CMDS Summer School: Studying and Fighting Media Capture

August 3, 2017

What’s one of the biggest threats to media freedom today? Something that has over the past few years become a global phenomenon with dire consequences for independent journalism. No matter which continent we look at, we increasingly see media environments captured by the state or oligarchs who often do so to serve the ruling government’s interests or their own political agenda, contributing to a diminishing space for independent journalists and balanced news reporting.

Groupwork presentationSince we are talking about a relatively new global phenomenon that seems to be spreading all across the globe with alarming speed, CMDS focused on media capture this year in its annual summer school held under the auspices of the CEU summer school program. Similarly to previous summer courses, the participants’ professional backgrounds reflected a diverse range of expertise from academia to journalism to activism to policy-making. Twenty-three participants from 17 countries all across the world, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Turkey and Moldova, gathered for this intensive two-week course to discuss the various, intertwining models of media capture and the means to fight them. CMDS invited a broad array of experts from Human Rights Watch (HRW) to Open Society Foundations (OSF), Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) to examine challenges to independent media from various angles, all related to the “pillars of media capture”: regulation, funding, ownership, public media and technology.

Group presentation

Since media capture is a global phenomenon, all participants could relate to it, many with first-hand experiences that they shared with the rest of the group. Faith Ndlovu and John Masuku gave an overview of media capture in Zimbabwe, Ilcho Cvetanoski presented Macedonia, Banu Guven talked about the dismal state of media freedom in Turkey and Binod Bhattarai discussed the specific manifestation of media capture in Nepal.

Case studies brought up and discussed in the course of the summer school resonated with CIMA’s analysis quoted by Kate Musgrave, which finds that, “situated between deliberate state control of the media and largely systemic media biases, the incentives for media capture are typically higher in countries that want to appear democratic […] Case studies ranging from Latin America to the Balkans and Turkey highlight the careful calculations often implicit in the path toward capture, combining the silencing incentives found in state control with the debilitation of a faulty system.”

Groupwork presentation

Apart from looking at the forms and models of media capture from a theoretical angle, the course also featured practical, hands-on sessions where participants designed and presented their own tools to foster independent media. They also visited local media outlets to discuss the state of media freedom in Hungary and their means to fight it.

As Ndlovu, one of the participants, who is a program officer at Zimbabwe’s Voluntary Media Council writes in her article about media capture in Zimbabwe, “the rising concentration of media characterized by the expansion of state-controlled media and media owned by close associates of the state is a matter of global concern.” Reflecting on the above mentioned pillars on which media capture is built, Ndlovu writes that, “these pillars are harnessed to build a media ecosystem conducive for capture.” She cites Marius Dragomir, one of the course directors and the director of CMDS, in saying that “the most common capture model is regulation and public media first, followed by funding and ownership to silence dissent. Media capture in this context is seen in the restructuring of the media that results in a hijacked media primarily serving vested interests be they governments, corporates or other special interests rather than public interest.” Looking at the case of media ownership, Ndlovu warns that “the continued expansion of already dominant media houses is a double-edged sword. While we celebrate investment, innovation and expansion, the other side of the coin is that the current pattern indicates rising media concentration. This media consolidation leads to a situation whereby ownership progressively resides in fewer and fewer hands.”

Group presentationThe two-week course led by course directors Susan Abbott, Kate Coyer, Eva Bognar and Marius Dragomir highlighted the crucial role international networks play in not only enabling but also fighting media capture. Musgrave, one of the participants who is assistant research and outreach officer at CIMA wrote in an article: “Single cases of captured media often reach beyond national confines.”

“If you really want to look deeply at the network that allows for media capture, you need to follow the money,” advised investigative journalist Paul Radu. “And you need to follow it across borders,” he added. As Musgrave wrote, “in an increasingly global economy, the financial networks of oligarchs and media moguls span borders to evade the confines of national law. Without an international perspective, these networks are nearly impossible to track, much less regulate.”

The discussions about the phenomenon of media capture and the ways to fight it that began at the summer course helped initiate further dialogue and engagement in some of the participants’ home countries. Ndlovu and Masuku gathered editors of major media outlets in Harare to discuss the intricacies of media capture vis-à-vis traditional forms of media control. The debate raised other journalists’ attention to the alarming trends in curbing media freedom.