Four Theories of the Press

1-Introduction to Four Theories of the Press

We will use the Four Theories of Press to explain the different media systems. The four theories are: The Authoritarian Theory, The Libertarian Theory, Soviet-Communist Theory, and Social-Responsibility Theory.

Soviet-Communist Theory
The Soviet-Communist Theory originated from the Soviet Union from Marxist, Leninist, and Stalinist thoughts after the 17th century. Under the Soviet-Communist Theory, the state owns or in some way controls all forms of mass media directly. The media’s authority falls in the hands of a small group of party leaders. The role of the media in countries applying the Soviet-Communist Theory is to act as an instrument of the ruling party to unite people of the state, and to carry out plans of the party and state, bringing about societal change.

Also under the Soviet-Communist system, the media reports less on the bad things that happen under communism, and emphasizes the bad things that happen in democratic areas (David McHam’s Communication Law Center, undated). For example, when the Russian’s media was still under the Soviet-Communist system, the official communist paper “Pravda” portrayed the ideology that “Communist is good” by praising Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, and avoided reporting about the Chernobyl disaster as it may raise concerns about the safety of Soviet nuclear plant. Pravda reported about the incident only two days later after constant urging from Sweden. (Tiffany Gabbay, 2012)

Technically, currently, no country’s media is fully under the Soviet-Communist system. However, certain countries’ media possess characteristics of a Soviet-Communist media system. One example is the North Korean media. The North Korean media is very much- if not, entirely, controlled by the government. For a really long time, there were no independent journalists in North Korea, radio and television receivers are locked to government-specified frequencies. The media also covers up on the negative things that happen under the communist leadership, not revealing the dangers and hardships North Koreans faced. For example, the government suppressed news of a famine that affected millions of people (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2006). However, North Korea has shown signs of opening-up in recent years, and it’s media is used more to maintain societal status quo instead of bringing about changes and hence, North Korean’s media is currently leaning further towards an Authoritarian media system.

The Authoritarian Theory
Authoritarian theory is developed in the 16th and 17th century in England. The Authoritarian Theory is operationalized as strict control of content by the state and a general lack of freedom for the public to criticize state policies (Jennifer Ostini, undated). Under an Authoritarian media system, ownership of the media can be either public or private. Ownership of printing medias are mostly private, while broadcast and cinemas usually remain in the hands of the government.

The Authoritarian Theory describes the situation where states view the mass media as an instrument at all ties.  The role of the media is to mainly educate citizens, and acts as a propaganda tool for the ruling party.

The main difference between the Authoritarian theory and the Soviet-Communist Theory is that while the former allows both private and public media ownership, the latter allows strictly only public media ownership. Another difference is that while the Authoritarian medias are mainly use to maintain societal status quo, a Soviet-Communist media is often used to bring about societal  changes. (Krishnammurthy Sriramesh, undated)

In the past, the Burmese media has been under an Authoritarian system. Until 2011, the Burmese media has always portrayed itself as supportive of the country’s previous military junta. News reports gushed over generals, attacked foreign media, and remain uncritical of it’s military leadership. Journalists who wrote reports that threatened the ruling party were imprisoned. Stiff censorship regulations were in place as well, and only state-controlled newspapers, usually propaganda-filled, are allowed to publish daily. Privately run news publications published weekly rather than daily due to Myanmar’s stifling censorship requirements (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2006). However, recently, with the uprise of democracy in Myanmar and transition to a civilian government, the burmese media has been walking away from it’s extreme authoritarian approach, releasing imprisoned journalists. From June 2011, half of Myanmar’s privately owned publications were allowed to published without submitting page proofs to censors in advance. Also, the government will allow private daily newspapers from April next year (Aung Hla Tun, 2012).

Other countries whose media are practicing the Authoritarian Theory include: North Korea, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Libertarian Theory
The Libertarian Theory originally came from liberal thought in Europe from the 16th Century. The Libertarian Theory describes societies that provide media with unrestrained freedom, especially from government control, so that they are free to report a variety of views (Krishnammurthy Sriramesh, undated). There is no control or censorship. Under a libertarian media system, ownership of media is mainly private.

Under the Libertarian Theory, the media’s purpose is to inform, entertain, sell, and serve as a “watchdog”, keeping the government in check. Libertarian Theory involves some innate distrust of the role of the government and the state (Jennifer Ostini, undated), and a belief that everybody has rights to information. The theory also sees people as rational enough to decide what is good or bad and hence the press should not restrict anything. Even negative contents may provide audiences with knowledge. Libertarian thoughts are exactly the opposite of the Authoritarian Theory.

An example of a country whose media system applies the Libertarian Theory would be Finland. In 2011, the finnish press was ranked as “freest in the world” according to Freedom House, an organisation promoting freedom around the world. Freedom of expression and access to information is guaranteed under Article 12 of the constitution. Every citizen has the rights to reply and to have falsely published information corrected. Threats against journalists are rare, unlike those working under Soviet-Communist or Authoritarian media systems. Also, the internet is open and unrestricted, with around 89.4 percent of citizens having regular access in 2011 (Freedom House, 2012).

Other countries whose media apply the Libertarian Theory include: The Netherlands, and to a lesser extent, Hungary.

The Netherlands


Social-Responsibility Theory
Social Responsibility theory is an outgrowth of the Libertarian Theory. However, the Social-Responsibility Theory does not assume that anyone can use the media to publish anything like the Libertarian Theory. Instead, this theory requires the media to adhere to professional standards and codes of conduct when exercising their editorial freedom. Under the Social-Responsibility Theory, ownership of media is mostly private and practice self-regulation according to standards, codes and guiding principles. The media is relatively free of arbitrary government controls.

Under a Social-Responsible media system, the role of the media is to serve the public, and in order to do so, should remain free of government interference. The idea of this theory is that the media has  a moral obligation to provide adequate information for citizens to make informed decisions (Jennifer Ostini, undated). However, the different media can retain a liberal notion of healthy public disclosure. The media is also expected to represent the diversity of cultures they represent, and should have high standards for professionalism, truth, and accuracy.

One example of a country that practices the Social-Responsibility Theory is the United States of America. The USA has a Bill of Rights that states that the “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or the press.” (Lorne W. Craner, 2008). This bill entitles the media to freedom and at the same time, put across a trust the congress has for the media to be responsible for its freedom. Such trust encourages the media to be responsible for the information it publishes.

Countries who has a Social-Responsible media system include: France, Germany, and Japan.


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