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Media and Politics

Freedom of the press
Decree of Kaiser Ferdinand from 15th March 1848: The Revolution of March 1848, lead by the bourgeoisie and workers, forced Kaiser Ferdinand to meet their stipulations a few days after its beginning: the freedom of press, the creation of a national guard and the elaboration of a constitution.
Source: VGA/AZ - Photo archive


In democratic-political systems, the mass media, in particular press and broadcasting represent the most important mediators concerning the political process of forming opinions. Over a long-term period, during which the media's economical power grew, its importance as an independent factor in these processes increased simultaneously. As a result, regulation of the fundamental principles of mass media became an issue of growing significance in various political fields: since the 1970's media politics, interpreted as an intentional legal standardisation of media systems, constitutes a permanent interest in nearly every political program.

From the 19th century to the present day, a gradual expansion of state regulated media laws can be notified. Therefore, a higher number of topics and fields became the subject of legal concern: not only the classic-liberal demand of protecting media protagonists from state interventions is hereby included, but also the question of a more distinctive interpretation of freedom has been raised. Consequently, media representatives have to accept their institutionalised responsibilities.

One of the most important responsibilities of free media is to check and thereby control state organs, especially the federal government and bureaucracy. To guarantee an effective supervision, a protective framework must be created, ensuring that state activities are open to the public. Since the age of absolutism the call for a disclosure of important decisions, such as the budget and the management of public finances, has been an integral part of democratic values. Legitimised representative bodies for the people could not exist without it.

In principle, it is necessary to distinguish between the different interests of the various social groups and classes, most of all when it comes down to their public attitudes and statements concerning central questions of social politics. Another main responsibility of mass media is therefore to exhibit these interests, to question their credibility and to reflect on them. In consequence, the media is meant to contribute to the formation of public opinion on a democratic basis.

Nevertheless it is imperative to restrict the freedom of reporting and opinion, when the mass media itself or their comments disregard fundamental democratic principles. These limitations concern the protection of the private sphere as well as the preservation of one's economical or personal reputation, provided that the publication of the relevant details is not of important public interest. Moreover there are more seldom cases where public interests (e.g. protection of children and young people, morality) or state interests (e.g. protection of the state, protection of the borders) are endangered, so that these restrictions have to apply.

From a historical point of view, it is thanks to mass media, that in general actions of political protagonists became more transparent. Additionally, politicians developed a more conscious perception of the significance of public explanations concerning important political decisions.

In contrast to the developments of the 19th century, when European governments showed a lack of sensibility in relation to their public responsibilities, the practice of recent years seems to have been reversed. Well-directed information is part of the standard repertoire of political strategists. With the help of the media, the public is often informed earlier about certain questions than their parliament.

After having renounced the one-sided and negative media politics (e.g. the persecution of journalists, legal impediments to avert unobstructed reporting or economical restraints for publishers) most European governments of the 19th Century gradually started to open a new page in their relations to journalism. In an endeavour to win over public opinion, governments started to make better use of their own media (state news agencies, dependent newspapers), but also realised the importance of disseminating specific information (or even transmitting exclusive information to selected journalists).

Theodor Venus
(Last update: 02/2006)

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