The infrastructure of communications is an indicator of the participatory quality of a democratic society. Ideally, the media in a democratic society help create a public sphere in which a critical nongovernmental voice is formed; they perform a checking function against government abuses; and they inform the public, helping to shape a citizenry capable of assuming the duties of making the intelligent decisions necessary for sound choices.
Underlying this idea of the role of communications in reinforcing democracy are a group of assumptions about law and the role of law. In the United States, the role of government is somewhat circumscribed in its capacity to energize or structure media so as to achieve these goals. Government can impose obligations on broadcasters to provide candidates better access to the airwaves or prohibit overcharging for political advertising. Yet, in terms of foreign policy, the United States has sought to shape media in transition societies, such as in the former Soviet Union, on the grounds that a better media structure will lead to a more stable democracy.
Part of this effort involves indicating to parliaments in other societies what elements of law are important to create an enabling environment for a democratic media. These elements almost always include constitutional provisions. AFIRST AMENDMENT model is usually preferred, but many societies opt for a version of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The United States's view is generally that there should not be an elaborate media law; but often in these transition societies a comprehensive press and BROADCASTING law, which includes a statement of positive contributions that should be obtained in terms of information and its relationship to democratic processes, is enacted.
But such an enabling environment also includes defamation and LIBEL laws, preferably with exemptions for a broad range of criticisms of public officials. Omnipresent are licensing provisions for electronic media, but the general pattern?reflected in American practice?is that the press should not be licensed. Many societies provide special rights, privileges, and responsibilities for accredited journalists, while others accord no special status to journalists. These differences, and how they are implemented, can have a substantial impact on the contribution of a media law to an appropriate enabling environment.