Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Augusst 2004

2.3. Media and cultural aspects of civil society
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Zrinjka Peruško (Zagreb)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Media and Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe: What about pluralism and diversity?

Zrinjka Peruško (Zagreb)(1)



One of the catchwords of the recent democratic transitions of Central and Eastern Europe is definitely that of civil society. Partly this was undoubtedly linked to the wish for a legal type of state, where the citizens are subject to fair laws and enjoy the freedoms of a democratic type of political system, as defined in the traditional understanding of civil society until the mid 18th century(2). The modern meaning of civil society, which does not understand civil society as one specific type of "good" state but which differentiates it from the state altogether and defines it as a separate and independent realm, was, and is still, prevalent when conceptualizing the role of the media. The coupling of civil society and the media is framed in terms of democracy or the expectations of the democratic consolidation.

The central role of media in democracy was in a way rediscovered with the start of the European democratic transitions of the 1990's. This relationship, espoused for several hundreds of years in the writings of liberal and democratic theorists and then almost forgotten in the swift growth of the contemporary entertainment industries, was highlighted again when the new democracies started redefining the role of the media in accordance with their new goals of democratic political systems and the market economy.

The media were in this story given a hero's role in a utopia-like vision, in which freedom of expression is finally attained, governments no longer have power in the media sphere, and information and communication are democratically shared by all citizens of the new democracies. In this vision, the media are the "fourth estate", the watchdog, the controller of the government. The media in this view are impartial, with no specific ax of its own to grind, at the service of citizens.

Recent trends of concentrating media ownership and power at national and global levels make it necessary to reexamine this relationship. The pluralism and diversity of the media are threatened by these trends (worldwide, and not just locally). Since pluralism and diversity are definitely part of the nature of civil society (whatever else might we include in its definition), the increasing concentration might put into question the positive view of the media role in relation to the civil society.


From Transition to Consolidation: De-linking the Media from the State

The relationship of the media and the civil society in a context of transition to democracy is viewed in two main ways. The first approach - and this is the area that preoccupied the East and Central European media policy agendas in the 1990's - is the de-linking of the media from the state and their placement within "civil society". The lifting of the censorship rules was just a first step in the democratic transition of the media. The attention in this dramatic separation of the media from the state focused on creating a free press - the cessation of the government or political influence on the media content, structure, editorial policies, staffing, etc. The political will was quicker and more determined in some countries, while in others it progressed slower.

The policy agenda in all the countries in question included legislative changes enabling the free establishment of media organizations and the creation of commercial media and media markets. The Croatian road to democratic consolidation saw several distinct phases in the development of the free media system, where the state, civil society and the media themselves changed positions and their relationship to each other . After the introduction of political pluralism and the first democratic elections in Croatia in 1990, the changes affecting the media were quickly introduced into the legislative and constitutional framework.(3)

The early thrust of democratization and liberalization of the media system from the beginning of the 1990's and the formal abolishment of political control of the media did not, however, continue to produce a media system independent of state influence. The dominating media philosophy during the 1990's regarded the media (especially the state-owned national broadcaster) as a tool to use in governing. The belief of the ruling polity that media have a potentially strong and negative impact on society as well as their, in many respects, majoritarian view of democracy was responsible for the relation of the state with the media system during the decade of the 1990's (Peruško Culek 1999).(4)

While the government and the political realm predominantly influenced the character of media legislature during the 1990's, after 1996 the push for media democratization and pluralism came vociferously from the civil society. The Croatian Journalists Association, Forum 21, Association of the Croatian Local Media, National Association of Television, Article 38, Croatian Law Center, the Initiative for Public Radio, and a host of media analysts and academics, pointed to the still present problems in dealing with issues of the right to the freedom of information. The position of the journalistic profession and development of the professional journalistic code of ethics, the position of the HRT and the need to transform it into a public service radio and television, and conditions for operating the commercial electronic media were also topics of concern. With the support of the international community and the international professional associations that shared their values, some influence of their activities contributed inter alia to Croatian membership in the Council of Europe in 1997. In 1999 a policy project "New Media Agenda: For a European Media Policy in Croatia"(5)

proposed a coherent agenda of change for the Croatian media system. The Agenda stressed the need to reexamine the balance between the commercial and public service broadcasting and to find ways of ensuring more self-regulation in the press and journalism. It identified problems in the Penal code and other laws which needed to be changed in order to ensure better protection of the freedom of expression, and drew attention to the new media as well.

The media policy debate within the civil society succeeded in putting these issues on the public as well as on the political agenda of the new government in the year 2000. Media became part of a policy document for the first time, as part of the cultural development strategy of Croatia(6). Consequently, six new laws were drafted and adopted in the media field in the 2000 - 2004 period(7).

Although not all of the Central and Eastern European countries had a coherent civil society initiative for media policy change, and many had governments that were quicker to understand the need to step back from managing the media, the topics of concern were universal in the region. This phase of the development of the CEE media has mainly been well documented (see for instance Sparks & Reading 1998, Corcoran & Paschal, 1995, Paletz & Jakubowitz eds. 2003, Peruško Culek, 1999).

The topic of media and civil society is analyzed also concerning media trends and political democratization in other regions of the world (see for instance Khaibany & Sreberny, 2001; Rodan 2003)


Media as publicists of civil society

The second approach to analyzing the relationship of the media to civil society looks at the ways that the media facilitate civil society, by enabling access to different groups and by making available, through their content, all the diverse opinions and ideas growing within it. Research into the structure and development of civil society does not usually focus on the media itself, except regarding the capacity of the organizations of civil society to use it in order to present their programs and activities. Although the two approaches necessarily complement each other, they are seldom seen in the same place. One of the reasons is that empirical definitions of civil society focus on citizens' associations, organization, etc., and define civil society as "between family, the state, and the market". As the (majority of the) media are most definitely market organizations, they are in this approach only analyzed as a resource for civil society and not as a bona fide member of it. I prefer a definition of civil society that is more encompassing, including also the markets and market activities. This definition, then, is able to include also the mainstream, and not only community, media. The narrower definition of civil society could more precisely be included under the term civic engagement.

In recent years more attention has been given to the development of civil society in CEE, including more support to its building parts. The EU has, in its pre-accession strategies towards these countries as well as in its present strategy towards the countries of the Stabilization and cooperation process (i.e. «western Balkans»), increasingly stressed the development of «civil society» as a necessary basis for the development of democracy. This has also spurred more research or assessments about the state of civil society in the region. Few of these take into account the media in any significant way.

In Croatia, a 2001 assessment by World Learning found that the present state of civil society in general was moving from the reactive to the proactive stage, while taking into account that the history of the development of civil society is rather short, starting from mid 80's. Regarding the media and civil society, the study finds that the access and coverage of civil society initiatives remains low, due both to media reasons (low interest and predominantly commercialized editorial policies) and NGOs (low media skills, no money for promotion). The study showed the dissatisfaction of the NGOs and companies with the media representation of their work.

Within the course of the study, the relationship of the media and civil society was discussed: the outcome is the belief that the media (both print and electronic) lack awareness about the problems related to civil society, and vice versa; both sides said they wanted an open dialogue to overcome the differences. (8)

Community radio and television are seen as one part of the solution for improving the media coverage of civil society - in this report mainly consisting of NGOs. At present there is no discussion of "civic" or "public" journalism (a concept most developed in the US) as a way of putting the citizens' agenda forward.


Media concentration as a threat to pluralism and diversity

The new global trends of increased commercialization and concentration of media bring a new focus in the conceptualization of the media and civil society relationship in present day Central and Eastern Europe. We were in the past decade so seduced by the dramatic separation of the media and the state that we have forgotten the true basis of our wish for the end to government control. For the media to be truly free, they need to be independent in their editorial policies: not only from the governments, but also from their owners. Contemporary trends in the media today show a tremendous concentration on a global level, which threatens the very concept of diversity and pluralism. The big 6 media companies (AOL Time Warner, Viacom Inc, Vivendi Universal, The Walt Disney Company, Bertelsmann AG, News Corporation) own the majority of companies in television, radio, press, internet, film production and distribution, music, book publishing and new media in the world(9). By cooperating, they form a vast network of communication holdings and have the potential to influence the citizens of the world.

One aspect of media concentration that affects the civil society and media interface is the diminishing of the choice and diversity of the number of titles (in the press) and in mainstreaming the remaining titles in order to maximize audiences. A direct effect of this policy is the diminished possibility for the plurality of civil society to be evident in the public sphere. Another aspect is editorial concentration, a practice of "diversified" media conglomerates: the media content is produced in one central place and distributed world wide to local audiences. Diversity and pluralism are at risk again, as only one viewpoint is presented in the different kinds of media (press, TV, radio, internet). Concentration also has negative effects on programming quality, as was shown in an analysis of the US entertainment program diversity and quality after recent mergers (Einstein 2002). Standardization of the cultural content in the media is also a result of concentration: all media companies use the same audience-attracting strategies (Humphreys, 1996). The result is that all media products look alike. Where now is the diversity and pluralism that we want?

If we take a more radical view, the very essence of the corporate media ownership is a threat to the development of the civil society. The media follow editorial policies that are commensurate with the aims and social values of their corporate owners (Bagdikian 2000). Opinions contrary to these interests never have a chance of entering the public sphere, even if they represent the majority of the civil society (McChesney 2000).

Media concentration trends are apparent also in CEE (EFJ 2003, Peruško 2003). Media markets in most countries of the CEE region are highly concentrated, and with a very significant foreign ownership. German media companies mainly dominate the press markets. American-owned companies dominate the television and radio markets. In addition to concentration, in this region the transnational media concentration is particularly apparent, the consequences of which are not yet very clear.

So what are we to do? Media diversity and pluralism are at the core of the contemporary European media policy, promoted by the Council of Europe(10), the European Parliament, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Different measures are taken in the countries on the continent to protect or promote media diversity and pluralism. These start from general competition laws that apply to media concentration, media specific legislation that prevents excessive concentration and in some instances cross media concentration as well. Public service media is promoted as one positive measure for promoting diversity. In spite of all this, there is still no way to protect against transnational concentration in the media.

With the accession of the 10 central and eastern European countries into the EU, the question of their participation in the «European» public sphere(s) and civil society becomes of increasing importance. The introduction of markets and democratic political systems have in CEE enabled the creation of commercial, privately owned media, which have vastly increased the media system diversity in comparison to socialist times. It is a bitter realization that the commercialized media, which were expected to provide the pluralism and diversity lacking in the previous era, are now a possible threat to this same pluralism in democracy.

When we take into account some of the most influential works on the contemporary civic engagement, these type of expectations perhaps seem naïve. Putnam (2000) argues in Bowling Alone that the single most important reason for the decline of civic engagement in America is the rise of the television and tabloid press, which disengages the citizens from actions. Bennett (2000) argues to the contrary, that the changes we observe in media formats and political activities are responses to the broad social changes. Perhaps our problem is that, in Central and Eastern Europe, we are expecting the media to behave in a way that was appropriate 50 years ago. They are not able to do that, because on the one hand, the media are part of the global media space that is linked, and media systems are becoming more alike in the type of product they offer in Zagreb, Prague, Beijing, or Baltimore. On the other hand, although most of this region is new to democracy, the societies that are implementing it are two hundred years more advanced than were those that invented the model. Some of our problems in democratic consolidation probably stem from this paradox.

© Zrinjka Peruško (Zagreb)


(1) Dr. Zrinjka Peruško is Head of the Department for Culture and Communication Institute for International Relations (IMO), Ul. Lj. F. Vukotinovica 2, 10 000 Zagreb, Croatia.
This paper was presented in the session "Media and Cultural Aspects of Civil Society" at the international conference The Unifying Aspect of Cultures, INST, Vienna, 7-9 November 2003 .

(2) See John Keane's Despotism and Democracy, in J. Keane, ed. Civil Society and the State , 1988, for an analysis of the historical development of the concept of civil society in relation to the state.

(3) The Constitution guaranteed freedom of expression, censorship was forbidden. The constraints on media ownership from the socialist period were lifted, and the Parliament adopted a Resolution accepting the media standards of the Council of Europe. In the period from 1990 to 1995 the new legislative environment of the media system was complete (although each of the laws saw several subsequent changes). Three media specific laws are: Law on public information, a general freedom of expression law pertaining to all media; Law on the Croatian Radio and Television (HRT), regulating only the public service broadcaster; and the Law on Telecommunications, regulating commercial radio and television broadcasting as well as the whole area of telecommunications.

(4) For a detailed account of the Croatian media policy developments in the 1990's see also the chapter by Z. Peruško Culek on Croatia in D. Paletz & K. Jakubowitz, eds. Business As Usual. Hampton Press, 2002.

(5) Peruško Culek, Z. ed. Nova medijska agenda: za europsku medijsku politiku u Hrvatskoj. Medijska istrazivanja. Vol. 5, No. 2: 1999. The project was undertaken jointly by Article 38, Croatian Law Center, Institute for International Relations, and supported by the Croatian Journalists Association and IREX ProMedia.

(6) Hrvatska u 21. stoljecu. Kultura. Ured za strategiju razvitka Republike Hrvatske. 2001. Zagreb: Tonimir.

(7) The Media Law (2003), The Electronic Media Law (2003), The Law on Croatian Radio and Television (2001, 2003), The Law on the Croatian Press Agency HINA (2001), The Law on the Adoption of the European Trans-frontier Television and the Protocol of Changes of the European Convention on Trans-frontier Television (2001), Law on the right of access to information (2003).

(8) 15% of respondents think that the civil society in Croatia is poorly developed, 37% that it is somewhat developed, 45 % that is well developed and 3 % that it is very well developed.

(9) More information is available on-line at , or the Media Education Foundation web page at

(10) The Advisory Panel on Media Diversity of the Council of Europe published in 2002 the Report on Media Diversity in Europe, available at


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