Post-Communism, Democratisation, and the Media: (Nearly) Thirty Years On

Colin Sparks. Javnost – The Public. Volume 25, Issue 1-2. 2018.


This paper reviews some of the problems raised by the collapse of European communism and their implications for contemporary media theory and practice. Javnost—The Public was set up in the aftermath of those events and analysing them with respect to the media was one of the themes that dominated its first 10 years. Even before the fall of the Berlin wall, the peculiar international situation of the then-Yugoslavia meant that it was possible for intellectuals from both East and West to meet on what passed for neutral ground, and the journal emerged out of the continuing Communication and Culture Colloquia that had begun in the late 1980s. The earliest discussions were largely concerned with theoretical issues about the relationship between media and democracy, but very quickly many of the participants found themselves advising new governments on legislation, sitting on the boards of national broadcasters and travelling Europe as consultants on media reform (Splichal, Hochheimer, and Jakubowicz 1990; Splichal and Kovats 1993).

The issues raised by such far-reaching social and political changes were of central importance both in Europe and more widely. Alongside a strong emphasis on the tragic aftermath of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the journal, from very early on, set the problems of European post-communist democratisation in a much wider context. Alongside prominent writers about European post-communism, notably the late Karol Jakubowicz and Slavko Splichal, the first 10 years of the journal included material on the emergence of Spain from the Franco regime, South Africa after Apartheid and, increasingly, China.

After more than a quarter of a century, many of the questions precipitated by the fall of the Berlin Wall remain unresolved. Regimes that call themselves Communist remain the form of government enjoyed by more than 20 per cent of the world’s population, and there are too many other countries in which even the most elementary democratic rights are denied. Revisiting the debates around issues brought in to focus by the events of 1989-91 is no mere exercise in intellectual history. Because the issues involved are of such a broad scope, this paper can only address a few of those which are most central to the debates about the media. Although the ideas under discussion were originally formulated in a world more or less innocent of the internet, it will also try to show how they retain some interest and validity for the analysis of the radically different media landscape 30 years later.


On any honest account, the regimes in the Warsaw pact countries were stifling, and intermittently very brutal, dictatorships. After the fall of these regimes, many of the societies established new political orders that were imperfectly but recognisably democratic: they allowed a multiplicity of parties, they permitted at least a degree of media freedom and there were contested elections. Countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and, of course, Slovenia had more or less completed a transition from dictatorship to democracy. Others like Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia were struggling with various stages of such a transition. The post-communist countries were in a category with a very enduring label: they were transitional societies.

This categorisation placed them alongside a host of other countries, including the Iberian fascist states, the military dictatorships of South America, racist South Africa and the other Communist states around the world. They were all said to be societies which were at various stages in the transition from different kinds of authoritarian government towards democracy. In popular political rhetoric, they were partaking in the end of history and in scholarly political science, they were subject to the special sub-discipline of Transitology (Fukuyama 1992; Schmitter and Karl 1994).

In essence, Transitology tended to follow Schumpeter’s minimalist definition of democracy, for which only periodic contested elections were required to qualify (Di Palma 1990). Democracy was embodied in the “originator countries” of the North Atlantic seaboard and it was towards these conditions that other, undemocratic, countries were evolving (O’Donnell 2000, 6-11). Such societies embody the best possible form of government and history everywhere is moving all societies in this direction (O’Donnell 2001a, 124). Transitology thus has a strong teleological dimension to it, claiming that there is an end towards which human society is evolving (O’Donnell 2001b, 143-144).

In common with most political science, at least until very recently, Transitologists had only the most cursory things to say about the place of media in a democratic society: usually a couple of sentences about the need for a free media was considered sufficient. In the discussions about post-communist societies, however, there was a substantial current of thought, some of its members closely associated with Javnost, that employed this approach to analyse media changes (Gross 2002; Jakubowicz 2003; Mickiewicz 1999). Despite the long passage of time, it remains a strongly established way of thinking about such problems (Voltmer 2013).

Quite apart from the impoverished view of democracy entailed in this approach, the passage of time has accumulated a body of evidence which suggests that Transitology provides, on the most generous interpretation, only a partial account of reality. The trajectories of many countries have generally been more complex than, and sometimes directly contradictory to, the claims of Transitology (Bönker, Müller, and Pickel 2002). Some countries, Slovenia and the Czech Republic for example, seem to have “made the transition” successfully. Some, Poland and Hungary for example, seemed to have done the same but more recently are displaying some worrying symptoms of authoritarianism. Others, the Russian Federation and Belarus, seemed to be making chaotic progress in generally the right direction but have subsequently reversed course towards much more authoritarian regimes. In Central Asia, a number of the former Soviet Republics have changed names and economic models but remained highly authoritarian. Thinking in terms of democratisation more broadly, Thailand has experienced three military coups over the period since 1991 and is still ruled by the victors in the most recent, 2014, overthrow of a democratic government. On the other hand, some countries, notably China, display not the slightest sign of any move towards democratisation.


The states of the Warsaw Pact were, to a greater or lesser extent, autarchic command economies in which political and economic power was monopolised by the leadership of the Communist Parties on a collective, rather than an individual, basis. One of the immediate fruits of 1989-91 was a rapid shift towards an economy in which the market played a predominant role and in which much productive property, through processes that were often far from transparent, fell into the hands of private individuals (Barnes 2006). The situation in the media, notably the printed press, provided an excellent illustration of the processes involved. With the notable exception of Poland, existing newspapers were seized by their journalists and, very often, sold wholly or in part to foreign companies (Giorgi and Pohoryles 1994; Jakab and Gálik 1991). At the same time, there was an explosion of new titles, ranging from the powerful and enduring like Gazeta Wyborcza to thousands of transitory publications. There is absolutely no question that, across a range of subjects from politics to pornography, the collapse of communism was accompanied by an explosion of information, opinion and entertainment.

From the point of view at least some of the Transitologists, this was an entirely predictable development. In their account, the market and political democracy are inextricably bound up with each other: “Does political democracy require or depend upon a market economy? Here is one question where caution is not called for: the answer is a resounding yes” (Berger 1993, 3). To the extent that political scientists engage with theoretical questions about the nature of the media, they share the widespread view that private ownership and market competition are the defining features of “free” media and are therefore essential for the functioning of a democratic society.

Once again, there are substantial empirical grounds for doubting whether this is an adequate account of the realities of post-communism. The first is the very familiar critique of the ways in which, while the market does indeed permit the flourishing of alternatives when it is first introduced, it ruthlessly prunes the vast majority of media ventures, which find it impossible to sustain themselves economically. On its own, the media market sustains those titles and channels, and only those titles and channels, which can establish a successful business model. This may result in a plurality of outlets or a monopoly, depending upon the characteristics of the medium and of the market in which it is operating. In the newspaper press, for example, the freest of free markets has led in the USA to a concentration of ownership and the dominance of local monopolies, whereas in the UK there is a competitive but highly stratified national daily press.

The second objection is that the market in media was never exclusively a market which reflected public preferences. Three forms of revenue are commonly available to media: subsidy, either public or private; subscription and advertising. In most countries, even the USA, there is a mixture of forms of funding for different media. However, historically, in market societies, advertising has been the most important source of revenue – at its peak accounting for perhaps 85 per cent of US newspaper revenues, for example. Advertising is not a democratic medium: it is interested not in the equal citizen but in the highly unequal consumer, and it tends to expend its revenues disproportionately on those with a high disposable income. A similar, but rather less extreme, tendency to, in the jargon, “super-serve the elite” is also true of subscriptions, which are more readily affordable by wealthy individuals than by the poor. A market-driven media will therefore, whatever the political structure within which it operates, tend to reflect the aim of owners and advertisers to reach richer groups rather than seek to serve all citizens equally.

Recent developments have added an additional twist to this picture. It has been known for 20 years that the internet and other digital media represent a more efficient vehicle for advertising than do print or broadcasting, and advertising has thus begun to drain away from these legacy media. In the case of newspapers, the decline in advertising revenue has been extremely severe and threatens the future of many titles. There have been four responses. The first is cost reduction through staffing reductions, which entails a narrower and shallower diet of news provision. The second has the erosion of the boundary between editorial and advertising through the development of “native advertising” and other forms of promotional journalism. The third, which has not yet reached a high level, is the closure of titles and the increased domination of the market by the strongest outlets. The final response, which is to increase the direct cost of news consumption, acts to reinforce the discriminatory effects of pricing structures. These developments have been observed, in different forms, in societies as diverse as China and the USA.

The final objection to the market as panacea for democratic media is that there are many examples of marketisation without democratisation, either in general or in the media. The egregious example is China, in which, as is extremely well known, there are no free and independent media and no evidence of democracy, either in general or in the media. These media have been, for at least 30 years, highly dependent upon subscription and advertising revenues to survive and prosper (Zhao 1998). Today, in any large Chinese city, there are numerous newspapers and at least five major television channels, all competing for audiences and revenues. All are, of course, directly under the control of the Communist Party. In the early days of marketisation, outside observers anticipated that the need for readers and viewers, both in terms of subscriptions and advertising appeal, would lead to a conflict of interest between the newspapers and the Communist Party. There have been some such incidents, but they have never been generalised and, since the early years of this century, the consensus of opinion has been that the Party and the market have found a way to live together in the media, as much as they have in the broader society. One of the most undemocratic states in the world has not only accommodated itself to the market but actually promoted it, in the media as much as in any other area.

Political Change

The changes in 1989-91 were real revolutions, even though some observers worried that there might not really have been enough violence to qualify for this title. In fact, although there was some violence in Russia and Romania, and a huge amount of bloodshed in the civil wars that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia, in most cases the conflicts never came to armed struggle. The major reason for this rests with one of the genuine insights of the Transitological School. They concluded, based on the study of a wide range of examples, that “All transitions to democracy are negotiated: some with representatives of the old regime, some only among the prodemocratic forces seeking to form the new system” (Przeworski 1992, 122). In the European Communist states, notably Russia, Poland and Hungary but, embryonically at least, everywhere else as well, there were divisions within the old regime and the reform faction provided interlocutors with oppositional forces (Bruszt 1990; Gibbs 1999, 66ff; Wesołowski 1990). The deep divisions within the ruling class meant that there was seldom the will, or the ability, to use the state to crush opposition as had been the case in 1953, 1956, 1968 or 1981.

Once the immediate transitional period was over, in all of these cases there were sharp changes in the political structure and a rapid change in the governing parties. Before the transformation, political power was everywhere a permanent monopoly of the Communist Parties, afterwards there was a wide range of groups and parties who competed for power. After this political revolution, the economic system was, more or less rapidly, transformed. Before 1989 the economies were, theoretically at least, centrally directed command economies with limited international exchanges. After 1989, productive property was transferred to private ownership, market forces were introduced and the economies were opened to the world.

So extensive were these changes that it was a commonplace, shared by the current author, to imagine that the marketisation of the economy could only have taken place as a result of a political revolution (Sparks and Reading 1998). So firm was the grip of the communist parties upon politics, so pervasive was their penetration of all of the levers of power in society, so complete was their control of the ideological universe, that it seemed impossible that they could ever be removed from power without some sort of revolution and that, so long as they retained power, the command economy would be unchallengeable.

This perspective, it turns out, was completely mistaken. It was, first of all, based on an underestimation of the extent to which the transfer of state property to private hands had proceeded before 1989. The ways in which the nomenklatura and their families were transforming themselves into private businesspeople had been noted by the Hungarian sociologist Elemer Hankiss even before the negotiated transition, and subsequent research has demonstrated that such processes were taking place very widely, for example in Russia, well before the regimes collapsed (Hankiss 1988; Solnick 1998). From this perspective, the “liberal” wing of the bureaucracy that was prepared to negotiate with the opposition represented a social tendency towards the transformation of the economy into a private capitalist form.

The second point is that the victory of the liberal wing of the bureaucracy and the dismantling of Communist Party rule is not a necessary condition for the systematic extension of market forces. China in 1989 had its liberal wing of the bureaucracy, personified in the Party General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, who did indeed negotiate with the students occupying Tiananmen Square. In this case, however, the counter-revolutionary faction led by Deng Xiaoping won the inner-party struggle and launched the Tiananmen massacre. The crushing of public opposition, and the permanent house arrest of Zhao Ziyang until his death in 2005, was not accompanied by a reversion to a command economy but a long and very successful development of private capitalism in partnership with the state.

It is clear that there is no necessary link between the dismantling of a command economy and a move towards political democracy. This process has taken place under conditions of democracy, in the Czech Republic, under increasing authoritarianism, in the Russian Federation, under conditions of outright authoritarianism, in the Central Asian republics, and under conditions of continued Communist Rule, in China.


These developments suggest that it is necessary to rethink the events of 1989-91, the successes and failures of the broader range of struggles for democratisation and the cases in which there has been no democratisation whatsoever. If we review the range of more or less successful struggles for democracy, we find some surprising similarities. In all of them, irrespective of whether the forms of property changed or remained the same, there is a high degree of continuity of the economic elite. Conversely, there is also a high degree of continuity amongst workers and peasants. In all of them, there is a remarkable degree of institutional continuity, including amongst media institutions. The major field in which we can point to sharp differences is in political power. At one extreme we have South Africa, where the white political elite has been more or less completely replaced by a black political elite. At the other extreme, we have China, in which the old political elite remains unchallenged and has even developed a marked hereditary dimension. In between the two extremes, there are a range of replacements, re-brandings and renewals. In no cases has power been dispersed and nowhere have workers and peasants, or journalists for that matter, been empowered to run their own lives. Democracy, understood in the narrow Schumpeterian sense, has been secondary consideration in the mechanisms by which the elite has ensured its continuation and its renewal.

We can see that, from this perspective, the ruling classes in these societies are attempting to achieve four goals. The first is to ensure their continued class power. The second is to renegotiate their relationship with the world market. The third is to come to an accommodation with new social forces and to admit at least some of them to elite ranks. The final one is to renegotiate their relationship with the mass of the population, and it is here that democratisation may play a role. It is one of the options for enabling the continued power of the ruling class. Sometimes it is adopted willingly. Sometimes it is the only option available. Sometimes it is rejected. In all of these options, the media remain firmly and directly in the hands of the ruling class, either in its political or its economic manifestation, and is permitted the degree of independence that is judged compatible with social continuity.