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Watchdog of Democracy

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the media in political processes. That is why in modern states the media are called the “fourth power,” the “watchdog” or the “right hand of democracy”. Television, radio, press and internet portals play a key role in shaping opinions and developing public debates. They not only inform us about current events, and entertain us with comedy shows and soap operas. Journalists help fight corruption, nepotism, human rights abuses, and seek justice. 

In the 21st century, the term “media” has a more general meaning and is gradually replacing the traditional concept of media. That is, media are the means of transmission and exchange of information aimed at a wide audience. The concept combines all traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, television and radio. The so-called “new media” include online portals, social networks, messengers, blogs, which expand the possibilities of information dissemination and allow users to participate in the creation of content themselves. Most of us post texts, photos, memes, comment on posts, create stories, upload and forward videos and other textual or audio-visual information to others on a daily basis. This political education course is also part of new media. Videos and animations were created to be published on YouTube. Texts and tests were uploaded to the international educational portal Udemy.com and the website which you are currently on. A large part of the content was published by us and repeatedly reposted by users via Facebook, Telegram and Instagram. In contrast to social media and blogs, traditional media reports are based on interviews, investigations, data verification (fact-checking) and close observation of the most important topics (beat reporting). 

Along with the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, the modern media are the public’s mouthpiece to prevent lawlessness, violence, pollution, discrimination, and corruption by investigating and informing the public. The media has a political watchdog function and must control the other three branches of government: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. 

Politicians under surveillance of cameras and microphones 

Presidents, deputies, governors, and mayors are appointed to their positions through fair and free elections and must account for their work and budget expenditures to the public. Politicians are public figures and are under the constant attention of the cameras and microphones of journalists. By choosing a political career, one automatically agrees to an unspoken contract that all his or her actions will be monitored by the media. They will ask difficult and often provocative questions, and the answers will be the subject of analysis by political scientists and discussions in social networks. One must be prepared for the fact that the opposition and ideological opponents will criticize and twist the words of the president and members of the government. Heads of state are bound to be parodied in comedy shows, and the most charismatic politicians will become the heroes of caricatures and memes. This is all part of the democratic process. Pressure on the media for satire, critical articles, censorship on state channels, and opposition to the work of journalists are all gross violations of basic democratic principles and usually result in scandals, which often result in politicians losing their positions. 

How journalists and bloggers are changing the course of history 

History has many vivid examples of how journalists and bloggers have uncovered corruption schemes, criminal actions of the authorities and prevented violations of the law. The most famous story took place during a U.S. election campaign. It entered the textbooks as the Watergate scandal, about which the movie All the President’s Men was later made. In 1972, two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, released information about the wiretapping – the recording of telephone communications – of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s headquarters during the campaign. McGovern was running as an opponent of incumbent President Richard Nixon. The White House tried to “hush up” the scandal with the wiretapping of his opponent, but the Washington Post did not allow this to happen and for months published materials on the new facts of wiretapping. They formed the basis of the case of a specially created Senate committee, which began impeachment proceedings against the president. Two years after his re-election, in 1974, Nixon was forced to resign. This story has become a textbook example of the media’s role as a watchdog of democracy. 

Ten years earlier, there had been a political scandal in West Germany that went down in history as the “Spiegel Affair”. The scandal, which broke out in 1962, was caused by a series of critical articles in the magazine about corruption in the Ministry of Defense. The weekly’s journalists shed light on Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss’s personal interest in the allocation of public funds and accused him of receiving pay-offs from construction companies. In addition, Spiegel regularly criticized in harsh terms the defense minister’s plans to turn Germany into a nuclear state. According to the editorial, in the context of an intensifying Cold War, arming the Bundeswehr with nuclear weapons meant making Germany a target for Soviet nuclear missiles and thus, in the event of a possible war, the total destruction of West Germany. 

The story culminated with the article “Conditionally Ready to Defend” (“Bedingt abwehrbereit”) on NATO’s large-scale exercise codenamed Fallex 62. The magazine disseminated information that as a result of this exercise, neither the German armed forces nor the NATO allied forces would be able to hold the defense of West Germany for more than two weeks in the event of a possible war. The reaction of the conservative politician was immediate. The Spiegel was raided and several staff members of the magazine, along with its editor-in-chief Rudolf Augstein, were arrested. At this point, civil society stepped up to defend freedom of speech. People took to the streets, holding the Spiegel magazine in their hands, demanding that the journalists be released. The government had nothing to respond to the journalists’ investigation, and the public outcry was so great that Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss had to resign. The Spiegel case is a reminder of the threat of political interference in the work of journalists and was a preface to the enormous wave of protest movements of 1968 that forever changed the relationship between state and civil society in Germany. 

Today, in the age of the internet, not only journalists can be “watchdogs of democracy”. This role is often played by bloggers. For example, Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation does the most high-profile investigations of corruption in Russia. In 2017, the Anti-Corruption Foundation published the video “He Is Not Dimon to You” about alleged corruption schemes in circles close to Dmitry Medvedev, who was then prime minister. The video received more than 34 million views on YouTube. In the spring of 2017, thousands of young people took to the streets of Russian cities to demand the prime minister’s resignation. As a member of Putin’s team, Dmitry Medvedev initially managed to keep his position, which he left after only 2.5 years. 

In Ukraine, the independent project Bihus.Info published several large-scale investigations into corruption. One of the most high-profile cases is the scandal about schemes in the defense sector, which allegedly involved President Petro Poroshenko’s entourage. The story gained publicity in the midst of the 2019 election campaign and worsened Poroshenko’s already low rating, effectively knocking him out of the presidential race. 

Today, being an investigative journalist does not always require infiltrating a presidential candidate’s campaign headquarters or traveling to the other side of the world to get the information you need. It is enough to be able to find data on the internet, analyze it, check the facts, and publish the results on your social networks. For example, you can search for plagiarism in the dissertations of politicians, as participants in the “Dissernet” project in Russia do. The same practice is widespread in Germany. For example, in 2011, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to resign after students and young academics discovered plagiarism in his law thesis. Zu Guttenberg tried to justify himself for several weeks, but eventually, under pressure from the press and civil society, he resigned and ended his political career prematurely at the age of 40. 

Who owns the media and why is it important? 

One of the functions of the media is to control the actions of the government. The realization of this function is possible if the media are independent of the state. The media can be truly independent only when they have reliable funding and donors who do not interfere in the affairs of the editorial board. According to the form of ownership and sources of funding, the media can be conditionally divided into state, public-legal and private. Public-legal media exist in many countries, for example, in Great Britain with the developed network of BBC television and radio companies or in Germany with numerous federal and regional channels and radio stations such as ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandfunk. The funding of channels from the budget or through mandatory contributions of citizens does not mean that officials are involved in setting editorial policy. Journalists and professional media managers are involved. In Germany, the non-state Press Council (Presserat) oversees the independence of the media and the observance of professional rules written in the Code of Ethics of the Press (Pressekodex) by journalists. It is a self-organized structure of journalists’ own control and protection of press freedom, which has supervisory powers and can impose sanctions for violations of the code. The Press Council was founded by the editors of German newspapers in 1956, similar to the British Press Council, in order to avoid the creation of a state supervisory organ. 

In a situation where the media in the country are owned by oligarchs or officials can appoint loyal editors to TV channels and newspapers, it is difficult to talk about freedom of speech and unbiased journalism. Private media are not always independent either. Commercial TV channels, radio and newspapers resort to yellow press tactics in their struggle for readers and clicks, publishing paid advertisements, sensationalist fiction and popular myths. In this case, media are mainly a product to sell, distributed as supposedly free information while using pushy advertising that is often hidden behind the publication of affiliate materials from advertisers and large companies. 

Freedom of Speech in Germany, Ukraine and Russia

Reporters Without Borders, an international non-governmental organization, annually publishes the World Press Freedom Index. It analyzes 180 countries by indicators of freedom of speech, the independence of newspapers and TV stations, internet censorship, and harassment or violence against journalists and media activists. 

Germany in 2020 ranks 11th in the list and is considered to be a country with good working conditions for journalists. German television and radio are financed by mandatory contributions of 17.50 euros per apartment or family, regardless of the number of members (Rundfunkbeitrag). Private channels and newspapers have to earn their own money through subscriptions and advertising. At a time when the internet is spreading rapidly, the media business is in crisis and threatens the survival of print media. The main threat to free speech in Germany is posed by right-wing radicals and salafists, who often attack journalists during demonstrations and threaten them with violence online. The Reporters Without Borders report also points out that there is a danger of wiretapping journalists by the German security forces. 

Ukraine is at 97 th place in 2020. The Ukrainian media landscape is diverse, but most of the major channels and newspapers are owned by oligarchs and politicians, who use the media as a means of economic and political struggle. This is clearly demonstrated by a special multimedia portal of Reporters Without Borders and the Institute of Mass Information – Media Monitor Ownership Ukraine. Ukrainian journalists and bloggers often face pressure at work, especially when it comes to corruption. For years, Ukraine has been the target of propagandists and conspiracy theorists, many of whom are anchors or guest experts on Russian state TV channels. Because of the war in Donbas, many Russian media outlets and internet portals are banned, and it is virtually impossible for independent journalists to work freely in the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea.

Russia is at the tail end of the ranking at 149th place in 2020. The Kremlin controls all the major TV channels and radio stations, either directly or through the oligarchs’ associates. Since the mass protests against election fraud in 2011/2012, internet censorship has been gradually tightened. The state service Roskomnadzor has been blocking critical websites without a court order under the pretext of distributing banned information and using a special SORM system to monitor blogs and social networks together with law enforcement agencies. Under the pretext of fighting extremism, criminal cases are opened for the publication of photos, comments and reposts and social network users are sentenced to heavy fines and imprisonment. Threats, obstruction of journalistic activities, and attacks against independent media workers remain unpunished. In some regions of Russia, such as Chechnya, the work of independent journalists has been completely paralyzed. Years of censorship on television, pressure and direct violence against journalists have created an atmosphere that fosters self-censorship. Many Russian journalists and citizens are afraid to speak freely about politics and criticize the actions of the authorities. While state-owned newspapers, radio and television have become Kremlin mouthpieces, and the MVD and FSB regularly monitor VKontakte content, the international social networks YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, Facebook and a handful of independent online media remain the last islands of freedom of speech in Russia in 2020. 

The media in democracies should be independent of elites, present a wide range of opinions and criticize government actions. Public debates, the publication of independent experts’ opinions in newspapers and their participation in talk shows, politically correct discussions in social media help to improve the quality of politicians’ decisions. Journalists mobilize people to take part in civic activities: charity marathons in support of people with disabilities, signing petitions for the payment of support funds during quarantine, actions of solidarity with LGBT people on the anti-homophobia day, etc.. 

Censorship is a gross violation of freedom of speech and is prohibited by the constitutions of most countries. Conservative, populist and authoritarian politicians justify restrictions on journalists’ work with security concerns, such as fighting extremism or protecting state secrets. Often restrictions are used to cover up nepotism and corrupt collusion between government and business. Interference in the work of newspaper editorial boards, censorship on television or persecution of people for dissenting opinions on the internet are not only blatant violations of civil liberties, but also actions that destabilize the political process and the system of checks and balances. 

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