We live in changing times. Significant political and economic developments and innovations in the field of communication technology towards the end of 20th century have left deep impact on many of our institutions. Globalization has given a new dimension to the capitalist economy, has altered the power and functions of the nation-state and created a global village. These events have provoked a polemical debate on democracy, the nation-state, citizenship and the role and function of media.

Within the above framework this article attempts to look at concepts such as citizenship, the role of communication in democracy, the need for democratization of media, changing priorities of the media and a new paradigm of a communication system to facilitate enlightened citizenship.

The concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology explains citizenship. "In political and legal theory, citizenship refers to the rights and duties of the member of a nation-state or city. In some historical contexts, a citizen was any member of a city; that is, an urban collectivity which was relatively immune from the demands of a monarch of state. In classical Greece, citizenship was limited to free men, who had a right to participate in political debate because they contributed, often through military service, to the direct support of the city-state. It is argued by historians that citizenship has thus expanded with democratization to include a wider definition of the citizen regardless of sex, age, or ethnicity. The concept was revived in the context of the modern state, notably during the French and American Revolutions, and gradually identified more with rights than obligations. In modern times citizenship refers conventionally to the various organizations which institutionalize these rights in the welfare state."

A more interesting definition comes from sociologist, T.H.Marshall, (‘The Conscise Dictionary of Sociology, p 54, 1994) who defined citizenship as "a status, which is enjoyed by a person who is a full member of a community. Citizenship has three components: civil, political, and social. Civil rights are necessary for individual freedoms and are institutionalized in the law courts. Political citizenship guarantees the right to participate in the exercise of political power in the community, either by voting, or by holding political office. Social citizenship is the right to participate in an appropriate standard of living; this right is embodied in the welfare and educational systems of modern societies."

Any discourse on citizenship is appropriate only in the background of democracy and civil society, because citizenship is regarded as a fundamental plank of democracy. Genuine democracy demands a system of constant interaction with all the people, accessibility at all levels, a public ethos which allows conflicting ideas to contend, and which provides for full participation in reaching consensus on socio-cultural, economic and political goals. Such interaction takes place at different levels both separately and simultaneously. According to Majid Tehranian, it takes the form of a dialogue which, if carried out in freedom and equality of discourse, leads to a successful development of a universal, human civilization in whose idiom we all need to speak in order to understand the national and local in their rich variety of human sub-cultures. (Philip Lee, 1995).

As people need food, shelter and health care for their physical survival, they need communication for their social welfare. Moreover, for their human dignity people need factors that are intrinsic to genuine democracy; reason, responsibility, mutual respect, freedom of expression, and freedom of conscience, all of which are mediated by communication. A prerequisite of democracy, therefore, is the democratization of communication, which in turn requires the empowerment of individual. (Philip Lee, 1995). The media facilitate this process by providing an arena for public debate and by reconstituting private citizens as a public body in the form of public opinion. It is also necessary to make a public communication an integral part of democracy. People should have free access to the knowledge and information they require, they should be able to discuss matters of public interest with their equals in order to influence actions taken. Otherwise there can be no genuine participation.

Michael Traber (1994), holds that the endeavour for equality and justice for all is based on the democratization of communication. He has laid down six principles. They are:

  • The principle of human dignity : Human beings have an intrinsic and unique value, which has to be recognized socially. From this stems not just the right to live, but the right to live a life worthy of human beings (which is the ultimate rationale of all human rights).

  • The principle of freedom : Deprivation of freedom makes genuine communication impossible, and the first sign of repression in all societies is usually the curtailment of freedom of speech. The silencing of people as a form of punishment, or still worse, solitary confinement, are utterly subhuman. But freedom for what? Freedom to participate. Freedom to be part of a nation and of the human family. Freedom to shape a collective destiny.

  • The principle of truth telling : Communication is about human relationships. All relationships presuppose mutual trust, and the basis of such trust is the assumption that we are telling the truth. Communication inevitably breaks down when we suspect the other of lying.

  • The principle of justice : Human dignity, freedom and equality are values which, when translated into social relationships, produce justice, or living-in-justice with all other people. The mass media as we know them stand in almost total contradiction to this view. They portray the powerful in politics and business, and the stars of entertainment and sports. But the poor, the marginalized, the refugees, the old, those with disabilities, people of colour, children, and even today, women, are non-people to the media, or are typecast. Justice in communication is also an international issue. The present global information and communication systems reflect the world’s dominant political and economic structures, which maintain and reinforce the dependence of the poorer countries on the richer.

  • The principle of peace : Violence and war mark the ultimate breakdown of communication, both interpersonal and public. The word is replaced by the gun or the knife. Most wars between nations have started with a series of lies - by governments and the media about the threat of the enemy. If war is the ultimate failure of public communication, peace is its ultimate glory. Peace means people in communication. Peaceful co-existence of peoples with different national, racial and cultural identities, and of different ideological persuasions can, in today’s world, only be achieved through communication aimed at conflict resolution. The mass media carry a heavy responsibility in this process.

  • The principle of participation : Human dignity, freedom, justice and peace: how do we apply these principles to the mass media of today, and make them operational in the decisions leading to the construction of an ‘information superhighway’ of tomorrow? The answer presupposes a change in direction. Mass and interactive media cannot primarily be considered business enterprises, but are part of the cultural environment in which we live and move. Media, old and new, should contribute to the quality of life of everyone by celebrating all that is genuinely human.

But in reality mass media have moved away from positive expectations of civil society. By the end of 19th century and early 20th century the media instead of being a vehicle for advancing freedom and democracy started becoming more and more a means of making money and propaganda for the new and powerful classes. Globalization and economic liberalization have further contributed to deteriorating negative attitude of the media towards the society. Global competition, profit motive made the media forget about its social responsibility. Money ruled over morals. Media is no more interested in creating citizenship, providing public sphere for dialogue and interaction among the citizens. Instead it is busy transforming citizens into spectators by offering them entertainment to education, knowledge and information.

George Gerbner (2002), in his recent article observed: "Our children are born into homes in which the dominant story tellers are not those who have something to tell but a small group of global conglomerates that have something to sell. Channels multiply but communication technologies converge and media merge. With every merger, staffs shrink and creative opportunities diminish. Cross-media conglomeration reduces competition and denies entry to newcomers. Fewer sources fill more outlets more of the time with ever more standardized fare. Alternative perspectives vanish from the mainstream. Media coalesce into a seamless, pervasive, and increasingly homogenized cultural environment that has drifted out of democratic reach. Even fund-starved public television is fighting for its life.

Other distortions of the democratic process include:

  • The promotion of practices that drug, hurt, poison, and kill thousands every day.
  • Portrayals that dehumanize and stigmatize; cults of media violence that desensitize, terrorize, and brutalize.
  • The growing siege mentality of our cities.
  • The drift towards ecological suicide.
  • The silent crumbling of our infrastructure.
  • Widening resource gaps in the richest country that already has the most glaring inequalities in the industrial world.
  • The costly neglect of vital institutions such as public education and the arts.

He also offers suggestions to circumvent the present situation. His suggestions are:
  • Building a broad new coalition of organizations and individuals committed to broadening the freedom and diversity of communication.
  • Opposition domination and working to abolish existing concentration of ownership and censorship, public or private. That includes extending the freedom of speech and access to media beyond those who own them.
  • Seeking out and cooperating with cultural liberation forces of other countries, working for the integrity and independence of their own decision-making and against cultural domination and invasion.
  • Supporting journalists, artists, writers, actors, directors, and other creative workers struggling for more freedom from marketing formulas imposed on them.
  • Promoting critical media awareness as a fresh approach to a liberal education on every level.
  • Placing cultural policy-making on the socio-political agenda to secure the right of a child to be born into a cultural environment that is reasonable, free, fair, diverse, and non-damaging.

The Indian situation is not very different from what Gerbner has described. Both public and private media have failed the nation in creating well-informed and enlightened citizen. Except for the pre-independence Nationalist Press, the performance of privately owned print media, cinema and public broadcasting have not raised to the expectations of a growing democracy.

Sunil Khilnani (2000) warns that "every Indian, poor and rich, can be certain of one thing in the decades to come: individually and together, they will encounter a steady stream of politics-plenty of it, becoming ever more intricate." And he also observes that "the coming of democracy necessitates a new kind of social intelligence, a different division of intellectual labour in the society. It makes obsolete the idea that there can be a single ‘brain’ of the society (the Ministry of Planning, an intellectual elite, a supreme Think Tank, or Operation Room, or even- as some believe-the market), whose function it is to devise and execute blueprints. Democracy is a recognition that people think for themselves, choose and act on the basis of their beliefs, as they happen to be. It also produces an actual diffusion of cognitive capital across the entire citizenry. In this sense democracy is liable to constant mistaking, to cognitive bruising and injury. But this makes it all the more vital for any democratic society to exercise a constant self-consciousness and vigilance about its own intentions, about its actions and their consequences."

Emphasizing on the role and responsibility of non-elected agencies and institutions as instruments that can check the power of elected Assemblies, he lists judiciary and judicial agencies, President, Election Commission, Prasara Bharati and other agencies and urges them to "develop real capacities to use against elected public officials". He has two means for scrutinizing and reprimanding elected rulers and public officials. One, criminal law and two, freedom of information. According to him freedom of information is the core of modern democratic politics and it foregrounds a basic contradiction between the notion of state prerogative and the rights of citizens. And stresses the need to have ‘quite liberal legislation concerning the right to know’.

He is very candid about the role of media. "A press free from systematic political interference is certainly essential to the citizenry’s acquisition of information. But there is an unhappy air about India’s much vaunted free press, in an age when most large business houses make it a point to gain a controlling foothold in the electronic or print media. Newspapers operate with a constricted sense of editorial freedom-editors beholden to their employers and often to politicians (particularly in the regional press) regularly dissuade younger journalists from pursuing awkward stories, preferring instead to print safe plants and handouts from politicians. Such freedom as there is tends to be confined to the editorial pages, which have now become the unique preserve of a select menagerie of wind-bagging superannuated bureaucrats, and pious academics.

"India has one of the most restrictive, archaic attitudes about access to information-this is certainly an aspect of the state that needs to be opened up to the criticism of democracy. The laws on the right to public information combine legacies from the colonial Raj with a more contemporary technocratic secrecy. Governments consider themselves to be doing their citizens a favour in giving them scraps of information, rather than fulfilling one of their core obligations. (Indeed, the failure to educate the vast mass of Indians might be considered the biggest and most systematic withholding of information.)

Khilnani’s observation on the vigilant role of media, free access and right to information and also his criticism on the role of elite media once again re-affirms the need and importance of free and responsible media in strengthening the ‘modern republic’. At the political level, the media play a central role in the working of democracies. Historically, a critical feature of movements toward democracy has been the creation of a ‘public sphere,’ meaning all the places and forums where issues of importance to a political community are discussed and debated, and where information is presented that is essential to citizen participation in community life.

The concept is important because a democratic society depends on an informed populace making political choices. In large and complex societies public participation in political processes is already limited largely to occasional expressions of opinion and protests and the periodic selection of representatives. For this weak participation to be minimally effective the public has to know what is going on and the options that they should weigh, debate, and act upon.

In the view of Jurgen Habermas and others, the public sphere works most effectively for democracy when it is institutionally independent of the state and society’s dominant economic forces. Although such autonomy is difficult to develop and maintain, the point of democratic communication policy-making is to strive toward this goal, although within this institutional shemata there are many different shapes a public sphere may assume.(Herman, McChesney,1998).

But, with the processes of media globalization since 1989, the public sphere is fast shrinking. The central feature of the media globalization is larger cross border flows of media outputs, growth of media trans-national conglomerates, centralization of media control, spread and intensification of commercialization. The ‘commercial model’ has its own serious limitations. It has its on own internal logic and being privately owned and heavily dependent on advertisers support, tends to erode the public sphere and to create a ‘culture of entertainment’ that is incompatible with democratic order. Media outputs are commodified and are designed to serve market needs, not citizenship needs. (Herman, McChesney,1998).

The symptoms of media globalization have started showing prominently on Indian media landscape. The country has gone too far in the process of globalization. It is too late to beat a retreat. Instead of attempting to stop the on going processes or turn back media centralization and commercialization, it will be more prudent to seriously concentrate on developing a set of new communication policies based on alternative media paradigm. There is an exhortative need to shift our focus from traditional mass media controlled by big conglomerates (newspapers, radio, TV and cinema) to alternative, more people friendly, cost effective, small, and interactive media like community radio, community newspapers, video and audio cassettes.

Internet is another medium, which can contribute to free and speedy dissemination of information. No doubt, the technology itself has serious limitations. The lack of infrastructure, access have brought criticism against having ‘digital democracy’ and creation of ‘nettizen.’ But recent events like post 9/11 developments have proved that Internet can be effective medium to express dissent and disseminate the other side of the event. In the Indian context, the reach may be small but its effect can be enormous.

Another neglected area of mass communication i.e. traditional or folk media can be revived and used as vehicles of effective social communication. Harikatha, puppet shows, street plays have evolved as people’s medium. As Pradip N.Thomas (1994) observes; "Traditional forms of communication are part of a larger process related to the making and re-making of communities. They play a vital role in the process of negotiation that is itself a core element in the self-understanding and growth of traditional communities. This is an on-going process, but one that has become increasingly complex in the light of the politics of change. It is this complexity that traditional forms of communication endeavor to decipher and to make intellible. Nothing more and nothing less. Against the juggernaut of modernity and its tendency to homogenize difference in the name of progress, traditional forms of communication are a gentle reminder that true cultural democracy is forged in the interplay of difference, however idiosyncratic that might seem."

What India lacks is media literacy. Even in developed nations there are media literacy groups, which create awareness among the consumers of media on the functions and responsibilities of media. These non-partisan groups have succeeded in bringing moral pressure on media organizations through their constant vigil and constructive criticism.

Creating alternative media systems is not easy. It needs sustained effort, funding and interest. But, once it is achieved we could create a public sphere in real sense, where people-centric, decentralized and democratized media will become true voices of people, community and the nation. These kinds of experiments are taking place in other parts of the world and some of the Latin American attempts should serve as models to us. According to ‘Democratization of Communication’, a social movement process model offered by Robert A.White (1994), "contemporary theory of social movements not only explains the conditions under which democratization of communication is likely to occur and develop, but will provide a much more complete and internally consistent understanding of the dimensions of the democratization of communication.

There are a number of basic points of intersection between social movement theory and what is commonly understood by the democratization of communication:

  • Social movements are a communication pattern, which emerges ‘outside’ and in opposition to the existing institutional, hierarchical (non-democratic) structure of communications in a society.

  • Social movements, in order to strengthen identification and loyalty, tend to introduce and legitimate an alternative pattern of communication which, relative to the dominant pattern, insists that all members have a right to obtain and make communicative inputs when they wish, that members may participate in all phases of the collective communication decision-making process, that members may engage in ‘horizontal’ communication between individuals and groups without being vetted by authorities, that communication be dialogical in the sense that members have a right to reply and expect a direct reply.

  • Social movements tend to renovate and democratize virtually all aspects of the communication process: the definition of what communication means; the definition of which social sectors and social actors may participate in the public communication process; the employment of new media technology and the democratization of existing technology; the redefinition of ‘media professionalism’ and the training of professionals; the development of new codes of ethics and new values guiding public policy, etc.

What is central to the democratization of communication, most social movements insist, is that members - ordinary ‘citizens’ - should participate in the administration, policy-making and government of public communication. ‘Epochal social movements’, those social movements that introduce a major socio-cultural shift in civilizations also tend to introduce a radically different normative theory of communication and a new culture of public communication.