicit in this is a recognition that the information needs of democracies cannot be fulfilled solely by the market, let alone placed in the hands of those who might seek to use it to further their own power. There is a clear value to society from media that provide a strong and attractive alternative, free from commercial influence.
The value of public media organisations — and the trust that citizens place in them — has been particularly clear throughout the COVID-19 crisis. As awareness of the pandemic grew, audiences turned to public media in record numbers for the trusted, accurate and reliable news and information that they provide; as populations isolated, record numbers likewise turned to public media to keep them entertained and as a place to come together.
At a time when the need for public media organisations has never been greater, a disturbing trend is discernible around the world. In a number of countries, governments are undermining the independence and values of public media organisations and pressing them to function increasingly as state broadcasters. Moreover, it appears that this shift has gone largely unnoticed and unchallenged as societies grapple with the realities of COVID-19.
In Poland, the sudden removal of a song critical of the governing party from the playlist of the music radio station Trojka in May this year has renewed debate about media freedom and political interference in Poland’s media.
Recent reports of television service Telewizja Polska’s coverage of the Presidential Election indicate that it is being
increasingly pressurized by the state. A post-election report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe published on 29 June even stated that “it acted as a campaign vehicle for the incumbent”.
In recent months, representatives of Slovenia’s largest and the most powerful government party have been openly attacking the nation’s public broadcaster, Radiotelevizija Slovenija. These attacks have increased in the wake of investigative reporting on aspects of the government’s response to the pandemic. Government representatives are now openly threatening personnel changes and drafting legislation that would reduce the broadcaster’s funding.
In the Czech Republic, recent appointments to the Council overseeing the public television service, Česká televize, have included a number of individuals whose stance towards the broadcaster has been highly political. These members have sought to downplay and cast doubt on the achievements of the service, particularly during budget
evaluations and when assessing the performance of its leadership.
In Hong Kong, the public broadcaster RTHK, which is established under a charter that guarantees its editorial independence, is being subjected to a government review of its management and practices. The review not only lacks independent oversight, but closely follows the suspension of a popular, long-running current affairs program after Hong Kong police complained about a satirical segment.
As the ability of these organisations to independently inform public debate is reduced, so too is the public benefit they can deliver and the level of trust that citizens place in them. By weakening a vital democratic institution in this way, democracy itself is weakened within these nations.
At a time when truly independent public service media has never been more precious to democracies around the world, it is vital that policy makers and politicians support and defend the independence of public media and of journalism more broadly. This is especially true at a time when journalists worldwide are being increasingly threatened and attacked.
Healthy public media are a source of strength for the world’s democracies. Now is the time for courage and leadership — for democratic governments to demonstrate their commitment to public media and the principles that underpin it. They should do so confident in the knowledge that it makes for stronger, richer and more cohesive societies.
Signed, Global Task Force for Public Media
● David Anderson, Managing Director, ABC (Australia)
● Thomas Bellut, Director General, ZDF (Germany)
● Delphine Ernotte Cunci, President & CEO, France Télévisions (France)
● Tony Hall, Director General, BBC (United Kingdom)
● Jim Mather, Chair of the Board, RNZ (New Zealand)
● Hanna Stjärne, Director General, SVT (Sweden)
● Catherine Tait, President & CEO, CBC/Radio-Canada, GTF Chair (Canada)
● Yang Sung-dong, President & CEO, KBS (South Korea)
The Global Task Force for public media exists to defend the values and the interests of Public Media. The Global Task Force was formed to develop a consensus and single, strong voice around the issues and challenges facing public media. It offers a perspective that spans countries, languages and cultures.