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Mass media—modes of communications intended to reach large numbers of people—have played an important role in world history, rousing populations in various times and places to resist governmental or other oppression, and calling those in power to account.
Communications media that are geared to reaching the masses—mass media—has been a force in social, political, and cultural change throughout history. It is not surprising that in many countries rulers have refused to permit a free press, and journalists have even been killed for speaking out. In some countries the media are nothing more than the official voice of those in power, whereas in others, the media have served as the voice of resistance or even revolution.
The First Print Mass Media
Perhaps the first newspaper was the Acta Diurna (Daily Transactions) in ancient Rome. Julius Caesar decided to make the proceedings of the government available to the citizenry, and starting in 59 BCE, they were posted in public places. Later versions were called the Acta Urbana (Transactions of the City) or the Acta Senatus (Transactions of the Senate). These news sheets were hand-copied by scribes, probably on papyrus, and they were undoubtedly subject to government oversight and control. Good news about the Roman Empire was much more likely to appear in writing than bad news. In addition to the daily doings of those in power, the Acta contained birthday and wedding announcements and information about new buildings being dedicated. Later emperors expanded the role of the Acta, using them to disseminate favorable stories about themselves or unfavorable stories about particular rivals. The Acta seem to have been very popular and to have reached a wide audience; those who could not read stood waiting until someone (a professional town crier or literate passerby) would read the news aloud. The orator and historian Tacitus (c. 56–c. 120 CE) wrote in his Annals that people from all walks of life eagerly read the various Acta, and political leaders found them an invaluable resource.
Another ancient empire that made use of something resembling a newspaper was Tang-dynasty China (618–907 CE), where the Di bao (Court Gazette) contained news gathered by various members of the governing elite. Originally intended for members of the imperial court, it was later expanded to include the intellectuals, but unlike the Acta, it was not posted anywhere that the general public could read it. By the time of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), newspapers received wider dissemination, but the elites still wanted information restricted to a select few and wanted control over what the general public read. It was not until the 1800s that the newspaper industry in China began to flourish.
Early European Mass Media
Although the Chinese inventor Bi Sheng had developed a method of printing using movable wood blocks around 1041, Europe did not make use of moveable type until Johannes Gutenberg developed his printing press around 1438.
Prior to the mid-1800s, European publications that reported on news events were called by various names. One of the oldest forms of publication to survive is the coranto; the first coranto was published in Amsterdam in December 1620 and was more of a pamphlet than what we would today call a newspaper. Most of the corantos were published in Dutch. They focused on business news and on political news that might affect business. Amsterdam was a very cosmopolitan city, with merchants who traveled throughout the known world. They wanted to know what was going on in other countries where they might engage in commerce. As a result, corantos became very popular; at one period in the mid-1600s there were as many as eight weeklies or biweeklies, bringing news from Africa, Asia, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere.
In Italy there was the gazette, a weekly news sheet that seems to have originated in Venice in the mid- 1500s (although some historians question the date, as they also question whether the sheet really took its name from the coin gazeta with which one paid for it). Gazettes, like corantos, contained business and political news and were read both by the general public and by the many merchants who came to Italy. In Germany there were weeklies as early as 1615, and a daily newspaper, the Leipziger Zeitung (Leipzig Newspaper), began in 1660. These newspapers covered politics, culture, and science, and provided important information during the Thirty Years’ War. But the German press was frequently subjected to restrictions by the government.
In Paris, as early as 1488, there were occasionnels— government leaflets about four pages in length. Mostly published in Lyon and Paris, they were mainly brief summations of what the government was doing. From about 1529 there were also the canards, publications of a more sensational and sometimes polemical nature. French exiles living in Amsterdam published broadsides that criticized the intolerance of King Louis XIV; these publications were called lardons (“jibes”), and the exiles, mostly Huguenots, had them smuggled into France during the late 1690s. Early in 1777, Paris gained its first daily newspaper, the Journal de Paris (Newspaper of Paris), but the government maintained strict control over what could be printed. An underground press existed for dissenting voices. There were also some women who participated in journalism, publishing a monthly newspaper called the Journal des Dames (The Ladies’ Newspaper),which first appeared in 1759. Its editors believed in “the female public’s right—and obligation—to be informed about controversial matters” (Landes 1988, 58–59) Unfortunately, as with other newspapers of that time, it frequently encountered government censorship, as well as resistance to its call for greater female participation in public life. It ceased publication in 1778.
In Spain under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, all printers had to be licensed. The first Spanish newspaper was probably the Correos de Francia, Flandres y Alemania (News of France, Flanders and Germany), founded by Andres de Almansa y Mendoza in 1621. In Spain’s colony in Mexico, the Gaceta de Mexico y Noticias de Nueva Espana (Mexico Gazette and the News of New Spain), regarded by some as Mexico’s first newspaper, appeared in January 1722, published by Juan Ignacio Maria de Castorena y Ursua, who later became Bishop of Yucatan.
In England the earliest surviving newspaper, from September 1621, is the Weekely Newes from Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, France and the Low Countreys. It followed the format of the Dutch corantos and at first carried mostly business news, although gradually it expanded to include natural disasters, wars, and so forth. In 1641 reports from Parliament were issued for the first time. The first daily was the Daily Courant, founded by Samuel Buckley in March 1702. Magazines such as the Tatler also began to proliferate around this time; they offered opinions about current events. As demand for newspapers and news publications continued to increase, so did government restrictions, sometimes indirectly, through excessive taxes on printers, and sometimes directly, with dissenting presses being shut down entirely. After a brief period of relative freedom during the 1640s, when journalists could even criticize the king and hundreds of pamphlets and news sheets were seen in London, press censorship was reimposed by Oliver Cromwell in 1655. The same sort of control occurred in the British colonies. The first newspaper in North America, Publick Occurences, was published in September 1690 and was immediately shut down. The next colonial American newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, appeared in 1704 and had to submit itself to the British censors in order to continue publishing. It survived for the next seventy-two years by avoiding controversy and not criticizing the monarchy. Several newspapers that began in colonial times are still publishing today: the New Hampshire Gazette was founded in Portsmouth in 1756, and the Hartford [Connecticut] Courant began in 1764. European immigrants to North America from other countries also established newspapers. The first to appear, a German-language paper, was Philadelphische Zeitung (Philadelphian Newspaper), which was begun in 1732.
Print Media in the British Empire
Throughout the British Empire, English was the preferred language for journalism, since entrepreneurs from Great Britain founded most of the newspapers. This excluded everyone who could only read in the vernacular, but it did help any local journalists who were fluent in English to get hired. In Calcutta, India, James Augustus Hickey started the Bengal Gazette in January 1780. To help cover the expenses of publishing, he began taking advertisements, but the newspaper still lasted only two years, due in large part to Hickey’s controversial reporting about the governor-general. Even in a faraway place, the British government took a dim view of criticism by the press. Although the Bengal Gazette is regarded by some as the first Indian newspaper, other sources note that in 1777 a member of the Parsi community named Rustomji Kashaspathi founded a newspaper called the Bombay Courier. A few newspapers in local languages did begin to emerge in the 1800s, but the most influential newspapers were English-language papers. Among the best-known was the Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, founded in 1838; today it is known as the Times of India, a name it began using in 1851.
In Canada the first newspaper appeared in March 1752; the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Gazette began as a two-page tabloid, with news from England, Europe, and other British colonies. Its founder was the printer John Bushell. Although it was published in Canada, it did not cover local births, deaths, or marriages until about 1769; most of what it printed at first was material aimed at government officials, merchants, and the military. More local in its focus was the Toronto Globe (today the Globe and Mail), founded by Scottish emigre George Brown in 1844. The Globe sent correspondents all over eastern Canada to cover the news. And in Montreal, the Gazette began in 1778 as a French-language newspaper, switched to a bilingual format, and finally became all English in 1822.
In Australia one of the first newspapers was the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, founded in 1803. Three British men who had worked there, Alfred Stephens, Frederick Stokes, and William McGarvie, went on to found the Sydney Herald (today the Sydney Morning Herald) in 1831. The Herald, originally a weekly and only four pages long, expanded and became a daily in 1840.
Cape Town, South Africa, had a newspaper as early as 1800; the founders of the Cape Town Gazette were Alexander Walker and John Robertson, and it published articles in both English and Afrikaans. There was no black newspaper in South Africa until 1884, when Imvo Zabantsundu (Xhosa: Native Opinion) appeared for the first time. Founded by black journalist John Tengo Jabavu, it published in the Xhosa language and English, and was unique in addressing current events and politics from a black perspective and in giving black poets and essayists a way to get their ideas into print.
Historical Censorship of Print Media
The excuse often given for government censorship of the press has been that journalism is unreliable, and in its formative years, there may have been some truth to this claim, since some of the news sheets were filled with unfounded rumors, and some writers used sensationalism to attract an audience. But the real problem for the ruling classes was that the press began taking sides in political issues. Many readers saw the newspapers as a way to learn perspectives that differed from the official version given by those in power. Then, as now, the powers-that-be sponsored “official” publications. The rulers often hoped theirs would be the only version, but in England, to give one good example, other publications developed, some of which questioned the government. There were ongoing tensions between the rulers and the publishers: rulers didn’t mind getting some positive publicity from a newspaper, such as when in 1622, King James I of Britain explained in print why he had decided to dissolve parliament. But monarchs often tried to shut down newspapers that they perceived as too critical. In France, printers and publishers were sometimes arrested and flogged for publications deemed seditious or defamatory. In at least one case, in England in 1584, a Catholic printer, William Carter, was sentenced to death because it was believed that an allegorical story he had written in one of his widely disseminated books was really an attack on the queen’s Protestant faith.
Despite the best efforts of various European monarchs to muzzle the press, journalists continued to make their opinions known, and as the years passed, reporters and columnists showed they could shape public opinion. In England the influence of the press grew so much that by the early 1800s, British journalists were being referred to as the “fourth estate,” in reference to the three classes (or estates) of society: the nobility, the clergy, and the common people. It was suggested that in addition to the original three, there should be added a fourth, the journalists, who were in some ways the most influential of all, since their telling of a story could bring praise or disapproval from thousands of people.
Mass Media, Freedom of the Press, and Sensationalism
The idea of freedom of the press was advocated by scholars and poets from at least as early as the poet John Milton’s famous Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England, in 1644, but it wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1700s that any countries created laws to formally protect journalists. Scandinavia led the way in 1766, with Sweden being the first country to abolish censorship and introduce a law guaranteeing freedom of the press, followed by Denmark and Norway in 1770. Freedom of the press became part of the newly independent United States’ Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to its constitution—which was ratified in 1791.
Earlier centuries had seen the occasional publication of unfounded rumors or sensationalist stories, but in the nineteenth century, as newspapers proliferated, so did some of those excesses. Perhaps the most disturbing was “yellow journalism.” Named after a character in a U.S. comic strip, the “Yellow Kid,” in its milder forms it was just a preoccupation with scandal, rumor, and sensationalism. The Canadian journalist James Creelman was well known in the late 1800s for his dramatic and hyperbolic writing. As a correspondent for several New York newspapers, he reported from dangerous places, while interviewing some of the most controversial newsmakers of his day in a “you are there” style. The style of writing was very exaggerated and filled with words that made it seem as if the writer was in mortal danger just for writing the story. Creelman was what his age would have considered shocking—when he wrote about atrocities during the Sino-Japanese war, for example, his narratives were so graphic that people could not believe such horrible things were true. He was among that era’s best known correspondents, and saw himself as a truth-teller. In England, William T. Stead, the publisher of London’s Pall Mall Gazette, reacted against what he saw as the blandness of the British press by creating a strategy to appeal to the working-class person rather than the educated elite. He began using screaming headlines and more illustrations, as well as actively crusading against a variety of social problems that affected the poor; for example, in the mid-1880s, the Gazette did a series on child prostitution, at that time called “white slavery,” showing how easy it was for poor children to be exploited. At that time standards were quite different, and even writing about prostitutes was considered in questionable taste. The pages of the Gazette enabled Stead to advocate for a number of causes, including women’s suffrage and his era’s antiwar movement. Yellow journalism was eventually seen as negative by the public when journalists began to compete with each other at being more sensational and more graphic—again, within the limitations of the era, in which “bad language” was not permitted no matter what.
Sensational reporting sold newspapers, but yellow journalism could also have serious consequences. In an era before the concept of objective reporting had been enshrined in the journalist’s vocabulary, many newspapers were unashamedly partisan. This could be a mixed blessing. In Hungary, for example, there was revolution in the air in 1848, as many Hungarians wanted independence from Austria. It was the press that led the charge, thanks in large part to Lajos Kossuth, a lawyer whose views were considered radical by those in power. A fiery orator and writer, Kossuth used his position as editor-in-chief of the underground Pesti Hirlap (Newspaper from Pest) to promote nationalism and lead the drive for independence. While encouraging nationalism had a positive result in this case, there were other occasions when stirring up nationalistic fervor did more harm than good. The Spanish-American war in 1898 was largely attributed to newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst, who encouraged his reporters to inflame the U.S. public to support a war that most modern historians agree need never have been fought.
Telegraphy and Wire Services as Mass Media
The mid-to-late 1800s saw further expansion of journalism throughout the world. Technology was partly responsible: Steam driven locomotives now carried people to other cities more quickly, which was good news for reporters trying to cover an assignment. Better news was the invention of the telegraph, which made communicating from distant points infinitely faster. In both Europe and North America, new companies were founded to serve as resources for gathering news. The first news agency was founded in 1832 by Charles-Louis Havas; named Agence Havas, it originally translated the newspapers from foreign countries but by 1835 expanded to cover events around the globe. The government continually monitored it, but Agence Havas became a reliable resource for French-language newspapers. It survives to this day under the name of Agence France Presse. In May 1848 the Associated Press (AP) opened in New York. Founded by David Hale and James Gordon Bennett, it offered its U.S.-affiliated newspapers access to news dispatches from all over North America. In 1858 AP was able to receive dispatches from Europe for the first time, via transoceanic cable.
As use of the telegraph expanded, it became possible for the newspapers to receive and disseminate news on the same day, even from distant colonial outposts. This contributed to the impact journalism had on a society that increasingly sought more information about world events. In Europe, in October 1851, a German immigrant working in London, Paul Julius von Reuter, began sending stock market quotations between London and Paris via cable. Prior to telegraphy, he had used the so-called pigeon post, sending the information via carrier pigeons. His new company, Reuters, quickly expanded, offering newsgathering services similar to those of the Associated Press. Members of the British press were among his first customers, but soon Reuters had affiliates throughout Europe. In 1865, Reuters was the first European news service to have the story that President Lincoln had been assassinated. Other European countries also established their own news-gathering organizations, often because of demands from businesses for global information that might affect them. Outside of Europe, the new technology was slow to arrive, so newspapers such as Australia’s Sydney Herald still relied on news from ships until transoceanic cables were successfully laid and telegraph connections were established in major Australian cities, between 1858 and the mid-1870s.
A lack of modern telegraphy was also a problem in China. The Qing government appeared not to see the need for telegraph cable until it fought a war with Russia in the 1870s. Lack of speedy communication hampered treaty negotiations and led to several unfavorable treaties. The public was outraged, and this provided the impetus to begin expansion: from 1884 to 1899, 27,500 kilometers of cable was laid. The encroachment of other countries on China’s sovereignty and territory led to a feeling of nationalism that manifested itself in the establishment of many newspapers and magazines from the 1860s through the 1880s. In the rest of the world, certain Latin American countries laid down telegraph lines in the 1850s, as did the Ottoman Empire, and lines were laid down in European colonies as well.
Radio and Television as Mass Media
The 1900s brought yet another dramatic change in journalism, as a result of another technological advance. The inventors Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla were both experimenting with wireless communication, or what would later be called radio. It is generally agreed upon that the first broadcast was an experiment done by a Canadian engineer, Reginald Fessenden, in Massachusetts, but the exact date is not certain and is in fact the subject of much debate: some sources say it was on Christmas Eve 1906, whereas others place it earlier.
Some of the earliest commercial radio stations worldwide were operated by corporations, with the hope of selling merchandise or radio equipment. In North America, one of the first stations was XWA (later CFCF) in Montreal, owned by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company; it went on the air in December 1919. Another early station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was owned by Westinghouse, which manufactured electronic equipment, while another, 8MK (later WWJ) in Detroit, Michigan, was owned by a newspaper, the Detroit News. At least one early North American station—WIAE in Vinton, Iowa—was owned in 1922 by a woman, Marie Zimmerman. Mexico got its first station in December 1923, when CYL took to the air, owned jointly by two businessmen, Raul and Luis Azcarraga, and the Mexico City newspaper El Universal (The Universal). Puerto Rico’s first commercial station, WKAQ, went on the air from San Juan in 1922, started by Joaquin Agusty, who was well known for his work with amateur radio. And one of the first radio stations in Cuba was PWX, owned by the Cuban Telephone Company in Havana; American radio fans reported hearing its powerful signal in 1922.
News was broadcast at a few stations in 1921 and 1922, and live sporting events were also broadcast during that time. But the staple of American programming was music. At first, because many of the owners were from the upper class, they felt their duty was to educate and to offer “good” music (opera and classical, as opposed to jazz, which they felt was vulgar), but gradually the public demand for dance and popular music won out at most stations. Radio was unique because it was the first mass medium to bring people an event as it was happening, and it also provided the poor and people of color access to places from which they were often excluded. With radio, people could hear the greatest vocalists, learn from famous professors, or just enjoy the hit songs in the privacy of the home. Radio helped to create a common culture, as certain songs or certain performers became popular across the country.
Early radio broke down borders in other ways too. Signals carried great distances, and listeners competed to see who could receive stations from the farthest away. In 1921 Eunice Randall, the first women announcer in Massachusetts, told a newspaper that she had received fan mail from people who heard her in London. Radio magazines such as Radio News began printing lists of stations from foreign countries, so that listeners could write down the ones they heard. And it was not just in North America that radio changed people’s lives. Radio News reported in September 1925 how broadcasting was affecting the peasants in an impoverished Russian village. A radio and loudspeakers had been set up in a public listening room so that people could gather and hear the news of the world; crowds eagerly awaited these broadcasts so they could find out what was happening outside the confines of their village. Meanwhile, the government had just begun permitting private ownership of radio sets in Moscow, and already over 50,000 receivers were in use. By the mid-1920s, many European cities were hosting radio expositions at which the public could meet radio broadcasters and see the newest radio receiving equipment.
By late 1926 the United States’ first national network was on the air—the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC. It was able to offer its affiliates excellent programs with famous performers because the network was entirely supported by advertisers, who often chose the talent and decided what got on the air—a prerogative that resulted in women being relegated to stereotypic roles and minorities seldom being hired at all. By the end of the 1920s, few of the small entrepreneurs who had put the first stations on the air were able to afford to operate a radio station.
In many countries it was the government that operated the stations, which were supported by a receiver fee that listeners had to pay in order to own a radio receiving set. Great Britain was one such country. The British Broadcasting Company was founded in 1922, and the first station, 2LO, went on the air in November of that year. Right from the beginning, government interests tried to limit how much news could be broadcast, fearing that radio could influence the public’s political views; newspapers also lobbied the government to restrict radio from doing news at all, since print journalists saw radio as competition.
As in Britain, in France, Denmark, and Germany the government quickly established control of broadcasting in the early 1920s. In at least one place, radio broadcasting was entirely controlled by the Catholic Church: Vatican City’s first station was built in late 1930; the station would enable the pope spread his message worldwide.
In Argentina, a commercial station, Radio Argentina, was licensed in November 1923, and a high powered station, LPZ in Buenos Aires, was on the air in 1924. Argentina was also an excellent market for American-made radio receivers. In Peru, as early as July 1921, a government-run shortwave station in Lima was put on the air at the request of President Augusto Leguia; it mainly broadcast weather reports and other information useful to the military and the police. The first commercial station in Peru was probably OAX in Lima, which went on the air in June 1925, broadcasting entertainment and educational programming. Many stations in Latin America were run by private companies, and although they were sometimes subjected to government censorship, in general, they were free to broadcast.
Radio broadcasting came slowly to Asia. In fact, there were fewer than thirty stations in all of Asia in 1927, whereas in North America, there were hundreds. In China, American and British businessmen seem to have set up the earliest radio stations; one of the first was in Shanghai in 1922. But the government did not allow radio broadcasting to become widespread; by 1931 there were only eighteen stations operating in the entire country. A national radio service, operated by the Communist party, did not begin until 1940. In Hong Kong, then a British colony, the government was equally cautious: amateur radio fans proposed a station as early as 1923, but it wasn’t approved till 1928. Hong Kong only had that one station till the mid 1930s. In contrast, radio was welcomed in Japan, where the amateurs had been demanding it since the early 1920s. Tokyo’s JOAK was the first commercial station, going on the air in March 1925 and quickly followed by stations in Osaka and Nagoya. Nippon Hoso Kyokai (the Japan Broadcasting Association, or NHK) was established as the official national broadcasting company of Japan in 1926. Modeling itself after the BBC, it took control of the three stations on the air and continued to expand throughout the country.
During the 1930s, NHK was also involved with experiments in early television, as was the Soviet Union, which conducted experiments with television as early as 1931. There were TV broadcasts in the Netherlands in 1935, and Great Britain inaugurated its national service in November 1936: the first British television broadcast featured a song called “Magic Rays of Light,” which certainly expressed the amazement people who witnessed it must have felt. Even prior to the establishment of electronic television, Great Britain was home to very primitive mechanical stations that broadcast sporadically in the late 1920s. A Scottish-born inventor, John Logie Baird, is regarded as the father of mechanical television in Great Britain, and he received considerable publicity despite the poor quality of the picture his system produced. In the United States, the inventor Charles Francis Jenkins was the father of mechanical television, and he too supervised some stations in the late 1920s. But it was the development of a far superior technology, electronic television (credited in the United States sometimes to an independent West-Coast inventor named Philo Farnsworth and sometimes to a corporate inventor who worked for RCA, Vladimir Zworykin), that eventually led to the United States’ successful television industry.
Colonialism played a major role in the history of international broadcasting. Colonial governments set up radio stations (and later TV stations) and controlled their content, as they had with newspapers. Even stations that were set up as noncommercial were operated by and often benefited corporate interests. The British Marconi Company, which wanted to sell receiving sets, attempted to open stations in Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta, India, as early as 1922. An amateur organization in India, the Radio Club of Bombay, did some programming beginning in 1923, but the first commercial stations did not begin till 1927. When it became evident that World War II was on the horizon, interest grew in expanding the radio broadcasts to give the public more news and entertainment during difficult times. But a national service (All India Radio) did not flourish till India achieved independence in 1947. And in Central America, the United Fruit Company had great influence on what was broadcast, making sure news reports were favorable and nobody challenged the company’s control over the banana industry. Even under colonial administration, nationalism could lead to conflicts about what should or should not be broadcast. In the British mandate of Palestine (present-day Israel), the British set up the Palestine Broadcasting Service in March 1936. Although BBC announcers trained the staff and programming was offered in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, neither Jews nor Arabs were happy with what was on the air. The same problem occurred in a number of other ethnically divided countries, where ethnic tensions played out in a struggle for control of the country’s radio stations.
The Mass Media Divide: Comparing Rich and Poor Nations
One organization that has been monitoring trends in international media is UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which held its first international conference on communication policies in 1974 in Costa Rica. At that conference, a declaration was issued, urging that in crafting their communications policies, nations should take into account national realities but also the promotion of free expression of thought and respect for individual and social rights. In subsequent conferences, declarations were made about the necessity of protecting the rights of journalists and giving all people—not just the rich and the powerful—access to information. An international commission, with members from fifteen countries, convened in 1977 and began issuing reports on the state of the media. Their first report, Many Voices, One World, was issued in 1980 and was the first in-depth study of the media in both rich and poor countries. It identified disparities in access to media: in Africa, for example, 1976 statistics showed that only 3 percent of the population owned a radio, which was troubling because “[r]adio is of vital importance to developing countries because of [the] low penetration of newspapers into rural areas and . . . because of illiteracy on a mass scale” (MacBride 1980, 122–127). The commission also identified the countries that had kept pace with advances in communication technology—Japan, for example, composed only 5 percent of Asia’s population yet it had “66 percent of the press circulation, 46 percent of the radio receivers, 63 percent of the television sets and 89 percent of the telephones” (MacBride 1980, 122–127), according to 1979 research. The study found that while India had 835 different newspapers, eight African countries had no daily newspaper at all, while others had only a weekly or a biweekly that was not distributed outside of main centers of population. Even in developed countries that had radio or newspapers or television, most of the coverage was about what was going on in the biggest cities. And although media consolidation was not the issue in 1980 that it is today, there was already evidence that a handful of elites controlled the communication in many countries. As the commission noted, issuing a declaration about press freedom or equal access did not mean that those goals would be reached or that governments would cooperate.
Since that first UNESCO report, more countries now have technology, and a growing number have Internet newspapers. Perhaps the first in Africa was the Mail and Guardian Online, started in South Africa in 1994. Saudi Arabia began an English-language service, ArabNews Online, around 1998; it was an offshoot of the English-language daily newspaper, Arab News, which had been established in 1975. What the average Saudi has access to remains limited. The ability to communicate in English was desirable primarily for the elite, who were taught the language in private schools so they could engage in commerce with the West. The average person mainly went to religious schools, but the educated elite then and now were taught English. The fact that the on-line Arab News publishes in English provides it with the ability to reach out to educated Saudi expatriates as well as to American and British diplomats. The ruling class and the clerics in Saudi Arabia at first opposed modernizations such as radio, which by all accounts did not start till the 1930s—the clerics only accepted radio when King Abd al Aziz tied its use to the religious purpose of airing scriptural lessons and teaching illiterate people more about their religion. For those who have access to it, the Internet can provide a means of resisting tyranny. Women human rights activists in Afghanistan founded RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) and made use of online communication and a website to mobilize supporters worldwide during the repressive Taliban regime of the 1990s. Even in countries in which the average citizen lacks access to the Internet, exiles are often able to use it to spread the word of what is happening in their country. It has become harder for repressive regimes to control information or prevent it from being disseminated, but it can still be done: in Burma (Myanmar), the autocratic government has been successful in keeping dissenting voices from being heard, and in Iran, when protesters questioned the legitimacy of the elections in 2009, the government banned Western TV and radio reporters, and shut down most internet sites, while limiting access to social networking sites.
Mass Media and Violence
Being a journalist can be a dangerous occupation. The International Press Institute in Vienna stated that in 2003, sixty-four journalists were killed; nineteen of them died in Iraq and nine in Columbia. Also in 2003, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Iraq, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan, and Bangladesh as the most unsafe places for journalists. According to the CPJ, while Iraq was a war zone and any reporting from a war zone can be dangerous, the other countries had repressive governments that lock up and in some cases torture journalists whose opinions they do not like. By 2008, conditions for journalists remained unchanged—once again, sixty-four journalists were killed, with Iraq and Pakistan having the most deaths. In some countries, journalists have just disappeared, usually after reporting on a story the government disliked, or uncovering the activities of organized crime. That was the case in Mexico is 2007 when investigative reporter Rodolfo Rincon Taracena vanished after reporting on local drug trafficking. Reporters covering drug-related crime in Latin America were also frequently in danger: in Peru in 2006, forty journalists were attacked, and in Columbia, three were killed and many others had to go into hiding. In Haiti, where news is still spread by teledjol (word of mouth) and illiteracy is rampant, radio remains the most important mass medium: according to some reports, about 92 percent of Haitians own a radio and the country has over three hundred stations. For that reason, the government has sometimes tried to suppress the country’s radio stations: Jean Dominique, director of a popular language station, denounced the government and accused it of rigging the elections; he was gunned down in April 2000. There are reports that Haitian radio stations have gradually gained more freedom since then, although journalists have admitted to practicing self-censorship. In some countries, the media have also been used by those in power to incite the population to violence. One especially egregious example of this occurred during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when a government radio station, RTML, encouraged Hutus to murder members of the Tutsi minority. Radio broadcasts referred to Tutsis as “vermin” and “cockroaches” and repeatedly demonized them. Transcripts show that some announcers even pointed out where Tutsis were living and encouraged Hutus to kill them.
The Future of Mass Media
In the Muslim world, the arrival of the cable news television station Al-Jazeera (Arabic for The Peninsula) in 1996 has been dramatic. Critics have called the Quatar-based station sensationalistic and biased and have accused it of stirring up anti-Jewish and anti-American sentiments in the Arab world. But many Muslims counter that it is the first network to report from a pro-Arab point of view. Unlike CNN or Fox, American cable networks with a decidedly American and Western viewpoint, Al-Jazeera has called American forces in Iraq “occupiers” and referred to those who were fighting against the Americans not as “militants” but rather as “resistance fighters” or “martyrs.” Al-Jazeera has grown in size and influence in the years since its founding; since 2003, it has competition from Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, which also offers news from a pro-Arab point of view, but is perceived by Western observers to be more moderate in its coverage. It will be interesting to see the direction these stations take in the years to come. Cable television has become a growing presence in a growing number of Arab countries in the first decade of the twenty-first century. And while many Arab stations, both radio and TV, are religious in nature, there are also stations that broadcast a wider variety of programming, including popular movies. One example is ART (the Arab Radio and Television Network), which was founded in Saudi Arabia back in 1993.
While globalization has affected how business is done worldwide, it has also affected the mass media. In the United States, deregulation of broadcast media began in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan, culminating with the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed by President Bill Clinton. The Telecom Act lifted restrictions on how many stations could be owned by one company. Rather than encouraging competition as proponents claimed it would, the end result was consolidation of power into the hands of a few giant media conglomerates, several of which (Clear Channel Communications, which at one point owned over a thousand radio stations and a major concert promotion company; and News Corporation, owner of cable channel Fox News as well as numerous newspapers and magazines) had ties to conservative politics and the Republican party. In the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, critics accused these conglomerates of stifling dissenting views and only broadcasting coverage in favor of going to war.
Similar media consolidation occurred in Canada, where in the period from 1985 to 2000, consolidation occurred in dramatic fashion. By 2000, 68 percent of all television stations were controlled by five giant companies, and one conglomerate, the Hollinger Corporation, soon owned or had a financial interest in 80 percent of Canada’s daily newspapers. Eventually, financial problems caused Hollinger to sell off many of those newspapers, but they were bought up by another conglomerate, CanWest.
Media consolidation is also a fact of life in parts of Europe. In England, there has been increasing pressure on the government to relax media ownership laws. One major proponent of removing the limitations is Rupert Murdoch; in addition to owning the American conglomerate News Corporation, he also owns several British newspapers (including the Times of London and a tabloid, the Sun) and a satellite programming service called BSkyB (British Sky Broadcasting), as well as media properties in Australia. Murdoch has been accused by his critics of censoring news stories that are contrary to his political views. Meanwhile, in Italy, the controversial prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, also had ties to media ownership; companies owned by his family dominate Italian television, and he has attempted to pass legislation that would permit his conglomerate to expand its ownership of newspapers. He has also used his influence to make sure the state-run broadcaster RAI is controlled by a board of directors that is favorable to him. Critics have accused him of using his wealth to manipulate media coverage, in order to avoid having his questionable financial dealings scrutinized.
In other countries too, a similar trend towards consolidation can be seen. Where media were at one time comprised of government-run monopolies, the new concern is that commercial media conglomerates are stifling opposing voices in the same way that the state-run media once did.
There are some hopeful media signs in countries where repression used to be a part of life. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, an era of comparative freedom of the press began in Russia. While the press was reined in somewhat by the government of President Vladimir Putin, who was in office (2000– 2008), it is still far more free than it was in the era of Soviet rule. But being a journalist in Russia can still be dangerous: the Committee to Protect Journalists notes that when journalists are murdered there, the killers are seldom if ever brought to justice. The news is more positive for journalists in Haiti. Radio stations that were shut down by the government have quietly reopened since the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. And in Rwanda a new radio service promotes not hatred but friendship and entertainment. Similar to pop music radio stations in the United States, Rwanda Radio in Kigali has opportunities for listeners to call in, a morning talk show, modern pop music, and even a children’s trivia contest in which the winners get to talk on the air. Young and articulate announcers offer listeners helpful information about health, and they also teach tolerance. Where radio had once been part of the problem, it is now trying to be part of the healing process.
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