Different and the Same

Each Program is Different, Each the Same

Why media development programs vary from country to country   

By  Rich MCClear

Every professor should be required to take his own final exam.  Once I taught media history at the University of Minnesota.  I wanted to test students on their understanding of how different aspects of media were interrelated so I asked my students to assume that Atlantis had risen, they were media tsar and had to design a media system for the new continent and outline it in an essay.  (This is, I admit, a very American type of examination question.)

I don’t live in Atlantis, but sometimes I think I work in an area that has just risen from the sea, but one with a rich history.  For the past 10 years I’ve lived inside my own exam because I have had to design media development programs for regions as diverse as Albania, Slovakia, Serbia and Kosovo.

There are at least five requirements for independent media to survive.  1) Journalists have to be professional.  2) They have to have the tools to work.  This can range from computers to cameras to transmitters to printing presses.  3) They have to work in a legal environment that encourages free press.   4) They need to get paid, which means that media houses need business sense and.  5) They need to work together to meet these goals through professional associations or trade unions.

When I enter a country I look at those five areas of development and assess which ones require the most work.   I look at what other donors are doing, I look at the development of the commercial market, I look at the resources I have and the time the program is likely to be funded. 

There are three basic tactics I can use.  At the top of the pyramid, in the most developed countries where a good base of independent media outlets exists, the philosophy is “a rising tide floats all ships.”  Our work in these countries involves developing associations, training centers, and news agencies.  We concentrate on developing the market through research and training, and improving the legal situation.  We also support training to improve the professional standards of journalists.  This is primarily what we did in Slovakia.  There it was a natural to work with the SITA independent news agency, the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists and the Association of Independent Radio and TV stations.  Supporting those few institutions had the most impact on the most people for the littlest money.  In the end all programs should evolve to this stage in their final year.

The second tactic is in countries where good but weak media outlets already exist.  We give those selected outlets grants to help them get equipment and pay operating funds to allow them to grow and survive until a program like the one at the top of the pyramid can take over.  This is what we did in Serbia, working with B92, Beta, and the municipal stations that had a history but needed special help to survive and to grow to the point where they could begin to take advantage of the activities at the top of the pyramid.

The third tactic involves actually helping start media outlets with grants of equipment and money.  This is what happened in Kosovo.

We always seem to do training.  In planning activities we look to see if there is opportunity to help large groups of journalists and media outlets with a few grants to a central association or training school.  Ideally these grants and the technical support we provide will enable these associations to develop enough to continue work after we leave.  In Serbia and Montenegro it was the Media Center, the ANEM Training Center, the Novi Sad School of Journalism and the Montenegro Media Institute that got support.  In Slovakia it was the Festival of Local TV, LoTOS (the local TV association), and the Slovak Media Institute.  While IREX supports independent media we design training that goes beyond people working at independent outlets.  Journalists move around so we train journalists from both independent and state media.

In some countries we help specific media outlets.  In Serbia we directly supported not only ANEM, the Media Centar and BETA, but also local radio and TV stations and production houses.  We understood that the local media needed to survive Milosevic before they could be strong enough to reach the top step in the pyramid.  We had to pick “winners” or else our support would be so diluted that it would be of no real help in developing sustainable outlets that were ready for the second transition, after Milosevic, when the program could evolve to be more like the Slovak program.

In some countries there is very little media to support and we have to help start outlets.  This is where things get difficult, because you have to pick individuals or nascent organizations to get them equipment and support to start an enterprise.  This is what happened in Kosovo after the bombing.  As soon as I entered the province it seems like hundreds of would be media owners approached me for support.  I am “the best” or “I will be independent.”  And while they ask me for support they tell me that, as an American, I can never understand them, their unique situation, and the suffering they have known, so just hand over the money.  Sometimes people ask me for money while we are riding in their cars.  In one case in a new Jeep Cherokee, I told the media entrepreneur that she didn’t need me to give her US$ 25,000, all she had to do was sell the car. 

You have to make judgments about partners.  Are they honest about journalism and are they willing to personally economically sacrifice to get where they want to be as owners, or do they want the big car and my money too?  Most American media owners, when they start, drove old cars or took loans on their homes to finance their stations.  When I see a European would be media mogul who is not willing to make this personal choice, I turn him or her away.  In every case I had to say no much more than yes.

But in the end, if we don’t give up or get thrown out, every country evolves into the final stage.  This is difficult for stations and producers to understand.  The funding to their stations or productions will end before our program ends.  At the end we usually concentrate on just a few things at the top of the pyramid.  We work to increase the entire advertising market.  This means funding research for radio and TV listening, and newspaper reading.  It means training media sales people in the art of marketing, and it means monitoring the market to see when there is a large enough market for us to begin to withdraw from support in other areas.  I have found that the market develops faster than the skill of media managers to exploit it.  People are so used to saying “there is no market” that they do not recognize one when it emerges.  The danger is that donors sometimes cut back before that market is fully developed or before our partners know how to exploit it.

The one area where all programs are the closest to the same is in the area of legal reform.  This is usually the last area from which we withdraw.  Governments say they want legal reform but really don’t.  So legal reform takes more time than anyone imagines.  There are five indicators of media reform.  1) Passage of a fair, or better yet, passage of no media law;  2) Creation of an independent broadcast regulatory authority;  3) Passing regulations to move state radio and TV from political to civic control;  4) The passage of freedom of information acts and;  5) the repeal of criminal libel laws and the reform of libel generally.   Increasingly we are looking at media transparency and anti monopoly laws as well.   In the Balkans no country has succeeded in all five areas. In fact, in Central Europe most countries are still deficient. 

Once legal reform laws are passed we need to stay in countries to make sure the laws are implemented, that associations know how to use them to protect their members, that media owners and journalists understand their rights and obligations under the new laws and that government officials, lawyers and judges understand and accept the laws.  This is the capstone of any media development program and sometimes we have left countries before this has happened.

--Rich MCClear

This article is from December 2003 "Link" a Serbian media trade magazine.

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