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A new role for public broadcasters?

Public broadcasters are often seen as outmoded institutions that are relics of the pre-digital age. But in divided states, they can provide independent and trusted information that other media can't.

BBC Media Action, the media development charity of the BBC, has recently published two new briefing papers about public service broadcasters. Read together, the two briefings provide numerous insights into why public service media are still relevant today, how they can be reformed to deliver new services to the public, and the numerous challenges in transforming state media into public service broadcasters.

Jan Lublinski, head of research and evaluation at DW Akademie, has these takeaways from the briefing papers Public service media in divided societies: Relic or renaissance? by Phil Harding and After the Arab uprisings: The prospects for a media that serves the public by Alexandra Buccianti and Sarah el-Richani.


In divided states, groups of people or communities are often fragmented along religious, ethnic, or political lines. The media in these countries are often fragmented along the same divisions.

In his briefing paper, Harding argues that in such divided societies, public broadcasters can fulfill several roles, such as providing access to accurate information as well as fulfilling the need for a public space where diverse and competing viewpoints and options can be debated.

Harding identifies three reasons why independent media are vital for development, especially in divided societies:

  1. Free and independent media help to protect the population from corruption
  2. There is a correlation between economic development and media development
  3. Media systems characterized by access to information and independent media are most closely associated with indicators of good governance and human development.

However, Harding points out, there is a crisis of trust in today’s media and in political institutions, making it necessary to regain citizen's trust for the media to be able to fulfill their role of supporting democratic development.

The goals and principles of public service media, such as universality, impartiality, editorial independence, and working on behalf of the public, aim exactly at building or rebuilding this trust, Harding argues.

Furthermore, the media play a crucial role in forming cultural and national identities, which is exactly where modern public service media could find their new role.

“In a 21st Century characterized by ubiquitous access to information, national platforms for the whole of society, and not just the state, to debate and determine the character of national identity may become increasingly valuable,” he writes.

Of course, it is possible for private or community media to provide services to the public if they follow editorial values such as truth, accuracy, impartiality, independence and accountability. However, Harding believes public service broadcasters can “uniquely” fulfill this role in that such values are placed above all other considerations.

In addition, he says, public broadcasters are even more important in today's digital world given the shrinking of public spaces for the open discussion and exchange of ideas and the growing number of media outlets whose primary goal is to attract special audiences and users.

What makes Harding’s briefing paper particularly useful is his review of the arguments, objections, and attitudes of political leaders to public service media – and how these can be specifically countered. Here are some examples:

Conversations with political leaders should be as explicit as possible. However, they shouldn't start with media reform but much further back “with the bigger picture of the whole plan for the development of the country. … They must set the agenda and determine the direction of development.”

In many countries, especially in the Arab World, the Western term “public service” is misunderstood as civic space, as opposed to a governmental space, traditionally doesn't exit. Discussions are needed on the services provided by old and new media and what the assumptions, terminologies and possibilities may be.

Flash-Galerie Journalist Tunesien

For many leaders in developing countries, the idea of “free media” is somewhat close to anarchy. They often believe that such liberties harm their countries instead of advancing them. Of course, countries that profit from comparatively free media regulate their media, for example, through laws on libel or hate speech and through systems of media self-regulation. Yet, these worries voiced by political leaders may in many cases be genuine and need to be taken seriously.

Despite Harding's belief in the continuing value of public service media, the examples above show that there is still much work ahead to create an environment where such broadcasters can flourish.

This point is particularly evident in Buccianti and el-Richani’s “After the Arab uprisings” briefing paper, which explores the reform of state media in four Arab countries. Here is a summary of their findings:

  • Egypt. After the past years of turbulence and political instability, Egypt's media environment remains highly polarized. Although the state broadcaster prides itself on having a broad reach, it does not enjoy editorial independence or adequate regulation. It is unable to deliver a true service to the public.
  • Lebanon. The country has a vibrant media landscape and has recently seen a reform of its national broadcaster. But without increased economic and political support, the broadcaster faces difficulties in innovating and being attractive to its potential audiences.
  • Libya. So far, fighting between different groups within the country has prevented the building of an inclusive national broadcaster. BBC Media Action runs its El Kul (which means “For Everyone” in Arabic) service for Libya from the Tunisian capital, Tunis, via a dedicated website and Facebook. DW Akademie also runs its Libyan activities from Tunis. It supported the design and the evolution of the Libyan Cloud News Agency which launched in November 2015, and the training of the agency's staff of about 100 reporters and correspondents. These report from within Libya to a virtual cloud platform for data storage and transmission.
  • Tunisia. Here great advancements in freedom of expression were achieved after the Arab Spring. Regulatory and organizational reforms are under way. But the state broadcaster, although it has broad reach and a loyal audience, still has no administrative, financial or editorial independence.

Overall, Buccianti and el-Richani's paper provides a very thorough and rather sobering analysis.

However, DW Akademie have identified a few positive cases of the reform of national broadcasters in South-East Europe and Asia.

The BBC Media Action authors conclude that new and broader approaches are needed to advance the notion of public service media in divided societies by using new digital media.

Here is a summary of recommendations from both papers:

  • Online and mobile information. For public broadcasters to be relevant, they need an online presence and to provide information to mobile devices – at least with a minimum of services.
  • New formats. If the broadcaster is supporting innovations, then these should include the development of formats for young people as well as participatory broadcast formats aimed at the general public which can advance inclusive dialogue, rational debate and trusted information.
  • Less is more. If public service media have small budgets, they should focus on the most important avenues. They need to learn to be not only providers but also enablers and “enlightened curators” of information.
  • Institutional reform is vital, not only of state broadcasters but also of regulatory bodies which need organizational development.
  • Pay greater attention to the political context. A true reform can only take place if there are clear incentives for political actors to move in this direction. Potential incentives for media professionals as well as public sector employees and trade unions also need to be better understood and taken into account.
  • Media development interventions need to be more long term and diverse. They should be integrated into broader development reform programs if they are to achieve any progress in the complex domain of public service media.

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