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Communicating in the Information Society

Abstract of the Chapter - The Other Information Revolution: Media and Empowerment in Developing Countries, by James Deane with Kunda Dixit, Njonjo Mue, Fackson Banda and Silvio Waisbord

Too often, debate on the information society narrows quickly to information and communication technologies (ICTs), the potential of the Internet and worries about the digital divide. But another information revolution has been under way, especially in the South, less debated but equally dynamic, more pervasive and potentially even more far reaching. It concerns the “other” ICTs of radio, television and the press that determine, far more than the Internet, the type of information people get and the raw material they bring to bear in constructing and reconstructing our world. This chapter makes three claims.

First, a thoroughgoing liberalization and commercialization of media over the last decade in many parts of the world has led to a much more democratic, dynamic, crowded and complex media landscape. This is opening up new spaces for public debate and civic engagement, particularly in the field of radio; and to a more commercial, advertising-driven media where information and power divides within developing countries between rich and poor, urban and rural are growing.

Second, growing concentration of media ownership—at the global, regional and national levels—is squeezing out independent media players and threatening to replace government-controlled concentration of media power with a commercial and political one.

Third, developing countries are increasingly, not decreasingly, reliant on powerful northern news providers, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Reuters and Cable News Network (CNN), for their international news and information, particularly on stories of globalization, trade and international politics; and in newly democratic countries in the South, and particularly within civil society, there is a renewed and growing frustration at the Southern media’s dependence on what are perceived to be partial, biased or at least fundamentally Northern-centric news organizations for international coverage and the setting of news agendas.

These trends play out differently within and between different regions, but their mark is everywhere. Furthermore, they are taking place largely in the absence of informed and widespread debate, and in a regulatory environment that in many cases can be described as rudimentary.

At risk here is the media’s critical public interest role, and the danger of compromise by private interests. Suspicion, often understandable, of strong government action in the area of media places a heavier burden on civil society, including the emerging transnational civil society, to put pressure both on media and on government with the goal of supporting the public interest, and indeed with the goal of taking part itself in non-commercial media forms.

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