State media or state-owned media is media for mass communication which is ultimately controlled and/or funded by the state. These news outlets may be the sole media outlet or may exist in competition with privately controlled media.
The term state media is often used in contrast to private or independent media, which has no direct control from any political party. Its content is usually more prescriptive, telling the audience what to think, particularly as it is under no pressure to attract high ratings or generate advertising revenue. In more controlled regions, the state may censor content which it deems illegal, immoral or unfavourable to the government and likewise regulate any programming related to the media; therefore, it is not independent of the governing party. In this type of environment, journalists may be required to be members or affiliated with the ruling party, such as in the former Soviet Union or North Korea. Within countries that have high levels of government interference in the media, it may use the state press for propaganda purposes:
- to promote the regime in a favourable light,
- vilify opposition to the government by launching smear campaigns
- giving skewed coverage to opposition views, or
- act as a mouthpiece to advocate a regime's ideology.
Additionally, the state-controlled media may only report on legislation after it has already become law to stifle any debate. The media legimitises its presence by emphasising "national unity" against domestic or foreign "aggressors". In more open and competitive contexts, the state may control or fund its own outlet and is in competition with opposition-controlled and/or independent media. The state media usually have less government control in more open societies and can provide more balanced coverage than media outside of state control.
State media outlets usually enjoy increased funding and subsides compared to private media counterparts, but this can create inefficiency in the state media. However in the People's Republic of China, where state control of the media is high, levels of funding have been reduced for state outlets, which have forced the Party media to sidestep official restrictions on content or publish "soft" editions, such as weekend editions, to generate income.
Theories of state ownership
Two contrasting theories of state control of the media exist; the public interest or Pigouvian theory states that government ownership is beneficial, whereas the public choice theory suggests that state control undermines economic and political freedoms.
Public interest theory
The public interest theory, also referred to as the Pigouvian theory states that government ownership of media is desirable. Three reasons are offered as to why. The first reason is that the dissemination of information is a public good, and to withhold it would be costly, even if it is not paid for. Secondly, the cost of the provision and dissemination of information is high, however once costs are incurred, marginal costs for providing the information are low and are therefore subject to increasing returns. Finally, state media ownership can be less biased, more complete and accurate if consumers are ignorant and in addition to private media which would serve the governing classes. However, Pigouvian economists, who advocate regulation and nationalisation, are supportive of free and private media.
Public choice theory
The public choice theory asserts that state-owned media would manipulate and distort information in favour of the ruling party and entrench its rule while preventing the public from making informed decisions, therefore undermining democratic institutions. This would prevent private and independent media, which provide alternate voices allowing individuals to choose politicians, goods, services etc. without fear from functioning. Additionally, this would inhibit competition among media firms which ensures consumers usually acquire unbiased, accurate information. Moreover, this competition is part of a checks-and-balances system of a democracy, known as the Fourth Estate, along with the judiciary, executive and legislative.
Determinants of state control
Both theories have implications regarding the determinants and consequences of ownership of the media. The public interest theory suggests that more benign governments should higher levels of control of the media which would in turn increase press freedom as well as economic and political freedoms. Conversely, the public choice theory affirms that the opposite is true - "public spirited", benevolent governments should have less control which would increase these freedoms.
Generally, state ownership of the media is found in poor, autocratic non-democratic countries with highly interventionist governments that have some interest in controlling the flow of information. Countries with "weak" governments do not possess the political will to break up state media monopolies. Media control is also usually consistent with state ownership in the economy.
The press in most of Europe (with the exception of Belarus) is mostly private and free of state control and ownership, along with North and South America. The press in the United States, Canada and Australia has always been the responsibility of the private commercial sector since its inception. Levels of state ownership are higher in some African countries, the Middle East and some Asian countries (with the exception of Japan, India, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand where large areas of private press exist.) Full state monopolies exist in Burma and North Korea.
Consequences of state ownership
"Worse outcomes" are associated with higher levels of state ownership of the media, which would reject Pigouvian theory. The news media are more independent and fewer journalists are arrested, detained or harassed in countries with less state control. Harassment, imprisonment and higher levels of internet censorship occur in countries with high levels of state ownership such as Belarus, Burma, Ethiopia, China, Iran, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. However, this is not always true: journalists in countries that possess media free from state control such as Turkey, Nigeria and Kenya are still subject to harassment and threats. Some democracies do jail journalists, such as Russia and South Korea, whilst some "near democracies", such as Zambia, do not. In a similar vein, the public broadcaster in the United Kingdom, the BBC, although funded by the public license fee and government, holds that it is independent from state control. Countries with a total state monopoly in the media like North Korea and Laos experience a "Castro effect", where state control is powerful enough that no journalistic harassment is required in order to restrict press freedom.
Civil and political rights
The public interest theory claims state ownership of the press enhances civil and political rights; whilst under the public choice theory, it curtails them by suppressing public oversight of the government and facilitating political corruption. High to absolute government control of the media is primarily associated with lower levels of political and civil rights, higher levels of corruption, quality of regulation, security of property and media bias. Independent media sees higher oversight by the media of the government (for example, increased reporting of corruption in Mexico, Ghana and Kenya after restrictions were lifted in the 1990s, whilst government-controlled media defended officials.)
More independent media may benefit the public economically compared to state media. The media would supply more accurate information to improve the markets, which are particularly sensitive to information, allowing insight into corporate abuse of power and pricing of securities, leading to better performance and regulation. Additionally, the public are better informed as to limiting whether the government is able to hurt them economically. In contrast, higher levels of ownership of state media would show the opposite - weaker property security and lower quality of regulation. It is also common for countries with strict control of newspapers to have fewer firms listed per capita on their markets and less developed banking systems. These findings support the public choice theory, which suggests higher levels of state ownership of the press would be detrimental to economic and financial development.
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