Excerpted from the infoDev publication, Information and Communication Technologies, Poverty and Development: Learning from Experience.
Broadcast and print media have long played an important role in creating information-rich societies; improving the performance and transparency of markets, firms and government institutions; informing public debate (and broadening participation in that debate); and enabling a variety of groups and interests to organize and express their preferences. While the role of the media in promoting participation and accountability in politics and government is well recognized, it is equally important as a tool of healthy markets, which depend as much on the free flow of information as on the flow of capital, labor and other assets.
New ICTs certainly add both to the ways in which existing media organizations can reach, and interact with, their audiences, and to the options for creating new types of news and information services. The Internet, mobile phones, and digital cameras can make “everyone a reporter”, and diversify both the sources of information and the range of views on issues of public importance. Community radio networks can give voice to those who were previously limited to being passive listeners, and can increase access to locally-relevant and contextual information and viewpoints. The extremely low barriers to entry in creating Web-based news and information sites or communicating to a wide audience through email make it less likely that minority or unpopular views will be filtered out, and more difficult for the powerful or special interests to prevent the dissemination of information.
Yet the new, and much more diverse, ICT-enabled media environment is a mixed blessing, both for developed and developing countries. The reduction of government restrictions on broadcasting, and the reduced prominence of (and funding for) public broadcasting in many countries has led to greater diversity of news sources, but also in many cases to private media monopolies and to the growth of global media conglomerates. This often leads to a dramatic reduction in public-service broadcasting, an increased emphasis on entertainment over information and public debate, and commercial and political influence on content and analysis. It has also led, in many developing countries, to a greater concentration of media resources in more populated areas and a reduced emphasis on coverage of issues relevant to the poor and rural populations. At the same time, the often-overwhelming diversity of information sources can paradoxically lead to a reduction of trust in all sources, or to a form of self-imposed “information myopia” where individuals only rely on sources that match their narrow ideological or political predispositions. This is not a situation unique to ICTs; newspapers in most countries have long had an identifiable political leaning. What is new is the ability of individuals to filter more completely what types of news and views they are exposed to.
This is not to imply that diversification of media sources, and the elimination of government monopolies or restrictions on broadcasting, are bad things. It is simply to point out that, once again, ICTs are just tools, and the consequences of the use of those tools will depend on broader economic, social, political and cultural factors. This serves as a useful reminder that, in this as in so many areas of ICT policy, it is vital to be clear about objectives. The goal of media policy in the ICT age is to foster the growth of an information-rich environment where many voices are heard, public debate is robust, citizens and consumers are empowered, and markets and institutions are efficient and responsive. The most effective path to this goal will vary from country to country, but in every case the diversity and private initiative made possible by ICTs and by liberalization and privatization of the media sector do not eliminate the need for thoughtful government policy, smart regulation and carefully-targeted public investment.