The Media in Transitional Democracies

Katrin Voltmer: The Media in Transitional Democracies.
Cambridge, UK: Polity Press 2013.

Reviewed by Michael Meyen


This book is a must-read for everyone who is interested in both mass media systems and comparative communication research. Katrin Voltmer, senior lecturer at the University of Leeds, “provides a synopsis of a large range of regional and case-specific research on media in transitional democracies” (p. 7). Focusing on regime changes of the third wave of democratization, the content is basically twofold. On the one hand, Voltmer “explores whether the media act as a force that promotes or inhibits transitions to democracy”. On the other hand, she „turns to the question of how the media themselves are affected by the transition process and how their institutions and practices are transformed in the course of rebuilding the political regime” (p. 8).


Voltmer-MediaTransDemocThe book’s first key plus point is Voltmer’s courage towards generalizations. Looking at regions as diverse as Latin America, Eastern and Southern Europe, Africa or Asia, nobody knows outcomes and structures of all the different mass media systems to the tiniest detail. Yet, Katrin Voltmer successfully not only summarizes the widely dispersed literature on her two subjects, but also provides ample food for future research. The best example of this is her differentiation of four “pathways to democratization” (p. 115). The idea behind the notion of “path dependency” is quite a simple one: “the characteristics of the old regime still shape the way in which new institutions are designed and how they operate” (p. 116). Voltmer distinguishes between four authoritarian regime types, each of which has by and large “dominated a particular geopolitical region”: military dictatorship (Latin America), communist one-party rule (“Eastern Europe under the hegemony of the Soviet Union”), one-party rule in Contexts of statism (Asia, especially East Asia), and personalized one-party rule in contexts of weak state institutions (sub-Saharan Africa, p. 120). This theoretical idea is followed by a brief but distinctive description of mass media’s role in each of the four regime types. “Surely, they all used the media as propaganda tools and imposed censorship and controls on what could be reported and what not. But the degree and nature of the media’s entrenchment in the regime differed considerably” (p. 121).


At least as important as the focus on path dependency is Voltmer’s second underlying concept. Throughout the book, she argues “that norms relating to democracy and the media are ambiguous, fluid and contextual”. Voltmer understands “democracy and press freedom as social constructs that are interpreted in the contexts of existing cultural premises and values and hence take on very different meanings and forms” (p. 219). If this concept is taken seriously, it has profound implications for comparative empirical research including surveys on journalists’ role perceptions and expert interviews on media freedom.


There is at least one more connection to comparative research on mass media structures. Drawing on Hallin and Mancini’s (2004) four dimensions that could constitute a starting point for the analysis of media systems (the state and the institutions of power, information and entertainment markets, political parallelism, journalistic professionalism), Voltmer provides specific subcategories for future research. The chapter regarding the state, for example, first distinguishes “between two evils: dominant and weak state” (p. 134). Then, Voltmer covers the main issues of media legislation (freedom of information laws, libel laws, regulating media structures – first and foremost broadcast regulation). Finally, the structural regulation of media organizations is divided into four areas (licensing, the appointment of personnel, funding, and regulatory authorities).


The book’s final lines are a call for organizations such as the Munich Media Research Institute: “More conceptual efforts of ‘de-Westernizing’ research are needed to understand the emerging hybridity of media practices in their specific political, social and cultural contexts. There is also a need for more comparative research” (p. 227).


Recommended Citation Form

Michael Meyen: Review of Katrin Voltmer, The Media in Transitional Democracies. In: Michael Meyen (ed.): Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich 2016. (access date).

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