Recent developments in South Africa have highlighted how state capture has emerged as an increasingly dangerous threat to democratic governance and to prospects for democratic transition. According to a definition from the World Bank state capture refers to “the efforts of a small number of firms (or such groups as the military, ethnic groups and kleptocratic politicians) to shape the rules of the game to their advantage through illicit, non-transparent provision of private gains to public officials.”
In short, it is a form of systemic corruption in which private interests exert significant, disproportionate influence over government decision-making processes to their own advantage that has impeded or distorted democracy not only in South Africa, but Mexico, Ukraine and the Middle East. State capture is especially damaging in transitional economies, according to the IMF.
Yet less attention has been paid to the capture of separate state institutions or areas of civil society, including the media.
When dozens of journalists, media development experts, and human rights advocates gathered at Central European University’s Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) earlier this month to discuss media capture, it became readily apparent that there was no one definition for the topic at hand, writes Kate Musgrave,* Assistant Research and Outreach Officer at the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance. Still, there are a number of trends common to “captured” environments–a sweeping term we nonetheless need to conceptualize, connect, and advocate against increasing challenges to independent media around the world, she notes:
The discussion participants at CMDS’s recent workshop, “Media Capture: The Relationship between Power, Media Freedom and Advocacy,” painted numerous images of “captured” home media environments, ranging from direct state control in Turkey and Zimbabwe, to oligarchic capture in Moldova, Macedonia, and Slovenia. Each context provided a new focus within what CEU’s Marius Dragomir identifies as the “pillars of media capture:” regulation, funding, ownership, public media, and technology.
Since objective news coverage is vital to democracy, captured media can seriously distort collective decisions, according to a recent analysis.
International knowledge sharing is key in understanding the challenge in its diverse contexts, countering it where possible, and preventing the risk before it takes hold. Joint discussions such as that hosted by CMDS are integral in getting the conversation started, CIMA’s Musgrave adds:
But as capture strikes at every level, advocacy and awareness will also be required at every level: local to global, civil society to big business, media consumers to policy makers. This will inevitably require input from the full range of expertise within the media development community, from Internet governance through viable business models, as all are relevant to and affected by the threat of media capture. CMDS got the ball rolling, but as the breadth of the two-week discussion emphasized, it will require all hands on deck.
*Find her on Twitter at @kate_musgrave.