“A Sickness Beyond Borders:” Understanding and Combating Media Capture

Budapest’s Central European University recently hosted journalists, media development experts, and human rights advocates from around the world to discuss the growing threat of media capture. (Photo by Kate Musgrave)

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. 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.

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. This varied nature of capture inevitably requires varied strategies to gauge the extent of the problem within a given media ecosystem. Eli Noam’s seminal Who Owns the World’s Media, for instance, delineates as many as eight methods for measuring ownership concentration alone.

Rather than detract from the discussion, the sheer breadth of challenges tied to the concept of “media capture” highlights the need for the term. As we look to foster an enabling environment for media systems, it is critical to see the dangers of an entangling environment conducive to capture, or what one report dubbed “the dark side of the media.” That web that cannot be adequately addressed without recognizing each piece of the whole. Nonetheless, a few trends emerged repeatedly over the two weeks of discussion:

In the words of one discussant, media capture is “a sickness beyond borders”

Understanding the extent of capture requires not just international case comparison, but also acknowledging the international networks that can make it possible. Single cases of captured media often reach beyond national confines. “If you really want to look deeply at the network that allows for media capture, you need to follow the money,” advised investigative journalist Paul Radu, “and you need to follow it across borders.” Highlighting this need is capture’s close companion and most frequent red flag, ownership concentration. In an increasingly global economy, the financial networks of oligarchs and media moguls span borders to evade the confines of national law. Without an international perspective, these networks are nearly impossible to track, much less regulate.

The tactics of capture often appeal most to countries trying to appear democratic

CIMA analysis finds that, situated between deliberate state control of the media and largely systemic media biases, the incentives for media capture are typically higher in countries that want to appear democratic. The pillars of capture–regulation, funding, ownership, public media, and technology–can each lend to an outcome similar to that of direct state control, without risking the global notoriety. Case studies ranging from Latin America to the Balkans and Turkey highlight the careful calculations often implicit in the path toward capture, combining the silencing incentives found in state control with the debilitation of a faulty system. States like Hungary, Turkey, and Russia, that are already notorious for their closed media spaces, have nonetheless utilized the tactics of media capture to silence opposition while attempting to maintain the appearance of a democratic system (to varying degrees of success).

Tackling capture requires global knowledge sharing, advocacy at all levels, and a plan for the continuing viability of independent media

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, 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.

Kate Musgrave is the Assistant Research and Outreach Officer at the Center for International Media Assistance. Find her on Twitter at @kate_musgrave.

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