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The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 7, Issue 1, November 2004

A publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Nurturing Civil Society

The UN and Civil Society
John D. Clark

Civil Society and Media Freedom: Problems of Purpose and Sustainability in Democratic Transition
Craig L. LaMay

Religion in its Place
Jim Sleeper

Women, Civil Society, and NGOs in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan
Nayereh Tohidi


Legal Changes Affecting Not-for-Profits in Japan
J. Hana Heinekin and Robert Pekkanen

Lazarus Rising: Civil Society and Sierra Leone's Return from the Grave
J. Peter Pham

Ten Emerging Principles of Governance by Nonprofit Corporations and Guides to a Safe Harbor
Thomas Silk

Emerging International Information Collection and Sharing Regimes: The Consequences for Canadian Charities
Terrance S. Carter and Sean S. Carter

Politics and the Pulpit
Milton Cerny


Effective Economic Decisionmaking by Nonprofit Organizations
By Dennis R. Young
Reviewed by David Robinson

Framing Democracy: Civil Society and Civic Movements in Eastern Europe
By John K. Glenn III
Reviewed by Gerald M. Easter

American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700 - 1865
By Kathleen D. McCarthy
Reviewed by Matthew Crenson

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Civil Society and Media Freedom:  Problems of Purpose and Sustainability in Democratic Transition

 By Craig L. LaMay*

The problem of the press is confused because the critics and the apologists expect the press to … make up for all that was not foreseen in the theory of democracy.[1] 
– Walter Lippmann, 1922

The embrace of civil society is now ubiquitous in the field of democracy-promotion, and conceptually and programmatically it almost always includes the project of media development. The majority of USAID’s media assistance programs, for instance, fall under its civil society portfolio, and most non-governmental organizations that do media work will also justify media programs, implicitly if not explicitly, as an agent of civil society formation. The link is understandable: no matter how one understands the role of the media in a democracy, a primary purpose is to inform the public on issues of importance and thus to make their political participation meaningful. Further, of the many challenges journalists face virtually everywhere, in developed and developing countries alike, one they all share is a political and social environment they perceive to be, in one way or another, hostile to independent, professional journalism. Using the power of their voices, journalists presumably have the ability to change that environment through their engagement with and support of civil society associations. In short, both the media and civil society are forms of pressure from below that affect the decisions and activities of governments.

Over the past two decades, untold aid monies and conferences have been devoted to civil society and journalism, and a large literature has bloomed on the subject. Some of the literature on civil society is analytically helpful; much is conceptually muddy at best. Scholars debate the definition of the term[2] ; journalists use it to mean a variety of things (including simple civility) and invoke it as a remedy for any number of political and professional ills in both developing and developed media systems. One commentator notes that “rarely has so heavy an analytic cargo been strapped on the back of so slender a conceptual beast.”[3]

The beast can be summarized as that realm of voluntary association outside the state and the market, which acts as an organized counterweight to the power of the state, and whose existence is thus presumed to be a critical component of democratic transition and consolidation, perhaps even – insofar as civil society functions as a stand-in for public participation in political life – the critical component. [4] Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan define civil society as “that arena of polity where self-organizing groups, movements and individuals, relatively autonomous from the state, attempt to articulate values, create associations and solidarities, and advance their interests.”[5] Civil society can include large social movements (most notably today, feminism, environmentalism, and human rights), and in its modern form, it places renewed emphasis on ethnic, racial, and religious identities and includes a wide array of single-issue groups with varying commitments to pluralism and democracy.[6] So far as democracy and democratization are concerned, civil society is important because it is where political pluralism originates – in short, where citizens are made. At the level of global governance, international NGOs are often identified as the locus of international civil society, though their claim to public representation is less than convincing.[7]

In democratic theory, civil society is also the essential element in mobilizing opposition to authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, and so at its most elemental, it includes ordinary citizens who are not part of any organization but who march, heckle the police and politicians, express their opposition to specific government measures, and challenge the regime in mass protests. Their activity is important because groups by themselves, no matter how many or heroic, are insufficient to overthrow a non-democratic regime. The presence of thousands of protesters in the streets forces the regime to decide whether it is willing to use massive force to sustain itself, an action that will almost certainly further weaken the government's claim to legitimacy. After the regime has collapsed, the problem for democratization is sustaining civil society in some form other than a purely oppositional one. Depending on the nature of the authoritarian regime that preceded the transition, civil society can be difficult to sustain in any form.[8] And where political society and economic society remain intertwined in vast patronage systems, there will be a natural disincentive for people to get involved in associations of any kind that might cost them their social position or their job.

But it is precisely these associations in the non-governmental sector of society – churches, neighborhood groups, issue groups, sports clubs, civic groups, and so on – that are thought to perform a number of important social functions necessary to democratic consolidation: they provide a buffer between the individual and the power of the state and the market; they create social capital; and they develop democratic values and habits. Civil society, in short, gives democracy what the law, with its rules and sanctions, cannot: social trust, social authority, civic virtue and vision – the stuff of citizenship. In the developed West, civil society is sometimes conflated with ideas about social responsibility, specifically as a concept opposed to liberal individualism’s tendency to see people not as citizens, but as bundles of legal rights and entitlements, cut off from any higher moral claims, or as consumers motivated only by economic self-interest.[9]

Even accepting all this, it is not clear precisely why civil society is critical to democratization or how it actually connects citizens to the machinery of governance. Perhaps most troublesome is the view of civil society as a tolerant and cooperative space, when in fact its oppositional and fragmented character might just as easily be an obstacle to democratic consolidation, particularly where governments are weak. Ample evidence suggests that civil society can be anti-democratic, even disastrously so.[10] And even where it is benevolent, it is something of a mystery how civil society’s benefits are supposed to find their way into the more formal realm of “political society.”

In the democracy-promotion industry, the claims that donors, assistance providers, and even journalists make for civil society can be even more confusing, so much so that it's easy to become cynical about the whole subject. Civil society sometimes seems like a kind of catch basket, a category of last resort for a multitude of unique and complex social, economic, and political problems that do not fit under any of the industry’s other rubrics. Its presumptive neutral character, too, can make it a useful venue in which to advance as democratic principles what are in fact the political preferences of aid providers, program implementers, and recipients.

Leaving aside problems of definition and application, journalism and civil society would seem to have some obvious connections as well as common interests. Both produce information and churn meaning from it. News organizations act as informal hubs in civil society networks, taking in information and sending critical bits of it back out, in the process composing a more or less coherent profile of public attitudes and values. Civil society associations and independent media organizations are thus interdependent and may even overlap. A social group or NGO might have its own publicity arm, for instance, and distribute its own newspaper or radio program. Many international NGOs – Human Rights Watch and IREX/ProMedia, to name two – are well regarded sources of original research in their respective fields. Media organizations, further, will often seek to identify and serve specific communities of interest, such as an ethnic or racial minority, women or immigrants, farm laborers or factory workers. In this way, speech and press freedoms are woven together in the growing democratic fabric. Media and civil society each is presumed to be a necessary condition for the other.

In practice, however, they are not always viewed this way. USAID, for example, places media development in a supporting role to civil society promotion in the hierarchy of its democratization objectives. The result can be confusion and disagreement over who is responsible for what. It is not at all uncommon to hear assistance workers talk with a distinct tone of impatience about journalists whose view of their independence does not include acting as the publicity arm of civil society groups and their causes. Journalists, in turn, sometimes find themselves facing the most severe pressure on their editorial decision-making, not from governments, but from civil society groups who are angered by what they view as unfair news coverage, and whose dedication to the cause of freedom does not extend to inquiries into their own activities. This can be especially true in countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the enormous number of international NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, and local NGOs together form a kind of de facto government. Very often these organizations do not see themselves as the legitimate subject of critical news coverage, and many of them, despite their professed dedication to transparency in governance, are not themselves very transparent. Local journalists complain that civil society organizations are unprofessional, uncooperative, and even disingenuous in discussing their programs and objectives. Civil society and independent media may therefore be necessary conditions for each other, but neither is a sufficient condition for the other. Their interests may overlap, but they are not the same.

Ultimately, how journalism fits into the mix of institutions that compose civil society depends on how one understands journalism’s core purpose in a democracy. As Premesh Chandran, the CEO of Malaysiakini, the only independent news source in Malaysia, explained it to me recently, civil society’s job is to “blow the whistle” when the government acts in ways that are repressive or irresponsible, and it is then the journalist’s job to pursue and report the story. This view, or something like it, is not uncommon in democratizing states, and it is one reason both journalists and aid organizations consider civil society formation so important. In their view, the journalist’s job is both to build civic consciousness and social solidarity (as in the “civic” or “public” journalism movement in the United States, for example) and to expose government corruption and incompetence. In important ways, however, Chandran’s formulation runs directly contrary to the Western “fourth estate” or “liberal” view of journalism, which follows closely on Western free expression theory and sees journalism as institutionalizing the expressive freedoms that provide a moderating influence on sources of power. Because those sources of power include civil society, this model is the least deferential to it. Put another way, in the fourth estate formulation, the journalist “blows the whistle” and civil society acts on the information. Finally, civil society also fits with a conception of journalism that is essentially developmental, which understands its role as promoting socio-economic change through education, economic expansion, and growth. The problem with this view is in the way governments typically use it. In Asia particularly, but also Africa and Latin America, nominally democratic governments continue to justify strict controls of the news media in the name of socioeconomic development and political stability. Those controls include restrictions on ownership, national security and sedition laws, and annual licensing requirements.

Of course, these conceptions of journalistic purpose are not exclusive of one another. In either a consolidated Western democracy or in an Asian transition state, for instance, a news organization might understand its mission as promoting both public engagement in civic life and the values of free expression. And in a transition state, the same news organization may also see itself as an agent of the economic development it will depend on for its own sustainability. Malaysiakini, for example, is an online newspaper in a country where print publications are restricted to the handful of companies with licenses to print them, and licenses go overwhelmingly to party-affiliated newspapers, none of them much worth reading.[11] Malaysiakini exists only because it has exploited the government’s decision not to regulate the Internet as part of its policy to make the country an attractive site for information-technology industries. In that respect, Malaysiakini’s future is closely linked with the success of the government’s economic development policies – policies that to succeed will presumably compel the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to allow an increasingly freer and larger space for information exchange.

Media and Civil Society in Democratic Transition and Post-Transition: The Chilean Case

To the extent that media freedom and civil society development are in fact interdependent, what challenges do they have in common? Journalists and democracy promoters in transition states typically name two. The first is the creation of social capital – “enhancing the bonds of community, building citizenship and promoting individuality,” as one Filipino journalist said to me. The second is “building a culture of free expression,” a process that usually emphasizes encouraging the “watchdog” role of the press and providing citizens with access to news and information. A quite different conception of the media’s contribution to civil society focuses on providing citizens access to the instruments of communication, perhaps even against the prerogatives of those who own them, and especially where ownership is concentrated in the state or in private centers of economic power. These general concerns are joined in a larger one: how does a society actually do these things, i.e., create and sustain media that engage the public in democratically centered discourse?

A useful case study for considering this question is Chile, a country typically regarded as one of the true successes of the Third Wave, and economically the most vibrant state in Latin America. Chile emerged from bureaucratic authoritarian rule with the election of a Christian Democratic President, Patricio Aylwin, in 1989, around the same time much of South America returned to civilian rule after more than a decade dominated by right-wing military governments. The modern Latin American political experience is unique in many ways, not least in the fact that the generals who ruled there often did so with the aid of the United States government, which in the name of democracy helped to launch numerous dictatorships in the region. Officially, U.S. policy in Latin America in the years following World War II was to fight communism; in 1961 President John F. Kennedy had announced the “Alliance for Progress,” a sort of Marshall Plan for the region. For several decades the United States provided direct military, financial, and political support as part of its Pan-American alliance against communism, and particularly, in Latin America’s case, against internal “enemies of freedom”: labor, the poor, the intelligentsia.[12]

Chile’s experience was particularly tragic. “No other Latin American country could equal Chile’s record of constitutional government,” writes historian John Charles Chasteen. “For years, Chilean democracy had negotiated major ideological differences.”[13] But following the presidential victory of socialist-communist Salvadore Allende and his Popular Unity coalition in 1970 – and despite the fact that Allende disavowed violent revolution in favor of constitutional process – the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency adopted a “firm and continuing policy,” in the words of the agency itself, “that Allende be overthrown by a coup.”[14] The United States embarked on an economic war against Chile, and in 1973, under General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the Chilean military overthrew Allende’s constitutional government in what turned out to be “the bloodiest takeover in the history of Latin America.”[15] The country would not emerge from military rule until Aylwin took office in 1990, though the military – and Pinochet – have remained powerful figures in the Chilean transition, and Chileans continue to reconcile themselves to their legacy.

     The experience of Chile in the final years of the Pinochet regime illustrates the surge of civil society and media activity that often precedes political transition, as well as the difficulty of sustaining that level of mobilization after the non-democratic government has been toppled. Faride Zeran, director of the journalism school at the University of Chile, says that a vibrant “independent press helped Chilean society to overcome dictatorship at the ballot box and made it possible for people to overcome their fears,” but since 1989 the independent press has withered. During the decade of transition that followed the 1988 elections, Zeran says, “We did away with what Pinochet could not undo in 17 years.”

          Much of the independent press of which Zeran speaks had had an organic relationship with political parties that were illegal under the Pinochet government. As such it was also an elite press, its audience limited to the upper strata of Chilean society. Without question those media were important incubators of dissent and principled opposition to the military regime, but most students of the Chilean transition point to television, the country’s only true mass medium, as the critical element in Pinochet’s electoral defeat. Ironically, television’s rise to prominence was at least in part the result of Pinochet’s efforts to modernize the country’s communications system, to place it in private hands, and to orient it toward the market and away from a politically focused print press that depended heavily on the state. One consequence of that modernization was a six-fold increase in television set ownership between 1970 and 1983, such that television penetration had reached 95 percent at the time of the 1988 plebiscite.[16]

More than editorial content, that geographic and demographic reach is what made television singularly important to democratic transition. Until 1988 Chilean television had offered no political debate; broadcast news under the Pinochet regime was whatever the regime said it was and typically showed political opponents only in a judicial context, where they were portrayed as criminals. Editorially independent broadcasting had ceased following the 1973 coup, when radio stations, magazines, and newspapers belonging to Unidad Popular, the left-wing coalition that had supported Allende, had been confiscated and either held by the military government or sold to private firms. Media belonging to other parties, such as the Christian Democrats, were not officially closed but rather hounded out of existence. The state television network, TVN, and all other television broadcasters came under the control of Pinochet-appointed university presidents. Within a few years the military government ended the practice of providing public financing to television, and in 1977 it ended all restrictions on television advertising, thus creating a unique situation where state-controlled channels were financed by the private sector.[17]

In 1987 this state of affairs began to change with the visit of Pope John Paul II, the first-ever papal visit to the overwhelmingly Catholic country. Though the government tried to orchestrate television coverage of the visit in its favor, it was hard put to deny or suppress the pope’s public call for a return to Chile’s democratic traditions. “The result,” writes one commentator, “was to legitimate an ethos antagonistic to the authoritarian regime, an ethos that would eventually serve as the basis for the victory of the ‘No’ side in the 1988 plebiscite.”[18] In advance of the plebiscite and under the rules of the government’s National Television Council, the opposition received 15 minutes of airtime each day, though it was otherwise banned from news and public affairs programs. The opposition’s brief message was juxtaposed with the government’s own 15-minute message in 30-minute programs that aired at 10:45 p.m. on weekdays and at noon on weekends, time slots the government had chosen to ensure the smallest possible audience. To the government’s great chagrin, the program drew enormous audiences and became the topic of public discussion throughout the country, thus allowing the opposition to surmount the enormous obstacles to defeating Pinochet at the ballot box: it had to overcome the negative images that the regime had used to portray it as inefficient and violent, even as it offered no candidate or program of its own; it had to convince people cowed by 15 years of state terror that a “No” vote against the government would not result in reprisals; and it had to explain that even if Pinochet lost the plebiscite he would remain in power for a full year before there would be a presidential election.[19]

To meet these challenges, the opposition turned its media campaign over almost entirely to a team of producers, advertising executives, reporters, and political scientists who chose to attack Pinochet with the modern techniques of democratic campaigning: focus groups and polls designed to ascertain voters’ concerns, and public relations strategies for targeting undecided voters, especially women and the young. Instead of trying to counter the government’s relentless negativity and scare tactics, the opposition chose the motto “We are more” and was positive and issue-focused. Rather than devote its entire 15-minute broadcasts to single topics, it did short vignettes on issues ranging from poverty and health to exile and torture, all hosted by a well-known personality and featuring musical jingles, comic sketches, and the personal testimony of common citizens. Pinochet became a target of humor intended to dispel his image of political invincibility, and painful subjects such as the “disappeared” were treated respectfully as the basis for national reconciliation rather than division.

So successful was the television campaign that it became a news story in its own right, covered by the nation’s print media. Importantly, where the opposition’s television campaign had made the conscious decision not to respond to the government’s attacks, the print media covering the campaign did respond, disputing the government’s arguments and thus providing a valuable complement to the television campaign. This activity underscored the fact that while the television campaign was critical to political mobilization, the print media performed the essential task of providing information. In that role the print media were among those associations that laid the groundwork for mobilization in the realm of civil society, contributing to and interacting with the social organizations and the political opposition that Pinochet had first tried to eradicate, then ignored, and finally misjudged. The television campaign, in turn, reinforced activity that went on in communities and in face-to-face contact with voters.

With few exceptions, says Zeran, the dynamism that existed among media in the years immediately before and after the plebiscite is now gone. Among the principal alternative weeklies that promoted democratization were Cauce, Analisis, and APSI, all now defunct. Much of the opposition press had depended for a significant portion of its financing on grants from foundations and political parties, and when those sources dried up, circulation and advertising revenue did not suffice to pay the bills. Some print media that campaigned for democracy did for a time successfully appeal to broader and more diverse audiences, but they, too, have closed. The last of the important opposition weeklies, Hoy, closed for financial reasons in 1998, as did the independent daily La Epoca, which had been founded in 1987 and was generally credited for high-quality reporting leading up to the election. La Epoca was unable to service its debt from sales and unable to attract advertisers after the transition because of advertiser discomfort with the paper’s editorial view. Today Chile’s newspaper market is dominated by two large and conservative conglomerates, El Mercurio, S.A., publisher of the Santiago daily El Mercurio, and Consorcio Periodistico, S.A. (COPESA), whose flagship paper is La Tercera. Both organizations gave political support to and received financial support from the former military government. El Mercurio has a reputation for being conservative, but it is also a far better paper than it once was, arguably one of the best in Latin America.

Television, which, in Chile as throughout Latin America, came of age in a period dominated by military governments, has increased its standing as the nation’s principal mass medium. TVN is now self-financing and subject to the same ratings pressures as other private broadcasters and cable channels. At the same time, TVN is subject to government oversight and interference, just as all media are subject to criminal prosecution under the country’s media laws. So far as the press is concerned, the worst features of Chile’s state security law and its code of military justice were repealed in 2001, but public officials, including judges and military officers, are still able to bring criminal charges against news organizations for virtually any kind of criticism.[20]

Most worrisome, says Sebastian Brett of Human Rights Watch in Santiago, is that Chileans do not seem to care much that their news media are singularly conservative and uncritical, nor do they perceive their relative lack of choice in this regard or the government’s punitive hostility to criticism as threats to or limitations on their own expressive rights. “If freedom of speech is the oxygen of democracy,” Brett asks, “why are there not people in the streets asking for air to breathe? I remember in the early 1990s, there were people wearing gags on their faces standing outside of court buildings protesting. The Chilean Journalists Union led this protest. Now no one is in the streets anymore. What’s the reason?” As if to answer the question, Santiago-based Ford Foundation officer Augusto Varas has said that, “The right for freedom of expression has not been deeply rooted in Chilean civil society.” Zeran claims that of the country’s 40 journalism schools, 33 are “controlled by the economic right” and “the question of freedom of expression is not on their curriculum.”

Zeran’s observation raises recurring and fundamental questions about civil society and “democratic” media: What constitutes “media pluralism” in a society, and what role should governments and markets play in creating and sustaining it? One could argue, for example, that Chile’s media are both modern and pluralistic. Indeed, unlike most democratizing countries, Chile did not witness any fundamental changes in its communications system after the fall of the old regime. Rather, the process of privatization that began under Pinochet has continued under democratic governments, most notably with the privatization of Radio Nacional in 1994. Chilean television, at least, has also been globalized: Megavision is owned partly by the Mexican broadcasting giant Televisa, and the television operation of the Universidad de Chile is now 49 percent owned by the Venezuelan consortium Venevision. All of this activity has had the effect of reducing the government’s involvement in the operational aspects of communications – from the point of view of many free expression advocates, an essential task of any meaningful transition to a democratic media sector. It is not the only goal, of course. With respect to editorial matters, the country’s hostile press laws combined with the pressures of the market have had the undesirable effect of driving viewpoint diversity from Chile’s media, though clearly that perception depends on how one defines viewpoint diversity.

Several journalists I met in Santiago in 2001, for example, pointed critically to El Mostrador, then a new online business publication. Their displeasure with the publication centered on its “elite” character as an online-only service and, more obliquely, on its non-oppositional approach to public affairs. But El Mostrador’s general manager, Federico Joannon, made it clear to me that he and his partners were in business to turn a profit, not to serve as an opposition center to the government. “We care about recovering democracy,” Joannon said, “but that is not our key issue. We created the company and risked our capital in the belief that the Internet will become the fundamental medium. We are not committed to the government, the church, or the business community. We are not a refuge for alternative groups – that is legitimate, but not the crux of what we do. We want to provide information to the majority of people – they have the right to be well informed, too – and are trying to be a watchdog on power, a viable business activity in the center of the business world.”

Only a week after I returned from Santiago, a New York Times editorial on Latin American media praised El Mostrador for being “daring and innovative,” but closed with the charge that in Chile “as elsewhere in Latin America, the market has more often produced media that unquestioningly support the powerful in society, failing the public they are supposed to serve.”[21] Charges like these – especially when they come from large, private, and profitable Western media firms – are difficult to evaluate. Throughout developed democracies, for instance, the leading public affairs media, almost without exception, are private firms that earn the bulk of their revenues from advertising, not circulation.[22] More generally, while it may be true that Chile’s media do a poor job of covering public affairs, it is also true that the low levels of political involvement and political polarization in the Chilean public are at levels characteristic of consolidated democracies.[23] In short, what some may view as public apathy and a diminished media market – i.e., democratic failure – others may fairly regard as measures of successful democratic transition. That transition has been aided by the country’s economic success. By the time Pinochet stepped down in 1989, Chile had the strongest economy in the region, one that enjoyed broad popular support. The Christian Democratic presidents that followed the dictator, Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei, and now Socialist Ricardo Lagos, have all emphasized social justice, but none has introduced significant economic changes. Arguably, the economic stability that Pinochet brought to Chile has provided some of the social stability necessary for the continuing investigation of and national reckoning with the dictator’s crimes.[24]

Clearly, there are multiple valid and important measures of media pluralism, and where, as in Chile’s case, the state wields significant powers of censorship and control, pluralism will suffer. It may be circumscribed further where major sources of news and information are controlled by non-media sectors of the economy with links to the government or large stakes in public policy. COPESA, for example, is controlled by a group tied to Chile’s banking industry – just as in the United States the television network NBC is owned by General Electric, a large defense contractor, and in Italy the country’s prime minister owns three television networks. But as to the practical problems of which voices to sustain in a transition society and how to sustain them, journalists and many people in the democratization business hold conflicting views on the roles that governments and NGOs should play on the one hand, and the market on the other. With respect to the “how” question, in the early 1990s left-wing members of the Chilean legislature proposed to enforce pluralism by statute, essentially guaranteeing financial support for media unable to find sufficient footing in the market. The Chilean Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, a decision that Sebastian Brett calls correct. “Judges should not have that responsibility,” he says, though he clearly supports the spirit of the legislation.

Sustaining Media Pluralism As a Civil Society Objective

Though in obvious ways unique, Chile’s media experience mirrors that of many of other states with ongoing democratic transitions, as well as that of many consolidated democracies. For the democracy-promotion industry, that experience raises at least three issues.

The first is that while free and independent media may be a means to an end (civil society development), it is also important to think of free and independent media as ends in themselves. Only then is it possible to approach press development creatively and make news and public affairs media financially sustainable for the long term. In the early 1990s, the approach to democracy assistance was to provide a smorgasbord of programs on the theory that all made some contribution to consolidation. Media assistance followed the same assumption. The assumption was obviously false in several important respects, not least that there was no necessary correlation between aid amounts and increases in press freedom. Worse, many media organizations became aid-dependent, in effect a drag on the entire democratic project. In response, many NGOs and government funders like USAID have developed sustainability criteria they can use to assess media projects before funding them and evaluation measures they can use afterward. Evaluation in democratization and media assistance is obviously difficult, requiring as it does objective measures of things that are inherently subjective. At the same time it is a valuable exercise, part of a long-overdue reassessment of Cold War thinking about what makes a media system “free and independent.”

Often as not, however, “free and independent media” remains a term of art and convenience (as do related terms like “diversity” and “media pluralism”). The “independence” of Czech Television, for example, came under international scrutiny in late 2000 and early 2001 when the government council that oversees the station dismissed its director and replaced him with Jiri Hodac, an experienced former BBC editor who purportedly had connections to former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party. The journalists at Czech TV suspected government meddling and had their suspicions confirmed when Hodac named former journalist and Klaus economic advisor Jana Bobosikova as the station’s news director. She promptly fired several editors and staffers, at which point the editors barricaded themselves in the newsroom and for a period of weeks broadcast their own “unofficial” version of the news using satellite and cable links. President Vaclav Havel and other prominent Czech writers and artists gave support to the protesters, and at one point some 75,000 Czechs rallied to their cause in Wenceslas Square, turning the entire episode into an international embarrassment for the government. Hodac eventually resigned and his cadre of new managers was fired; all the protesting editors stayed on, including those whom Bobosikova had fired weeks earlier.

Presumably the outcome of the Czech Television seizure was a victory for press independence; that was the common consensus in news accounts everywhere, particularly in the United States.[25] But viewed in another light, the “rebels” (as they called themselves) may have paid too dearly for their cause. “The journalists behind the protests did a great job of manipulating their own media,” says Jeremy Druker of Transitions Online, a Prague-based news organization, “and were not at all independent or objective in their coverage of their own demonstration.” Ironically, Hodac had argued before resigning that one of his goals was to make Czech Television more professional. He had also said he wanted to make the service more efficient in the face of increased competition and a continuously dwindling audience share. Czech Television has continued to see its audience and revenues dwindle, and with them its ability to do quality public-service journalism

Too often the democracy-promotion industry forgets that while media outlets may be important contributors to civil society, they are embedded in economic society. Editorial mission counts for nothing if it cannot find sufficient revenues to sustain itself. The choice of revenues will always have implications for the core mission of any media organization, for-profit or not-for-profit. But that does not mean the revenue source – whether advertising or grants or loans or tax subsidies – has to define the mission (or gut the mission) of the company. The mix of revenue sources is important, but it is not everything. Throughout the world, non-profit organizations, from universities to museums to public broadcasters, survive on grants while also managing to build successful businesses and further their core mission. In Europe and the United States, for example, public broadcasters have had to seek additional sources of revenue through private grants, for-profit subsidiaries, or partnerships with other non-profits or with private, profit-seeking firms.

In Africa, several state-private media partnerships have emerged. In Kenya, for example, Regional Reach Limited distributes video programming about health and community issues to rural areas in an alliance with the state-owned Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation, and with cooperation from the government (which provides security). Regional Reach is a for-profit firm based in Nairobi that provides free televisions and VCRs to rural communities, placing them in a central village location. People then congregate to watch entertainment and news programs that Regional Reach provides on VHS tapes, says Rose Kimotho, a former advertising executive who founded and now directs the service. A typical tape starts with the state television program, but then moves on to subjects like farming, AIDS, football, music, and religion. Revenue for the service comes from advertising, but some programming is provided through partnerships with not-for-profit organizations – churches, for example. USAID paid for 40 television sets and VCRs in return for free distribution of its messages on AIDS and malaria. The service operates in 200 village centers and has about 1 million adult viewers each month; as Regional Reach moves from VHS tapes to terrestrial broadcast transmission, Kimotho says, those numbers will increase. “For many of these people,” she says, “It’s the first time they’ve ever seen a TV. It’s like being in a theater – it’s very quiet. There are many runners from our area who so far as anyone remembers just left the village and went somewhere else. So we have programs on athletics, and they see these people running in Europe, in color and on TV. The impact is amazing – it’s the first contact they have with the wider world. Until now it was just government news on the radio.”

Interestingly, many American media assistance efforts, including in particular government ones, have shunned public-private models (including their own, such as U.S. National Public Radio) in favor of exclusively private, commercial media, thus foregoing the greater potential a mixed model has for public service and long-term economic sustainability. Thus the second issue: Democratization aid’s heavy emphasis on free markets and economic development arguably has left journalists in many countries in situations where their media markets have been commercialized, but they have won little if any autonomy from government. Especially for journalists in what Thomas Carothers calls “gray-area” or semi-authoritarian states, the few inches of breathing space that have come with political liberalization has been offset by having to negotiate competitive pressures in markets where the rules still heavily favor state media and entrenched elite interests. According to a 2001 World Bank report, for example, the largest media firms in 97 mostly developing countries are owned by the government or by a powerful family connected to the government.[26] Television remains the least democratic of all media in this regard. These difficulties are compounded in countries like Indonesia and Russia, where governments have sought to re-regulate the media and rein in what they view as media excess. In others, political liberalization has simply meant the exchange of one source of repression (the state) for another (local government officials, gangs, religious authorities, powerful business interests, and others).

There is a third way to think about linking media assistance with civil society goals, and it is worth close examination by government and private aid organizations. Its specific concern is economic – the financial accounting side of civil society and free press promotion – and it borrows heavily from the management principles of social entrepreneurship. A handful of organizations have begun this process, but the best of them is the New York- and Prague-based Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF), a not-for-profit venture capital firm that makes low-interest loans (program-related investments, as they are known in U.S. tax law, or PRIs) to high-quality news organizations in transition countries throughout the world.[27] PRIs help recipients by allowing them to bridge gaps in credit, to accumulate assets, and, eventually, to leverage additional financing from more traditional sources. More significantly, PRIs help recipients build managerial capacity in their businesses and increase productivity. Repaid principal goes back into the loan pool, where the money is used again to help new clients, exponentially extending the impact of MDLF’s assistance dollars; dividends and capital gains go to support MDLF’s operating expenses. [28]

Some MDLF clients do get grants, if not from MDLF then from other donor organizations, but the idea in every case is for the participating news organizations to wean themselves from donations entirely and to become full and competitive participants in the market. What makes MDLF unique in the field of media assistance is its commitment to its clients; the award of a PRI instead of a grant fundamentally changes the relationship between provider and recipient from one of donor/supplicant to a partnership: the funder takes a long-term interest in the financial and programmatic health of the recipient, which to pay back the loan must develop greater financial discipline and more strategic management. MDLF’s clients include some of the best public-service media in the democratizing world, among them B92 and Beta News Agency in Serbia, Radio 68H in Indonesia, Malaysiakini in Malaysia, the Feral Tribune in Croatia, El Periodico in Guatemala, Lviv Express in Ukraine, and many more. Several former MDLF clients are today profitable businesses, still committed to their original public-service editorial mission but now with access to traditional sources of capital.

          MDLF is not the only organization of its type. The Southern Africa Media Development Fund (SAMDEF) in Botswana, a subsidiary of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, also makes loans to media firms in its region, though with a broader focus that includes not just news but culture and entertainment.[29] MDLF has a joint loan project with SAMDEF in Zambia and has discussed additional projects with the organization. In the United States, the San Francisco-based Independent Press Association makes relatively small loans (no more than $50,000) to its members – “alternative” newspapers and magazines – to help them “rise to the next level” by expanding or diversifying their revenue sources through direct-mail and marketing campaigns, or by making small capital investments in things like fulfillment software and computers. The IPA was created in 1996 and counts in its membership well-known publications like The Nation and Mother Jones, along with about 400 others that include quarterly and on-line titles, most of them regional or urban-based publications for ethnic- and racial-minority audiences.[30]

These organizations are important because they offer the best existing model for joining civil society and free press goals with a workable financial strategy. This “third way” is not the only funding model worthy of consideration in the democratization industry – in some parts of the world, loans simply cannot be secured, and so grants are still necessary and desperately needed – but it is the only one that explicitly takes sustainability as a central objective of media assistance.  


* Craig L. LaMay, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is the editor most recently of Journalism and the Debate Over Privacy (Erlbaum, 2003). He is currently writing a book on the role of media assistance in foreign aid and democracy promotion. Copyright 2004 by Craig LaMay. 

[1] Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 31-32. 

[2] See, for example, Gordon White, “Civil Society, Democratization and Development: Clearing the Analytical Ground,” Democratization, Autumn 1994. 

[3] Robert W. Hefner, “Civil Society: Cultural Possibility of a Modern Ideal,” Society, March-April 1998, 18. 

[4] There is a large and recent literature on the subject of civil society. See, for example, Gordon White, “Civil Society, Democratization and Development: Clearing the Analytical Ground,” Democratization, Autumn 1994; John Keane, Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998). 

[5] Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 7. 

[6] See Michael Walzer, Toward a Global Civil Society (Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1998), 1-7. 

[7] For discussion on the changing role of government vis a vis NGOs, see Jessica T. Matthews, “Power Shift,” Foreign Affairs, Jan.-Feb. 1997, 50. 

[8] Linz and Stepan, 40-65. 

[9] Don E. Eberly, “The Meaning, Origins and Applications of Civil Society,” in The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays, Don E. Eberly, ed. ( New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000).  

[10] See Michael Foley and Bob Edwards, “The Paradox of Civil Society,” Journal of Democracy, 1996, 38; and Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers, eds., Funding Virtue: Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion ( Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000). 

[11] Malaysiakini is a subscription- and advertiser-supported online newspaper, available at www.malaysiakini.com.

[12] John Charles Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America ( New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 275-301.

[13] Ibid, 287. 

[14] Ibid, 289. 

[15] Ibid, 290. 

[16] Eugenio Tironi and Guillermo Sunkel, “The Modernization of Communications: The Media in the Transition to Democracy in Chile,” in Richard Gunther and Anthony Mughan, eds., Democracy and the Media: A Comparative Perspective ( New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 165-94, at 177. 

[17] Ibid, 170-179. Only in the final days of the Pinochet regime, in 1989, did the government authorize the creation of two private VHF television channels, Megavision and La Red. 

[18] Ibid, 180. 

[19] Maria Eugenia Hirmas, “The Chilean Case: Television in the 1988 Plebiscite,” in Thomas E. Skidmore, ed., Television, Politics and the Transition to Democracy in Latin America (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1993), 82-95. 

[20] See Human Rights Watch, The Limits of Tolerance: Freedom of Expression and Public Debate in Chile (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998), 46-57. 

[21] Tina Rosenberg, “The Monochromatic Media of Latin America,” New York Times, May 7, 2001, A20. 

[22] See Craig L. LaMay and Burton Weisbrod, “The Funding Perils of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” in Burton Weisbrod, ed., To Profit or Not to Profit: The Commercialization of the Non-Profit Sector (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). 

[23] See Bruce Bimber, “The Internet and political transformation: populism, community, and accelerated pluralism,” Polity, Fall 1998, 133. 

[24] See William Ratliff, “Development and Civil Society in Latin America and Asia,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, September 1999, 91-113. 

[25] See, for example, “The Battle for Czech TV,” New York Times, January 5, 2001, A16. 

[26] S. Djankov, Who Owns the Media? ( Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2001). 

[27] See the Media Development Loan Fund’s web page at http://www.mdlf.org/look/mdlf/index.tpl?IdLanguage=1&IdPublication=7&NrIssue=1. MDLF was founded by Sasa Vucinic, a Serbian journalist and one of the founders of radio B92, and former Washington Post reporter Stuart Auerbach, who died in December 2003. 

[28] For federal tax purposes, income from a PRI is treated just like any other investment income, but when the principal is repaid it counts as a negative distribution. In effect, then, a provider must recycle PRI funds to another charitable purpose – loan or grant – in the year the principal is paid. 

[29] See the Southern Africa Media Development Fund at http://www.samdef.com/

[30] See the Independent Press Association’s Revolving Loan Fund web page at http://www.indypress.org/programs/loanfund.html.


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