History has shown that there has always been a relationship between the nature of authority governing a country and the media prevalent there. The way in which media operates in a country is reflective of the people’s values and way of life. The lifestyle of people in turn is dictated by the type of the government functioning in the country. For instance, in a democratic setup like the United States, Liberty and Freedom are very dear to its people. Hence, the media is also free to function at its will without any restrictions, even if it means criticizing the integrity of the ruling government. In such a setup, the media has such great power because the government is answerable to the people of the country and has to take responsibility for its actions. In a way, the media moulds the socio- political outlook of a country in a citizen’s mind. Given the immense power of media, governments over time have tried to control it to their advantage.
Four Theories of Press
According to Siebert, Peterson and Schramm, the four theories of the press include Authoritarian, Libertarian, Communist and Social Responsibility theories (1956). Authoritarian theory states that all forms of mass media have to be under the absolute government regulation; the media and its professionals are obliged to follow government instructions at all times. This would mean that whatever the people of the country hear is what the government wants it to hear. Under this system, it is assumed the government is indisputable and infallible. When the media is controlled by the government, it would naturally try to conceal facts to cover up its negatives. Under such circumstances, the freedoms of people are generally curtailed to an extent or even repressed to give way to the interests of the government.
An authoritarian government functions on principles that are very similar to totalitarianism. Most of the pre-democratic societies that existed were authoritarian in nature. Authoritarianism had its roots in the 16th century Western Europe, wherein the media had an obligation to work towards the advancement of the monarchial government’s interests and support it at any cost. Exposure to foreign media was also very much restricted. Under this setup, the media was partly owned by the government and partly by powerful individuals; printing presses were owned by private parties while the government held control over propaganda mediums such as cinema and broadcasting. For instance, Adolf Hitler and his Italian counterpart Mussolini used propaganda and controlled German and Italian news media respectively in such a way that would influence people to follow the Nazi and fascist ideas. According to Hitler, propaganda was meant to influence the most common simpleton in a country, just by the virtue of popularity (1925).
Libertarian theory of press suggests that the media is free to publish whatever it feels is right even it opposes the government’s views. This liberated journalists from the organizational and political pressures, and gave them autonomy to function at free will. Hence, it is also commonly known as free press theory. The central idea of media was to keep people informed and entertained. Anyone with a new idea would be welcome to publish his ideas. However, the only rule to be followed was to refrain from defaming anyone or intentionally displaying obscenity of any kind. This paved the way for investigative journalism and served as a way to keep the government disciplined. It also facilitated uninhibited exchange of news among foreign media. The government did not enforce any restrictions on what could be published and otherwise. All forms of media were privately owned under this system.
John Milton was one of the pioneers of this libertarian revolution which started in the late 17th century England and later spread to other parts of the world including the United States. Milton argued that the existence and interference of government control was a grave threat to intellectual freedom. American President Thomas Jefferson also supported theory of libertarian ideas and openly stated that he would have to pick libertarianism if he was given a choice. This theory was based on the belief that human beings are free and naturally capable of choosing what is right. The media gives citizens all the facts and are left to make up their own minds on various issues. Libertarian ideals were implemented in Chile in the form of Mutualism during the early 19th century, wherein the artisans and working class started to govern themselves by forming societies (Gambone, 2001). In spite of its many drawbacks, it has managed to survive over a century since it is very practical and considered a better alternative to communism.
Under the communist theory of press, the all forms of media are directly control by government through ownership or by exercising indirect control. Not everyone who was capable of being a journalist could publish under this regime. Alternatively, only official members of the communist party were privileged enough to pen down their thoughts. Hence, it was quite obvious that no one could criticize or question the functioning of the government. However, they were slightly different from their authoritarian counterparts since the media companies under this model had to regulate content on their own. They were also expected to entertain their audience, which was not a concern in the authoritarian theory of press. These ideas have its roots in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and essentially transcended from the thoughts of Marx, Lenin and Stalin.
The Commission on Freedom of the Press draws certain rules and regulations to fulfill the media’s obligation to society. It operates on the basis of social responsibility needs to consider and respect the feelings and opinions of people, while adhering to a strong ethical code of conduct. It has to protect the basic rights of the citizens, while continuing to exercise its right to free speech. Every person in the society irrespective of his/her ethnicity, religion or sex can participate in the press by expressing personal opinions.
In today’s world, when we speak of authoritarianism, Albania is a country that immediately comes to mind. The authoritarian government funded by many democratic countries including America for its strategic importance, continues to peruse its corrupt, tyrannical policies (Abrahams, 1997). Other countries where the media is controlled by an authoritarian government are Libya, Syria and Iran. These countries often resort to oppressive measures to ensure complete social control over its citizens.
It is also surprising to note that even in a relatively civilized country like Singapore the media is still under the clutches of an authoritarian government. Although most of the south-east Asian countries like Taiwan and Indonesia are still under extreme socio-political control by the government, the economies have been liberalized leading to tremendous economic growth. Over the past few decades it has been observed that authoritarianism takes its first blow once a multi-party system is established. The emergence of a considerable educated middle-class population paves the way for authoritarianism to loosen up further. Japan has been a prime example of this phenomenon.
The blogs on the Internet are an ideal example of the Libertarian theory of press in today’s world. Anyone who has ideas and the will to publish has to publish his ideas freely, without any fear. Libertarianism can also be found at the roots of the free press in the United States of America. It is easy to get carried away by assuming that the Liberal Party in the United States functions on libertarian ideals. Although there are some similarities in thought, they are both different entities in their own respect. In 2001, the Free State project started by Jason Sorens in New Hampshire marks an initiative to bring about Libertarianism in America; it invites people with libertarianism views to live together in a single state without any sales and income taxes.
Libertarianism, in general, also opposes ban against any activity which includes gambling, prostitution and addictive drug use since it holds every man responsible for his own actions. Libertarianism has never been implemented in its entirety for a considerable period in history. In the present day world, libertarian ideas have been implemented during wars in Sierra Leone and short anarchical periods in Lebanon (David Mcham’s Communication Law Center).
The Soviet-Communist system prevailed for as long as it did since the news that essentially reached the people always highlighted communism in a positive light. The actions of democratic countries were always portrayed as destructive or evil. Hence, the common man in a communist country was under the illusion that everything was running smoothly in his country, contrary to what was actually true. In a way, the press actually contributed to government by acting as its publicity agent. For instance, even a small conflict in democratic countries were magnified in the communist media and portrayed as a failure of the democratic system of governance.
A common man in any country believes what he sees on television and reads in the newspaper. Over a period of time, this gets registered in the minds of the people and affects their thought process. Even after the demise of the Soviet Union, the communist press system is still practiced in China where all forms of media including TV, newspapers and radio under severe government regulation. Even the Internet is censored in China, which became evident with recent controversy wherein the search engines were asked to filter out results which did not align with government interest (Wikipedia).
Social Responsibility theory
A journalist has equal responsibility towards the government as well as the citizens in a country following a social responsibility model. This is the best system for the American press since it guarantees to deliver the truth free of bias, without infringing anyone’s person rights. Under this model, both the government and media have the authority of criticizing each other’s flaws, which would under most circumstances lead to progress of the society as a whole. For instance, the United States is filled with people from different backgrounds, nationalities and religions. Hence, the social responsibility model which gives equal access and opportunities to everyone seems to be the logical choice.
Abrahams, F. (1997). “Albania”. Foreign Policy in Focus, 2(33). Retrieved 28 April, 2007 from, <http://www.fpif.org/pdf/vol2/33ifalba.pdf>
David Mcham’s Communication Law Center. (n.d). The Libertarian Theory. Retrieved 28 April, 2007 from, ;http://www.class.uh.edu/comm/classes/comm4303/section1/fourtheories.html;
Free State Project. Frequently asked questions. Retrieved 28 April, 2007 from, ;http://www.freestateproject.org/about/faq.php#why;
Gambone, L. (2001). The Libertarian Movement in Chile. Retrieved 28 April, 2007 from, ;http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/worldwidemovements/chilemovem ent.html;
Hitler, A. (1925). Mein Kampf. Secker and Warburg Publications.
Siebert, F., Peterson, T., ; Schramm, W. (1956). Four Theories of the Press.
Wikipedia. Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China. Retrieved 28 April, 2007 from, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_censorship_in_the_People%27s_Republic _of_China>