The Role of Media in Promoting Good Governance

Anothai Udomsilp, Thailand

Good governance has been a key concept for democratic development in many countries around the world during the past few decades. Thailand is one of those which have embraced the idea.

The notion of good governance was first given importance and included in the Thai national agenda in the 1990’s. At its inception, not many people, particularly those at the grassroot level, understood what it meant. There were attempts to explain this concept to the public and even attempts by community leaders and scholars to translate into Thai the term “good governance” – dhama-bhibal – with the hope that it would make it easier to understand. The need to interpret the term in its various aspects remains, however.

The explanations of good governance can be varied. One of these, which is widely accepted, focuses on the capability of the state to perform its key functions in response to the needs of its citizens, and to be accountable for what it does. Emphasis has therefore been placed on a people-centred ideology -- needs of the people, public interest, transparency, accountability and responsibility of the policy-makers. All these have also become central to establishing sustainable development.

Based on the concept of transparency, one significant development that took place in the late 1990’s in Thailand was the promulgation of an Information Act. This Act, which stipulates the openness to the public of information in the possession of state agencies, clearly underpins the universally held concept of the right to know of the people.

It has taken quite some time before the public, or even the government officials who are in possession of information, could adequately understand the necessity of information disclosure. Therefore, it was expected from the beginning that it would be the duty of the media to bring this new concept to the attention of the society.

To perform the monitoring duty as a mirror of the society, the media have been playing an important role in educating the people about the Information Act and good governance. The news and investigative reports on state performances require insightful information which might have been branded in the past by officials as “confidential”. Whether such classification of information was correct had rarely been questioned in the past.

The disclosure of government information by the media not only turns the people into informed citizens while the whole society is shifting towards post-modernity, it also encourages the people to exercise their right to know, which is imperative when they are to make choices regarding their participation in political-socio-economic affairs.

Accurate and sufficient information enables the people to better enjoy their freedom of speech, helping them make rational decisions and take the right course of action beneficial to them.

On the other hand, the work of the media forces policy-makers and officials to be more prudent about their decisions and activities that affect the livelihood of the people and the development of the society as a whole. They need to prepare to be transparent, accountable and responsible for what they do since their activities may be brought to the attention of the public at any time by the media. In fact, corruption, transparency and accountability, which have been challenges and issues of concern while the public sector strives to achieve good governance, are the focus of the media at all times.

The Thai Public Broadcasting Service – Thai PBS – for example, deems it a top priority to report corruption cases in their news. A programme, entitled “Reveal the Truth”, which features information on corruption cases and related issues, has gained high popularity among the audience. Copies of this weekly news programme are often requested by the government agencies themselves for further investigation. By providing this kind of information to promote good governance, Thai PBS believes it is making its services more responsive to the people.

It is well understood that the media are not confined to print and broadcast. With the rapidly changing and converging technologies, new media, especially the so-called ‘social media’ are also mushrooming and becoming part of everyday life of the informed netizens. As much as traditional media can promote good governance, new media are also playing important roles in this aspect. With the availability of technologies, the netizens are not just receivers of information as the public used to be. In fact, they generate and disseminate their own content, much of which is about the decisionmaking and performances of the state. The term ‘citizen-journalist’ becomes more known in many societies. People begin to read text stories, listen to audio reports, and watch pictures of events from other people’s home-made productions.

The roles of the media, including the social media, in promoting good governance are being recognized by the governments and policy-makers in various countries. In the UK, a “Survey of Policy Opinion on Governance and the Media” published by BBC (2009) reveals that although the emphasis on good governance in the development agenda is questionable, “there seems to be increasing recognition of the media’s role in governance in the development community. There are also some indicators that media are being more recognized by the policy-makers as having a central role in development.” In Thailand, the roles of the media in promoting good governance are also recognized by the government. Media reform is being conducted in the country with the hope that the media can perform their functions more efficiently.

Whether or not the media can promote good governance also depends on the media themselves. A UNESCO publication on Media and Good Governance (2005) clearly reveals what the media should be, and should have, in order to perform their duty effectively. First of all, the media must be independent and pluralistic. They should be free from any kind of influence, particularly political or commercial control. Secondly, the media should be equipped with the necessary investigative capacity to bring out the truths to the public and fulfill their functions in promoting good governance. They need journalists who are professionally trained in gathering and analyzing information. In addition, they should have the infrastructure and organizational capacity to sustain an economically viable operation. Without adequate investigative capacity, the media would find it hard to satisfactorily accomplish the promotion of good governance.

Achieving good governance requires the understanding and participation of every member of the society. The media, their roles, channels and content, are considered powerful enough to make this achievement a reality. But a great number of existing media channels, and the content they deliver, cannot take up this responsibility adequately because they are not accessible or affordable for all. The work of the media should not divide the citizens into the information-rich and information-poor. In other words, there must be channels which serve the right to know of the people and the interest of the public, without any control either by the state or commercial entities. Such channels must deliver diversity of content to serve the various groups of members of the society. In particular, content must be informative and useful – it can then be turned into knowledge and wisdom which the people can use to eliminate poverty, alleviate hardship, and improve quality of life in the post-modern society.

Mr Anothai Udomsilp is Director of the Academic Institute of Public Media of Thai Public Broadcasting Service