Search for the term “international media development” and you won’t find many university departments or publications. Nonetheless, the field is over 50 years old and has exerted a major influence on many regions of the world, accounting for a budget of half a billion dollars a year.

The Center for International Media Assistance, a Congressionally-funded think tank, defines media development as “efforts by organizations, people, and sometimes governments to develop the capacity and quality of the media sector within a specific country or region.”

Now that definition is expanding, through sweeping changes in media technology and shifts in the international development agenda. The “media sector” used to mean print and broadcast media; online technology has potentially extended it to anyone with an Internet connection. Developing “capacity and quality” used to mean support for fact-based journalism. A new generation believes that “capacity” means the extension of public access to the Internet, regardless of content. Finally, the term “specific country or region” has lost meaning in the borderless online space — until specific governments (think China) start creating mechanisms to control their space, and extend those controls beyond their borders.

In short, the fundamental concepts of international media development are under review. At the same time its donors, architects and implementers are embracing change, they are struggling to define and maintain core values.

The Role of Governments

The largest single donor to international media development has long been the U.S. government, through the State Department, USAID, and a few smaller U.S. agencies. In recent years they have been joined by a growing field of Western European state aid agencies and private donors, notably the British and Scandinavian development agencies and the Open Society Foundations. The United States’ long-term goal has been to help other countries replicate the U.S. ideal of politically and economically independent news organizations in the hope they would function as a “fourth estate” to guard the public against the excesses of administrative, legislative and religious institutions.

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Goebbels Schnauze. Image via Wikipedia

The birth of media development followed the epic breakdown of the fourth estate in Nazi Germany, in the last period of technological disruption. Weimar, Germany’s newspaper market was robust, boasting the greatest newspaper penetration in the world. A broad range of publications was owned and created by every imaginable political and religious sector. The great disruptor was broadcasting: in the form of a small brown Bakelite box popularly known as a Goebbels Schnauze (Goebbels snout). The prototype was launched by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1933 with the Nazi takeover.

Its dark genius lay less in the design than in the conception and Goebbels’ intuition that this modest box could lock his party’s stranglehold on power. Before the Nazis took over, Germans received most of their news from the vibrant and diverse print outlets; broadcast radio technology, barely two decades old, was still a novelty, and few people took it seriously as a news medium. But with the Nazis’ grab for power, Goebbels wiped out the independent press and consolidated the country’s radio stations into a unified Reich broadcasting system. The dials on the mass-marketed radios were constrained to the Reich’s stations. Between 1933 and 1938, the number of radios in Germany doubled, giving it the highest radio penetration in the world, while the newspapers that once challenged the Nazis lay in ruins. The public had little access to an alternative to Nazi propaganda, limited to clandestine mimeographs and short-wave BBC broadcasts, both punishable by concentration camp or worse.

At the war’s end, the concept of media development came into its own when it became apparent that Germany would need independent news media to construct democracy. U.S. occupation authorities took a hands-on approach to building politically independent media institutions, installing politically mixed editorial boards in the newly constituted newspapers. They took the same approach with broadcasters and broke the monolithic Reich broadcasting system into regional entities. Local journalists were trained in Western news practices, and a model newspaper was created to exemplify (in the words of Dwight Eisenhower) objective reporting [strict separation of news and comment], its respect for the truth, and its high journalistic standard. Within a decade, the West German news media was noted for both quantity and quality, and the United States discovered media development as a tool for democratization.

The first post-war priority was the Soviet bloc, where U.S. donors supported dissident expression. With the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed as though the door had swung open for wholesale reform: the printing presses and broadcasting facilities were already in place, so it appeared that all that was required was to teach the journalists “how to report instead of taking dictation.” Millions of dollars flooded into Eastern and Central Europe, and a place for the independent press was prepared at the table of free-market capitalism. (The record shows that the process worked better in some countries than others.)

More Difficult to Export U.S. Model

Today, the traditional model of media development is facing an array of practical and political challenges that are transforming its functions and its mandate. Part of the problem is that American journalism has lost its moxie. For generations, the U.S. model of journalism was based on the premise that advertising revenues will support politically independent professional news production. In the United States and many other markets, that model is struggling to survive, making it more difficult to export. (Ironically, recent market research shows that newspapers are thriving in many of the countries that are candidates for media development.)

The challenge to the traditional notion of “media sector” has everything to do with the creation of content, as digital media has shifted the balance from a model of “top-down” publication to user-generated content. The definition of “news production” has been irreversibly altered in the streets of Tehran, Rangoon and Cairo, and will change yet again with the spread of mobile platforms.

But the new models face formidable obstacles. China is considered the world’s fastest-growing digital market, but the government has set up elaborate means of internet filtering and censorship, along with parallel platforms that mimic Twitter and YouTube with controls built into the system. Now China has embarked on its own program of media development in Africa and Southeast Asia, promoting its model of media as a tool for development without the nuisance of an independent news media. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has signaled that the U.S. may be losing an information war as Chinese, Russian, and Arab governments expand their media outreach, based on contesting visions of the role of media in society.

U.S. media development programs continue to fund training for reporters and student journalists, but there is ever growing emphasis on access to digital platforms and online citizen engagement. State Department and USAID funding for media freedom and freedom of information totaled nearly $107 million in FY 2011. The funding is expected to hold steady amid the coming rounds of budget cuts, but this is attributed to an expanding menu of digital projects, many of which have nothing to do with creation of content. Over the past decade, USAID has launched a series of new partnerships with tech companies such as Microsoft, Google and Cisco, many of them wrapped in the ambitious Global Broadband and Innovations Program to expand access to telecommunications in the developing world and promote the use of ICT for development.

This emphasis on communications infrastructure is somewhat new. In the past,
many authoritarian countries had printing presses and broadcast facilities in place; media development concerned itself with improving the quality of content. The new generation of media development projects involve not only broadband (often embedded in a larger economic development context), but also more arcane features such as wireless mesh networks (as in the State-funded Commotion Wireless project).

Another departure is a redefinition of the press watchdog function. The old notion of the news media as the “fourth estate” depended on the notion of the press as an institution. In 20th century America, this usually meant that news organizations counted on access to a certain amount of capital, influence, and legal acumen, as well as the protections of the First Amendment. In return, the news media was expected to abide by the law and make a good-faith effort at veracity and ethical behavior – however imperfectly this was executed. In development speak, this package of legal and regulatory norms is known as the “enabling environment.”

Vulnerability of Online, Citizen Journalists

Today’s citizen journalists function in a far more ambiguous space. In many countries, individuals must be licensed by the government to enjoy the legal rights of journalists. (A recent CIMA report surveyed 100 countries and found this to be the case in one out of four.) In Egypt, this has meant that citizens who recorded protests on their cell phones have had less privileged access to news events and have been more vulnerable to arrest and violence than registered journalists. They may be unaware of laws governing complex issues such as privacy and libel, and few online media outlets have the budget for in-house legal counsel, making them and their contributors doubly vulnerable.

Legal experts refer to the online environment (in the U.S. and elsewhere) as the “Wild West.” Examples of misrepresentation, hate speech and libel that would be unacceptable in print are commonplace online (starting with YouTube comments). Furthermore, the borderless nature of digital media has challenged the concept of national norms; one culture’s art is another country’s pornography. The same confusion touches definitions of obscenity, exploitation, defamation, incitement, and even terrorism.

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Organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists have stepped into the breach, creating new positions to defend the rights of bloggers and citizen journalists, but there’s no way to keep up with the escalating volume. From 2000 to 2010, the number of reporters in jail worldwide leapt from 81 to 179. There were as many jailed for work on the Internet as for print, radio and television combined.

As Ben Scott, the State Department’s policy adviser for innovation, has pointed out, part of the problem stems from the melding of different modes of communication onto a single digital delivery system. For several centuries, communications have been divided among the commercial, the mass (print and broadcast) and the personal (letters and telephone calls). Each mode has been governed by a different set of laws and social expectations. Now, with all three forms of communication converging into the same digital delivery systems, the distinctions are hard to discern.

Internet Access Does Not Equal Freedom

There is a common misconception that access to the Internet automatically translates to freedom of expression. It is clear that Internet access can be a powerful tool in enhancing transparency, but critical indicators such as literacy and rural electrification are often overlooked in the digital euphoria. If a country has a high rate of illiteracy and a low rate of Internet connectedness, one should carefully assess the mass impact of online media. In Egypt, for example, the literacy rate is about 66 percent, only 5 percent of the population is on Facebook, and there are fewer than 14,000 registered Twitter users. The so-called “Twitter Revolution” was much more influenced by Al Jazeera as an alternative to state television, and the proliferation of non-smart cell phones with SMS capability.

One of the toughest jobs facing the architects of the new media development will be to evaluate different forms of user-generated content. The current buzzwords are to “empower activists” —- but which activists? Empower to do what? The old model of media development sought to train reporters to strive for fairness and to cover stories from multiple points of view. “Activists” and “advocates,” by definition, promote a single perspective: their own.

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The 50 cent bill in China, denoting money paid per pro-government online post

Then there is the question of transparency. Quality publications pay journalists a wage to make them economically independent of special interests (even if it doesn’t always work out that way). Many digital spaces don’t signal a separation between news and comment, nor between authentic citizens’ contributions and paid content. Anonymity makes it easy for governments and corporations to “green-turf “ their self-promotion disguised as members of the public. The Chinese government employs a small army of online propagandists known as the 50 cent’ers.

The new emphasis on Internet censorship circumvention tools raises another set of questions. Many media development programs have invested in such tools as a means to promote freedom of expression in closed societies. But as Ethan Zuckerman pointed out in a 2010 post, “We can’t circumvent our way around Internet censorship… We couldn’t afford to scale today’s existing circumvention tools to ‘liberate’ all of China’s Internet users even if they all wanted to be liberated.”

Zuckerman raises an interesting question — do they all want to be liberated? Of course not. Only a tiny percentage of Internet traffic in China has anything to do with political speech or human rights. As Evgeny Morozov has famously pointed out, the world’s online traffic contains far more gossip, pornography, and LOLCATS than downloaded Human Rights Watch reports. Furthermore, the political speech that exists online isn’t necessarily promoting democracy. When the Berkman Center charted the Iranian blogosphere amid the 2008 protests, it found that reformist and secular political commentary shared a highly varied grid with conservative politics, religious youth, and “Cyber-Shia” content.

Complex Role for Digital Media

The reality is that “democratization” is a more elusive process than we previously believed, and that the role of digital media is anything but simple. Over the past two decades, elections in countries ranging from Algeria to Hungary have demonstrated that a population can freely elect anti-democratic regimes.

The media corollary is that increasing access to digital media is valuable, but it may not in itself always advance democracy, human rights, or other values we hold dear. Throughout history, these ideals have been shaped and won by facts, arguments, and ideas (in other words, content), while given platforms can often be dominated by anyone with the will and the ability to occupy them. The Great Chinese Firewall is not just a question of technology, it also depends on the willingness of citizens to live within it.

There is no doubt that digital media is capable of serving as a catalyst for awe-inspiring benefits for the human race. But it is not a panacea in itself, and simple access to digital media does not substitute for a careful valuation of the human factor. Content still counts, whether at home or abroad. In that regard, there is much in the old media development models worth keeping.

Anne Nelson, a specialist in international media, teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and consults for a range of foundations. She is the author of a series of CIMA reports and a 2009 book, Red Orchestra, on anti-Nazi resistance in wartime Berlin. Her publications can be found on academia.edu and she tweets as @anelsona.

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