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Media Capture: Local Issues in a Global Context

19 July 2017
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Olivia Pirtac, lawyer
Illiberal democracy and media capture

For some time now we have been using such concepts as democracy, rule of law, constitutionalism, etc., and they have become a part of our common vocabulary. But how would you call a state where those in power, having been chosen through universal, free and fair elections, start encroaching on individual freedoms and ignoring the constitutional limits of their authority?

Recently, a new formula has been taking root, still quite uncommon for us but very accurately characterizing a long period of developments in our country: illiberal democracy.
Illiberal democracy does not mean autocracy, since democratic institutions are preserved, although in a considerably weakened form. One of the features of illiberal democracy is media capture. However, in illiberal democracy capture is not absolute: it keeps the illusion of external pluralism and diversity and focuses only on the sources that significantly affect public opinion. Of course, illiberal leadership focuses their major interest on evening newscasts, which have the largest audience and are massively used to brainwash people and to give them the feeling of leadership’s efficiency.  Pursuing the same goal, illiberal leadership will have a mechanism producing fake news which, along with propaganda, will become a weapon to maintain power. Voices from the opposition don’t stand in the way of this democracy as long as they are not too strong. On the contrary, they give it the legitimacy of actual “democracy”.
People familiar with the situation in Moldova may think that this is an introduction to our specific and unique context, but the truth is that this is a general description of a global phenomenon and of developments taking place simultaneously in very many countries of the world.
Media capture – an element of state capture
The initiatives of illiberal authorities have nothing to do with logic, science and development; they relate only to achievement of their own interests, of something that will help them hold the power. Everything that is strong is ruined, while everything that does not stand in their way remains.
Media capture is just one of the stages and elements of state capture – a process that is taking place in Moldova today. The press is not the only one at stake; “democratic” institutions, justice and business are also subdued and serve the interests of a particular person.
Capture takes into account the current conditions of development. So, we should not be impressed by the immense number of media outlets: concentration is in opposition with the pluralism of views expressed, not just with their multitude. We live in an era when we have many varied sources of information, but they all say the same things.
Moldovan media has been captured as much as it was necessary, and it happened relatively easy. It appears that the following strong pillar that stands in the way is public associations. Shocking and illogical, the Minister of Justice initiative to limit foreign financing of NGOs (see details here) fits into the predictable scenario of continuing attempts to capture the state. The very idea of what may happen if this initiative is implemented is terrible. Moldova still has many bright and incorruptible minds in public associations, and these people succeeded to attract funding from abroad to promote democratic values and public interest. They are intellectuals, the majority of whom can adapt in any country, but, fortunately, they are still in Moldova. The destruction of public associations would be a fatal blow to democracy and to the development of this country.
What can be done?
Although we are dealing with a complex issue of global scale, we cannot resign ourselves. It must be addressed through a multilateral approach.
It is natural to think about regulation, about laws on broadcasting, competition and advertising, about quotas and other restrictions which could be introduced to limit the expansion of a particular media owner, the unfair distribution of advertising, including state advertising, or other such matters. Public policies must include strategies addressing the quality of information and sustainability of independent media. These media should be encouraged so that following them becomes a sign of good manners.
Now, the question is what we produce and offer to the public. We need a viable alternative to captured media, and investigative journalism could be the answer. We should promote and protect it, because this kind of journalism, if you give it a chance, could save both media and the country.
It is also important to have functional self-regulatory mechanisms and the public to be directly involved in funding media. People need to understand that, if they want quality media, they must contribute directly by paying for it; otherwise, they leave such support at oligarchs’ sole discretion.
Let's not forget about the public broadcaster, either: it is already funded by taxpayers and we need maximum attention and effort so that it doesn’t switch to servicing oligarchs. After Facebook and Google engaged in advertising and, in a way, “took the bread out of the journalists’ mouths,” although they only redistribute the information produced by others, the public broadcaster, which has direct or indirect guaranteed funding at the expense of taxpayers, could attract and unite the population around itself, as a necessary source of reliable information and education.
Civil society and civic activism should be strengthened, too. A vigilant, active and involved civil society will protect its own rights and freedoms and promote true values.
And, of course, we need to educate the population. Media education is already part of many media projects, but it is still new for the education system in general. Things should change, since media is more present in our lives than many traditional disciplines. It might not prevent oligarchs from purchasing a few more TV channels or other media, but this won’t matter when people will know to switch channels if they see they are manipulated and misinformed.
The article was published within the Advocacy Campaigns Aimed at Improving Transparency of Media Ownership, Access to Information and promotion of EU values  and integration project, implemented by the IJC, which is, in its turn, part of the Moldova Partnerships for Sustainable Civil Society project, implemented by FHI 360.
This article is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content are the responsibility of author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.