Dialogue as a Communication Right – A Draft

book project, Research

This is an English-language draft summary of my chapter for a book by a group of Finnish  scholars (Ala-Fossi, Alén-Savikko, Hildén,  Jääsaari, Karppinen, Lehtisaari, Nieminen) on operationalizing communication rights in the Finnish context. I am struggling with terminology: How to call the right to be heard by those in power in the time of multiple ways of communicating and communication?

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While the word dialogue seldom appears in laws or in mission statements of media organizations, it is strongly rooted in democracy theorization in political science and as utilized in communication studies. We understand dialogical rights as citizens opportunities and activities to engage in dialogue. Dialogicality also entails the idea that everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard.  The digital era has has lowered many barriers of direct public participation, specifically in three types of dialogical relationships:

  1. Direct dialogues between citizens,  the government and public administration, made possible with digitalization (often phrased as active inclusion, public engagement, and/or eParticipation);
  2. Dialogues with and via institutional, legacy media (often discussed as audience participation and interactivity); as well as
  3. Direct mediated dialogues between citizens, on digital platforms (peer-to-peer communication and other user generated content that can amount to civic engagement).

The Constitution of Finland secures freedom of expression but also stipulates that public authorities shall promote the opportunities for the individual to participate in societal activity and to influence the decisions that concern him or her. An example of a sector- and institution-specific legislation that supports these rights is, again, the Act on Yleisradio: it stipulates the public service broadcaster must support democracy and everyone’s opportunity to participate.

Digital dialogical opportunities between citizens and their government provide perhaps the most poignant case and the most optimistic reiteration of dialogical rights. They are also the most one-sided since those innovations have mainly been government-driven. This trend began in the 1990s with a multitude of national and supranational information society programmes. In these scenarios, concerns of social inclusion have been included although they have been primarily formulated to enhance economic competitiveness. This seems to be the case with the EU’s approach to eGovernment and eParticipation: Many initiatives and toolkits are created but at the core is effectiveness of the “digital single market”.

The foundations of digital dialogue between the public sector and the citizens were laid in Finland in 1997 when the government launched a “public engagement programme”, followed in the subsequent decade  by two other participation-focused programs in which digital technology played a central role. In 1999, an open access register on all  governmental initiatives was established, followed in 2000, by an inter-ministerial website to solicit citizens’ views. The site has since expanded into six different portals, developed by the Ministry of Finance under a program to enhance digital public services (2009-2015). In 2016, it was decided that electronic voting will be offered in addition to conventional voting. Currently, in 2017, one of the government’s five strategic priorities focuses entirely on “digitalization, experimentation and deregulation”.

Dialogical rights are realized in a very different way in the dialogue between media organizations and citizens. A basic effect of dialogue as accountability is monitored by an independent Council for Mass Media. It offers citizens the opportunity to file complaints requesting the investigation of a matter concerning breach of good professional practice or the freedom of speech and publication. In addition, individual media outlets often have their own direct channels and mechanisms for complaints. Digitalization has not drastically changed the news media landscape, in that popular legacy media dominate also online news. At the same time, digitalization, comment, and chat functions of legacy media outlets, in their own platforms as well as in common social media sites, have become standard practice. One special, and popular, service directly related to citizenship is different voting advice applications offered by different news organizations. However, these kinds of new services are not always without controversy. For instance, the net-based local and regional news services, as well as developing personalization services by the public service Yleisradio have been investigated as possible market distortions. A recent report found, however, that both are according to the remit of Yle in promoting democracy.

The most prolific digital dialogues can be said to occur between citizens — or so it may seem when observing social media activity and heated online debates. The reality in Finland is more moderate. Finns, traditionally avid newspaper readers, seem to be traditionalists in digital realm as well. They have not given up on old, legacy media organizations. Community media and citizen journalism have not gone mainstream in the country, even with plenty of digital opportunities. Also, voting activity has remained very steady in the past decade (around 70% in parliamentary and EU elections). Approximately three quarter of all Finns follow the media via the Internet, some 40 percent read blogs, but only six percent have their own blogs or web pages. Facebook is the main source of news for 35 percent of the Finns, but only one tenth uses social media for political participation, and only 15 percent takes part in memes, campaigns, and other participatory phenomena. Even when the government’s activities to enhance digital dialogues are  plentiful, the citizens’ responses have not been overly enthusiastic. While these portals exist civil servants hardly utilize them in decision-making; neither are civil society organizations keen on participating in them.  

Unfortunately, the kind of political participation that has become more common and visible is online hate speech. One key motor for this is the alt-news site MV-lehti that offers news with a heavy anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-legacy media slant and that fuels plenty of related commentary and dialogue. One communication right related to dialogicality could be said to be the negative right not be exposed to hate speech. In fact, in 2015, Finland instituted a new law on equality that has secures equality in the workplace and for public services, regardless of age, language, sexual orientation, and so on. While it does not single out the media, it stresses that hate speech and other disrespectful behaviour is against this law.

Another entirely new form of dialogue could be seen in the use of open data in decision-making.While data can be used by policy-makers for efficiency, as stipulated in the Open data policy for 2015 – 2020 of the Finnish Government it also works in reverse: Citizens can monitor and hold policy-makers and others accountable.

{research} PSM in the service of communication rights?

book project, Research

{This is a segment of an upcoming book chapter. Very interested in any comments!}

Commercial interest have since been coupled with many other challenges of digitalization to public service broadcasting – and much has been said about the current crises of public service ideal and practice. As Voltmer (2013: 160) sums it up: We are now at a historical moment where different realizations, mature and new, of public service broadcasting worldwide are under threat because of digital convergence, audience fragmentation, and deregulated markets – and we may just need to come up with new ways to ensure the values of independency, impartiality, and integration via media. Might one way to ensure those classic values to embrace human and communication rights as an explicit PSM mission? More specifically, in terms of Europe: If we take seriously the normative engagement of welfare societies about informed citizenship and communication rights, and if we try to learn from the critique of paternalism, centralization, elitism, the copying of commercial channels, what can we suggest for public service media in services of communication rights in the digital era? To find answers, one has to tackle at least one conceptual and one empirical challenge.

The first issue is a fundamental one. Today, the European institution of PSB can be said to embody many of the rights relating to information and communication, especially in relation to citizens’ access to and availability of relevant information. At the same time, a certain conceptual riff between PSB and communication rights does exist. Public service in the media sector has in most related literature been linked to democracy theories and, on practice, democratic societies. And while rights-based approaches “share a commitment to the ideal of equal political dignity for all”, and while realization of human rights requires democratic government, the ideals of democracy and rights point to different directions (Donelly 2013: 222). The former ideal is about collective empowerment – the latter ideal is about individuals. Related to this is the traditional practice of PSB: The paternalistic, one-way flow of communication from one center that disseminates information to anybody within its reach.

And yet, in practical, empirical terms, we have established that PSBs have been used as vehicles in realizing certain communication rights, not least the one of access to information/content. To find out whether PSM could serve communication rights of the digital era, one needs to operationalize those rights. One scheme to understand today’s communication rights is to map under these five distinct operational categories: (see Nieminen 2010, 14-15; Splichal 2002, 168-69):

Access is about citizens’ equal access to information, orientation, entertainment and other contents serving their rights. Availability indicates that relevant contents (of information, orientation, entertainment and other) should be equally available for citizens. Competence means that citizens should be educated with the skills and abilities to use the means and information available according to their own needs and desires. Dialogical rights means availability of public spaces available that allow citizens to publicly share information, experiences, views, and opinions on common matters. Finally, privacy indicates two different things: first, everybody’s private life has to be protected from unwanted publicity, unless its exposure is in the public interest or the person decides to expose it to public; and second, protection of personal data means that all information gathered by authorities or businesses must be protected as confidential.

In the current media landscape, PSM is not alone serving the public. Given the multi-platform environment, many propose that public service functions can also be performed what could be called public media de facto, ranging form community media to networked projects and events (e.g., Bajomi-Lazar et al. 2012; Horowitz & Clark 2014). A commercial TV channel may have a particularly important and engaging political debate program or news website; a community radio station may address issues of a region in more depth than national media outlets; and citizens may inform each other (and the world) on social media about the Arab Spring, or the Ferguson riots, more effectively than any legacy media news outlet.

Yet, if we take an overall outlook of responsiveness of different media outlets to communication rights, how would PSM fare in terms of communication rights vis-à-vis its de facto counterparts? Table 1 presents a simple sketch of PSM and selected other forms of media outlets, with the assumption that they all have a potential in serving in the public interest.

Table 1. Communication rights, public service media, and selected other media institutions: A comparison

  PSM Commercial broadcaster/media outlet Community/ alternative media Short term issue and other “projects” and spontaneous citizen journalism
Access Good Weakening (e.g., pay-TV and streaming pay walls) Weak: doesn’t reach everyone (filter bubble)[1] Often weak: doesn’t reach everyone
Availability Good, weakening if narrowed or if competing with commercial outlets with similar content Weak (more of the same and recycling similar content for audiences, eyeballs, and likes) Good, as filling in the gap; but not diverse Good, as filling in the gap; but exists only for a short time
Competence Traditionally good (education) Traditionally weak Improving with the help of social media (free tools) Improving with the help of social media (free tools)
Dialogicality Improving with the help of social media Improving, but for commercial purposes Improving with the help of social media (free tools) Often based on dialogicality, with the help of social media (free tools)
Privacy

(a)    Private life

(b)    data

(a)    usually good

(b)    can be good

Weak (usually exploited for commercial purposes) Can be weak if no resources to guard privacy Can be weak if spontaneous and no resources to guard privacy

The above scheme would indicate that PSM could fare well in the service of communication rights. It is a simplified view that does not account for several core issues. For instance, audiences of public media can be global, regional, national, local and/or issue-driven (Aufderheide & Clark 2009). In addition, PSM exists in the same platforms as its commercial competitors. That may result in compromises in terms of intermediary liability, especially regarding privacy and freedom of expression that can be (e.g., MacKinnon 2010) In practical terms: national PSB companies are regulated under national legislation, but their activities in social media are ruled (mostly) by US jurisdiction. And, conversely, s Ziccardi (2013: 39) observes, digital communication and its platforms may have the potential to enhance international human rights, but this process is continuously being interrupted by nation-states and their interests. How would PSM organizations react to those challenges? Still, the original (even if implicit) role of PSM in guarding communication rights is clearly present and can be enhanced. No other media outlet has had that kind of on-going, sustainable commitment and obligation.