To understand the influence and impact of the state and public media, distinguishing between the worst (state-controlled outlets) and the best (independent public service media) is not sufficient. In fact, using this reductive dichotomy to judge state media can be counterproductive because it fails to capture nuances related to how state media perform editorially and how that performance is influenced by different geographical contexts, or political and economic situations in various periods of time.
In other words, between the state-controlled media model, consisting of media outfits built and used as propaganda channels, and the independent public service media model, consisting of media outlets created to operate independently and serve the public interest, there are more variants that have to be studied in order to fathom the impact that state and public media have on the media sector and on the society in general.
To identify these variants, we created the State Media Matrix, a typology of state and public media that allows their classification according to three sets of factors that affect the independence of these media: funding, ownership/governance, and editorial autonomy.
Funding influences to a large extent the performance of a state or public media outlet. State and public media outlets usually rely on various forms of public funding, but some of them also draw on commercial financing (i.e. advertising or sponsorship).
There are two categories of public funding that are most common in state and public media. One is direct state support: these are either government subsidies awarded to media upon approval by authorities, or state advertising, a form of state financing where public cash is used to commission services from media outlets (normally to buy ad space). The second is indirect state support: these are revenues generated from various forms of taxation or contributions by the public (i.e. levies on commercial media, taxes or license fees).
The first form of public funding creates a tight dependency between the government and the media outlet. Experience also shows that the amount of direct state support can help cement this dependency: the higher the share of the state subsidies in the budget of a state media outlet is, the less independent that outlet is.
As a result, the funding-related factor in our Matrix (“predominantly state-funded”) defines a situation where media outlets receive direct state support amounting to at least 50% of their annual budget.
The type of ownership and governance also plays a key role in how a state or public media outlet performs editorially. Most state media are owned by the government via government bodies (ministries, agencies, state institutions). In some cases, they are controlled by state-owned companies. There are also cases of state media that, in fact, do not have any form of actual ownership, being run as a part of a state institution (for example, as a department in the ministry of communication). In countries where the government tries to cut the ownership dependency between the government and state media, various forms of public ownership (foundations, trusts) have been introduced.
When it comes to the governing structures of the state and public media, the composition of these governing bodies, including the mechanisms of appointment of their members, plays a crucial role in how the editorial autonomy of those media is protected (or not). The state bodies that own the media usually tend to have control over their governing boards by retaining the right to appoint the members of those bodies. The politicization of the process of appointment of the state and public media governing structures is a powerful instrument of control. In contrast, in countries where the supervisory bodies of the state and public media are appointed by a more diverse group of institutions and people (state bodies with a more diverse participation of political actors, civil society organizations, academia, professional organizations, individual experts, etc.), the state control is less pronounced.
In conclusion, the control of governing structures and ownership factor in our Matrix is defined as the situation where at least one of the two is true: the state media is majority owned by a government body or the majority of its governing body members are appointed by government or government-controlled institutions mostly on political grounds.
Finally, editorial control, a key determinant of state media independence, is defined as the situation where the journalists of a state media outlet are not in a position to make editorial decisions independently, a result of direct or indirect control exerted by authorities or allied entities over the outlet’s editorial decision-making process.
Of the three independence-related factors in the State Media Matrix, editorial control is the most difficult to assess as it is influenced both by internal factors (predominance of state funding or state control of ownership and governance can directly affect the editorial autonomy of a media outlet) and external ones (indirect pressures from government officials, companies associated with the government, influential politicians, etc.).
Direct editorial control by the state is usually attested by official government documents (statuses, laws, decrees, internal editorial rulebooks stating the obligations of the state media to represent the government’s interests in their programming). Indirect state control consists of pressures made by state authorities or entities affiliated with them that allow them to influence the editorial content of the media outlet.
Guarantees of editorial independence include:
a). Internal editorial statutes or legal documents specifically barring authorities from interfering with the editorial content of the media outlet and rules ensuring that these commitments are complied with;
b). Mechanisms of independent assessment or oversight of the editorial content of a media outlet that validate its independence such as ombudsman, programming councils, complaints mechanisms.
It is important to stress that the mere existence of such statuses and oversight mechanisms is not sufficient to ensure editorial autonomy. For editorial statutes to work, for example, they must be accompanied by concrete mechanisms that enable the management of the state media outlet to stave off any pressures. For assessment or oversight bodies to function properly, they have to first be independent and second have a certain level of power that allows them to pressure the management of the media outlet to respect the editorial independence of their journalists. If the members of such bodies are appointed, for example, by authorities or the politicized governing bodies of the media outlet, they are unlikely to fight for the organization’s editorial independence. At the same time, if there are no obligations imposed on the management of the state media to take into consideration the findings and recommendation of these programming councils or experts, the existence of these oversight mechanisms is simply pointless.
Using these three main factors, we identified seven state and public media models that are characterized by various degrees of independence.
At opposite ends of the spectrum we have the state-controlled media and the independent public media models.
The former features the absolute form of state control in the media where media outlets are entirely dependent on state funding, are managed by government-appointed bodies or directly by state authorities, and follow an editorial line imposed or approved by state authorities. In many cases, their editorial coverage is sanctioned by censorship boards. This model is widespread in the world, in countries such as China, several Southeast Asian nations, numerous Middle Eastern states, most of Africa as well as a slew of countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America.
In contrast, the independent public media model is the ideal form of media created with a mission to serve the public interest. Although it is designed through legal acts adopted by authorities or plans endorsed by politically elected bodies, the independent public media model is anchored in financial and governance mechanisms that insulate these media, to the largest extent possible, from government meddling and other pressures. Moreover, the editorial autonomy of these media is often guaranteed by various codes and regulations, or accountability and oversight instruments. This model is rare, on the brink of extinction. It can be found in several Western European countries (UK, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, some Nordic countries), and a few nations in Central and Eastern Europe and Asia.
In between the two “pure” extremes, we have five hybrid models. If we take editorial independence as the differentiating factor, we can group the hybrids into two categories:
- independent media (those operating independently of the government when it comes to their editorial agenda); and
- captured media (those editorially controlled by the government).
In the hybrid independent media category, we have three classes of state and public media. One, arguably the closest to the independent public model, is the independent state-managed media model. These media outlets are majority owned by the government, yet they are not reliant on state subsidies and enjoy editorial autonomy.
This is a rare model, found mostly in Western Europe (Channel 4 in the UK, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, France Televisions, Radio France and France Medias Monde in France), Central and Eastern Europe (the news agencies CTK in Czechia and TASR in Slovakia, and the public broadcasters RTVSLO in Slovenia and RTSH in Albania) and elsewhere (Antara news agency in Indonesia, TVNZ public broadcaster in New Zealand and Costa Rica’s public media SINART).
The independent state-managed model very much resembles the independent public media model, its sole distinctive component being the state influence in governance and ownership. The same can be said about the independent state-funded model whose characteristics are the predominance of state financing, lack of state influence in governing bodies and editorial autonomy. Equally rare, this model can be found in some Latin American countries (the university broadcasters in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Colombia), and Europe (Cyprus News Agency, the public broadcasters in Estonia, ERR, and the Netherlands, NPO). Public broadcasters in Australia (ABC and SBS), New Zealand (Maori Television), Canada (CBC) and Jamaica (PBC) also fall in this category.
Finally, the independent state-funded and state-managed media model characterizes outlets that are owned or governed by the state and predominantly funded by the state but that preserve their editorial independence. Although such a situation might look paradoxical (what government funds and manages a media outlet without trying to control it?), there are cases of outlets that embody this model. That happens either because there are strong rules and regulations in place preventing the government from interfering with the editorial agenda of the supported outlets or simply because authorities take a more progressive approach to media and understand the benefits of having editorially independent media.
Media in this category include Sidwaya publishing house and news agency in Burkina Faso, the newspaper publisher SNPECI in Cote d’Ivoire, the public broadcasters TBS in Taiwan, IPBC in Israel, Teleradio-Moldova in Moldova, UA:PBC in Ukraine, LTV and LR in Latvia, most of the regional public broadcasters in Spain, VRT, RTBF and BRF in Belgium, the public radio IMER in Mexico and US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the operator of a raft of American-owned global broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
In the hybrid captured media category, we have two classes of media outlets.
The captured public/state-managed media model is characterized by government control over governing structures and/or ownership, and editorial coverage. These media outlets are usually on the brink of becoming fully state-controlled, which happens when the government is also intervening in the funding model. When it comes to the performance of these media outlets and the quality of their content, the difference between them and state-controlled media is in most cases imperceptible.
This group includes:
- Newspaper publishers that are managed by state bodies, but fund themselves through commercial revenue including various newspaper companies in Africa (such as Sociedade de Noticias in Mozambique, Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) in Zambia, Zimpapers in Zimbabwe, News Time Corporation in Ghana and the publisher of the newspaper Le Soleil in Senegal) or elsewhere (such as Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), Associated Newspapers of Ceylon in Sri Lanka, Jordan Press Foundation, SRMG in Saudi Arabia or some Chinese newspapers operated abroad);
- Public service media whose editorial coverage is controlled by the government in places as diverse as Pakistan (PTV), Sri Lanka (SLBC and SLRC), Japan (NHK), United Arab Emirates (a slew of broadcasters), and Europe (public media such as RTVS in Slovakia, HRT in Croatia, ERT in Greece, RAI in Italy, and RTS in Serbia);
- Media conglomerates that run both broadcast media outlets and print media such as Medianova in Angola, Shanghai Media Group in China, Dubai Media Incorporated (DMI) and various commercially funded Russian media groups known to be close to the Russian government such as Gazprom Media or National Media Group.
On the other hand, the captured private media model is characteristic for media outlets that are editorially controlled by state authorities without any direct form of state ownership or formal state-appointed governing bodies. This model is illustrative of an important trend that has characterized the media systems in an increasing number of countries over the past decade: media capture, a phenomenon where people serving in state institutions, jointly with directly or indirectly affiliated or controlled private businesses, in many cases oligarchic structures, gain editorial control in a large number of privately held media companies. This model has two variants: one where media outlets rely on funding from the state coffers and a second one where media outlets do not rely on such financing (although from time to time it’s believed that they receive some financing from state authorities).
In some ways, the captured private media model is an outlier (especially the non-funded, non-owned variant) as it lacks formal links with state institutions. It is also the most difficult model to document as the editorial control of these media outlets is achieved over lengthy periods of systematic pressures and via numerous intermediaries (owners or groups of owners). For example, the Hungarian government controls nearly 500 media outlets through a foundation that is believed to have links with the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Officially there is no state ownership in these media outlets and although many of them receive money from the government in the form of state advertising, formal links with state bodies are lacking. Yet, a spate of journalistic investigations carried out during the past decade or so have unearthed ties between the owners of these media outlets and the Hungarian government.
It has to be stressed that the captured private media model should not be confused with politicized or politically controlled media. Characterized by forms of ownership controlled by political actors or groups, politicized or politically controlled media outlets exist almost everywhere. To fit the captured private media model as defined in this matrix, media outlets must have an element of persistent, systemic control of the editorial coverage by entities (individuals or institutions) that have a link with state authorities.
The captured private media model is usually found in countries with a tradition of state interventionism in the media. They include Morocco, Cambodia, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey or Serbia. In Europe, the cases of Hungary and Poland, where right-wing governments have been taking over an increasing number of privately owned media companies during the past five to ten years, are the most representative of this model. Both countries also have state-controlled media outlets (the failed public media broadcasters MTVA in Hungary, and TVP and Polish Radio in Poland).
In some countries, the captured models (both public/state-managed and private ones) can be a stepping stone to the state-controlled media model. In Egypt, for example, three massive media conglomerates, National Media Authority (NMA), National Press Authority (NPA) and Egyptian Media Group (EMG), have been created by the government to centralize most of the country’s media under state control. Some of the media outlets included in these structures, although editorially captured, were not owned by the government. The creation of these companies essentially consolidated the position of the Egyptian state in the media sector.