The mass media has a powerful influence on political reality, as it shapes public opinion and lays the foundations of political beliefs. Sometimes referred to as the fourth branch of government in democratic countries the media plays a crucial role during elections and in times of change. Therefore, politicians and political parties are particularly sensitive towards their media presence and the media coverage of their public appearances.
The relationship between politics and the mass media is closely related to the debate about freedom of speech. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, reads:
?Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers."
In democratic societies, the media plays a particularly important role, as it is a communication channel which ensures the exchange of opinions and points of view between the people in power and the general public. In liberal democracy, the media facilitates the public discourse, informs the public, represents the public and acts as a watchdog of the branches of government. Analysts highlight the role of the media in the support of true democratic society. German intellectual Juergen Habermas defines the media as a space for public discourse, which must guarantee universal access and rational debate in society.
As a watchdog in the political world, the media has the task of criticizing decision-makers in society. Journalists can fulfill this task only if they are independent.
On the other hand, dependence on powerful structures and financial resources can handicap the media's ability to be an effective watchdog in political life. Although in democratic society, governments and political parties do not put direct pressure on the media, the competition and the free market rules create different restrictions for journalists and their employers. In a bid to maximize profit, commercial TV channels are forced to respond to the interests of advertisers. In this context, public broadcasters are expected to be more independent and closer to the democratic ideal. Researchers insist that sometimes they serve the public interest better than their commercial counterparts.
In democratic countries, the freedom of press is guaranteed by law. The absence of interference from the state in the freedom of communication and expression is a mandatory aspect of democracy. The government may protect information from its public disclosure by classifying it as sensitive, classified or secret. The so-called sunshine laws regulate the government's obligation to disclose information about its work and meetings.
International organizations also seek to guarantee freedom of speech worldwide. Reporters Without Borders (RWB) is an NGO that aims to prevent repression and harassment of journalists, state monopoly and censorship in the media. Set up in 1985 in France, RWB established the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, which is a virtual network of NGOs that is tasked to defend journalists and identify beaches of freedom of speech.
Freedom House also analyzes political and economic conditions and the interrelation between the media and the government. According to Freedom House's annual survey Freedom of the Press Index, barely 17 percent of the world's population lives in societies that enjoy freedom of speech. In the other countries, the authorities control media coverage and repress media independence. The index measures media independence in 195 countries, ranking them as free, partly free or not free.
The onset of the information age has revolutionized the relationship between politics and the media. In the new media environment, shaped by social networks and blogs, the general public is no longer a passive observer, but an active player. The communication between politicians and voters is much more direct through the use of blogs and micro-blogging tools. The technological development has given rise to the emergence of citizen journalism, also referred to as participatory or street journalism. This trend describes the active role of the public in the dissemination, analysis and collection of information.