Citizen participation in the political life of local communities and in the decisions taken by local public administrations is an important aspect of democracy-building. It is a mechanism for the effective external monitoring of government work, but also a means for making public policies that are close to actual citizen needs. The likelihood that public policies are based on actual citizen needs increases together with participation, and citizens are more likely to support decisions reached as a result of participatory practices. In addition, citizen participation is considered a possible solution for the problem of ”democratic deficit”, manifested in the growing distrust of citizens towards governments, lower voter turnout and overall political apathy and skepticism towards established democratic values, procedures and institutions. In that sense, participation is especially suitable for the local government level, as decision-making processes at that level are relatively close to citizens, and the implications of the adopted decisions are quickly felt within local communities (see Mišić-Mihajlović and Jusić; also see Isanović in this publication).
However, for participation to occur at the local level in the first place and for it to be meaningful and successful, a number of important conditions need to be met, such as a stimulating legal framework, citizen trust in local government and the existence of a strong civil society. Additional requirements include support of participatory activities by political actors, a certain level of openness and transparency of local government, as well as developed capacities of local governments to meet the needs of participatory processes (Ibid.). Finally, for participation to happen at all, it is important for citizens to have access to relevant information on the work of local government, on political options and participatory mechanisms at their disposal, as well as overall activities within the local community. The extent to which citizens are informed becomes an important motivational factor and a prerequisite for their participation in the political life of their local community (see Gosselin in this publication).
Given the importance of well-informed citizens for the development of citizen participation, and for the overall development of democracy at the local community level, this book focuses precisely on the elements and processes required for providing sound information to citizens within local communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H). This is why we have placed a special emphasis on the key actors of these communication processes — the media and local governments.
Local media are the primary source of information on the work of local governments, as well as on the political, cultural and other relevant events within the local community. If they perform their function well, they constitute an important mechanism through which citizens can participate in the public life of their community, articulating their interests and deliberating on government performance. However, to ensure their informative function, quality, substantial and diverse media reporting on locally relevant topics is necessary, as well as a media sphere that is open towards different, often opposed, actors.
At the same time, local government is becoming an ever more prominent communicator in the local community. This is a result of a number of factors and processes, such as the gradual development of communication capacities of municipal administrations; institutionalization of public relations as an important segment of local government work; communication technologies and tools that are becoming more user-friendly, inexpensive and widespread; as well as the growing demand for greater transparency and accountability of local governments towards citizens. In addition, the local administration is becoming an increasingly important source of information for local media. All of these factors place the local government at the very center of communication processes within the local community, transforming it into a key communication actor in this new environment (see Isanović as well as Mišić-Mihajlović and Jusić; also see Gosselin in this publication). In line with this thematic approach, the chapters of this book can be divided into two groups: those that primarily deal with the role of local media as key actors in communication processes at the local level, and those that deal with local government and the way in which it establishes communication with citizens at the local community level. Together, the five chapters provide a systematic and multidimensional insight into the key institutions, mechanisms and communication practices within local communities, pointing towards the complexity of the communicative interactions that take place between media, local municipal administrations and citizens.
In the first chapter, Tania Gosselin lays out a theoretical framework for understanding the links between local media, democratic government and citizen participation in local community life, analyzing local media within wider theoretical and empirical debates on the role of media and their influence on different actors at the local level. In that sense, the paper is primarily focused on the link between local media and politics, within the specific context of post-communist societies. Proceeding from the concept of media systems and analytical dimensions developed by Hallin and Mancini, Gosselin first identifies the key characteristics of media in post-communist societies of Central and Eastern Europe, subsequently focusing on mechanisms that local media can use to influence citizens, institutions and processes, and in that manner significantly participate in the political life of a local community.
Local media are the main source of information on local events, political actors and the work of local governments, and are thus an important factor for creating the preconditions for well-informed political choices by citizens. In addition, local media can foster citizen engagement within the local community, and can be an important element in creating a sense of belonging in a community. Finally, local media significantly influence the behavior of local governments and elected citizen representatives in local councils. However, looking at the example of B&H and other post-communist countries, it becomes evident that the media are facing a number of obstacles in fulfilling their democratic role, such as political parallelism; fragmentation of the media sector and audiences; a lack of citizen trust; shortcomings of media regulation; and inadequate mechanisms for financing media. In such conditions, as this chapter concludes, significant support by external factors is necessary to truly accomplish the democratic role of local media.
Tarik Jusić and Sanela Hodžić provide a systematic overview of the local media scene and existing public media policies and practice in B&H, observing local media in the wider context of the media sector in the country, as well as current international trends in this area. The paper starts with the assumption that the development of democratic processes at the local level depends to a significant degree on the availability of relevant local media content. However, the experiences of other countries show that a conducive legal and institutional environment is needed for the creation of a sufficient amount of quality content relevant to local communities. Unfortunately, the legal framework and regulation and public policies in B&H do not adequately stimulate the development of local media and the production of local media content of public interest. As a result, the existence of a large number of local media is not a guarantee of plurality of relevant local content or adequate representation of local communities in the media, especially in an environment where their independence from political power centers is not ensured and where their capacities for the production of content of significance for the local public are not supported. Therefore, the future of local and regional media, as well as the future of local media content of public interest will depend on a number of public policies directed at creating a healthier market, legal, regulatory and institutional environment in B&H.
Kate Coyer and Joost van Beek begin their chapter with the assumption that community media play an important role in the exercise of communication rights as a democratic cornerstone, such as the right of freedom of access to information and freedom of expression without fear and pressure. Across Europe, the role of community media is becoming more pronounced, as they are growing into a formal ”third sector” of broadcasting, in addition to public broadcasters and commercial media. At the same time, the development of community media in B&H, especially non-profit radio stations directed towards local communities, is facing a number of obstacles, such as an inadequate regulatory environment that does not encourage financial sustainability or the ignorance of local officials regarding the potentials of community media, as well as overall national and political polarization where support to individual media is observed only through the lens of political conflict and interest.
In the remaining two chapters, the focus shifts from media to the local government as an important factor in communication processes within the local community.
Snežana Mišić-Mihajlović and Mirna Jusić deal with communication practices and mechanisms employed by local governments in B&H to encourage direct citizen participation in decision-making processes, and look into how this field is regulated by law. Informing citizens is considered the key prerequisite for their motivation and ability to participate in the political life of a local community. The authors assert that, to some extent, there is currently a disruption in communication between the local government and citizens in B&H, which represents an obstacle to citizen participation in decision-making processes at the local level. This disruption is most clearly manifested in the lack of continuous, systematic, institutionalized communication, which adversely affects the level of citizens' knowledge about mechanisms, reasons and goals of participation at the local level, and encourages political apathy and mistrust of citizens towards local government. Within local administrations, there is evidently a low level of understanding of the importance of communication for the political life of the local community, as well as for the efficient operation of the local government itself. In addition, the legal framework and municipal acts do not sufficiently stimulate the development of proactive communication practices of the local government.
Finally, Adla Isanović's paper points to the potential of information and communication technologies (ICT) for the development of democracy, political participation of citizens and more transparent work of local government. This potential is increasingly important in light of the political apathy and growing distrust of citizens towards government institutions and political leaders, which represents a serious problem for democracy in B&H. Modern ICT offer an opportunity for the revitalization of democracy by offering the prospect of new communication models between citizens, public institutions and political actors, thus creating preconditions for new modes of citizen participation in decision-making on issues of public interest. The author investigates to what extent and in what manner municipal authorities in B&H use new ICT for the promotion and development of citizen participation. The research is especially focused on municipal websites, indicating that the use of these communication technologies is still at an early development stage in Bosnian-Herzegovinian municipalities: websites are primarily informative, to a lesser extent user-friendly, and slightly or not at all participatory. In other words, the potentials of the new technology are not utilized enough to significantly encourage online participation of citizens. Local governments use online technologies primarily as a channel for their own promotion, and not as a space for democratic participation and deliberation, thus missing an opportunity to bridge the gap disconnecting them from the local community.
With this structure, the publication and its individual chapters try to make a modest contribution to the understanding of communication processes at the local level in B&H, with a focus on the role of local media and local governments as primary actors in these processes. Research on the subject has been scarce — it is almost impossible to find research papers on either local media or local government communication practices in B&H. This is more than a sufficient reason for publishing this collection of research papers, especially having in mind the scope and dynamics of reform processes that the local governments and the media system in B&H have been undergoing in the past fifteen years and that have remained largely undocumented and unknown to the wider public.
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