Line of inquiry
How well do media theories from the developed West fit postcommunist Europe? Surely since the late eighties of the 20th century to nowadays the evolution of the media in Eastern Europe (EE) was spectacular and often unpredictable for media theorists. In their classic Four Theories of the Press, authors Sibert, Peterson and Scramm (1) famously claimed that 'the press has always taken on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates. Especially, it reflects the system of social control whereby the relations of individuals and institutions are adjusted'. How does this fit the role that media seems to play in prompting revolutions, insurrections and other forms of rapid political change, a role so obvious in Eastern Europe that it shaped the budgets of democracy promoters donors everywhere for the last two decades? The ascension of Al-Jazeera, ignored for many years by the American government also opened the door to fresh reflection on the influence of media. Some believe that have entered an age where electronic transnational media can be more influential than any government. It can mobilize or discourage government action, but can also play a role towards other politically influential groups: political oppositions, subversion movements and civil society. In American military academies media studies re-experience the flourishing of the Vietnam War days, the previous war lost by US in newsrooms prior to being settled in the battlefield. Media researchers side either with classical theory, which denies much political influence to the media, or new, post-CNN theory, which goes to great length emphasizing it. It is only fair to say that history moved faster than theory and there is considerable catching up to do by scholars in this field.
The history of the media in postcommunist Europe in the last two decades could find an equivalent in a history of the French media between 1788, with the invitation by the King to citizens to address pamphlets to the General States and 1800, with Bonaparte's law, which reestablished control. In between, one can find moments of triumph and moments of agony, journalists rising to be heads of legislatures as well as journalists sentenced by revolutionary tribunals. One needs a broad historical framework to examine the relationship between media and politics before, during and after times of upheaval, or, depending on the point on the time curve a study focuses (ascending-revolutionary or descending counter-revolutionary) results may seriously distort the general picture. Alexis de Tocqueville famously said that the Revolution that began in 1848 was not another one, but another chapter of the one which had started in 1789. This sheds some light on what could be a good time frame to study revolutionary times.
The new era of media influence we entered with the 1989 revolutions is certainly related to technology progress. The main newspaper of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, Ukrayinska Pravda, was an Internet based publication which had 1.5 million hits a day during the 2004 elections. When Serb authorities cracked down on Belgrade B-92 radio station it could move to the Internet and continue to broadcast. Classic media consumption may be path dependent of the national context (2): however, it is the 'new' media which has a growing public, and the exchanges between the new and the old, as well as directly between new media and politics allow a media system presently to develop more independently from the local circumstances. This gives the media higher potential for playing an influential role and makes it harder to control by traditional means.
To understand the relation between media and politics in postcommunist Eastern Europe this paper builds on scholarship that presumes a two-way relationship (3) and discusses a circular model. It also looks at a broad timeframe, to cover revolutionary aftermaths as well as revolutions themselves. …