Media Democracy: Non-Discriminatory Access to Radio and TV

18 July 2005
Article
 

Media Democracy: Non-Discriminatory Access to Radio and TV
Jugen Linke

Open Channels are radio and television accessible to anyone and everyone. Making use of Open Channels is making use of the right of free expression that is part of the German constitution.

Open Channels offer everyday people the opportunity to use a camera and a microphone to improve local communication, to establish dialogue between different social groups, and to be both seen and heard.

Open Channels do not compete with professional television. To do this would contradict the idea behind these Channels.

The equipment available has to be easy to handle and does not reach broadcast quality. The short training Open Channel producers receive cannot be compared with the years of training and experience at professional TV stations. Due to these restrictions Open Channel producers are making more with less. The producer has no choice but to work together with other producers. The production itself mostly establishes the first step to communication.

The restrictions at Open Channels turn out to be the advantages for the producers. One big advantage is that there is no tyranny of ratings.

The Open Channel Producer has more freedom and flexibility. He can afford to make changes and risks even to offend a few people. He does not have to sell the products of the sponsors because there are no sponsors. He does not have to serve a broad audience. He can be strictly local and serve specific interests.

Open Channel programming is unpolished, direct and plain, truthful and rough. It is what the producer wants it to be.

There are certain regulations and rules common to all Open Channels in Germany:

  • Open Channels are first come first served channels. Irrespective of how important a producer or his program is or is not, everybody is treated equally!
  • The Open Channel staff does not influence the contents of the productions.
  • The staff does not produce the program. The staff members encourage people to use the Open Channel. They train the producer, support and motivate him.
  • There is no censorship.
  • The producer is legally responsible for the program he wants to be aired. If he breaks the law he will be prosecuted.
  • All commercial activities are forbidden.
  • Using the technical equipment, the training and assistance are free.

The first Open Channel in Germany started in 1984. Now we have almost 60 of these Channels in different parts of Germany and the number is still increasing.

The legislative basis for the Open Channels is to be found in the media laws of different states (lands) of the Federal Republic of Germany.

In Germany everybody receiving radio and television has to pay a set fee that is mainly used to finance the public service TV and radio programs. A small part of the set fee paid in the state (lands) where one or more Open Channels exist is used for funding these Channels.

Open Channel Berlin

The Open Channel Berlin was launched in August 1985 as part of the Pilot-Cable-Project. A former factory site in Berlin-Wedding housed the Open Channel Berlin from the beginning. At that time the location was right next to the East-Berlin border, but due to the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is now almost in the center of town. The buildings are a real media park. Having the French and Canadian television, Deutsche Welle, Reuter TV and a considerable number of other media companies as close neighbors, the Open Channel Berlin managed to assert itself with the self-confidence of a fleur sauvage.

More than 6000 producers have used the Open Channel Berlin. Everyone 18 and over who lives within the region of the German Constitution has the right to use it. Its radio and TV signals are transmitted in the Berlin cable system, which has more than 1.500.000 subscribers. A permanent staff of 13 is employed being responsible for the management, administration, equipment and public relations as well as for the consultation, support and training of the users. For production we offer four TV studios (including two portables), one radio-studio, cameras, microphones, editing facilities, etc.

As in all Open Channels, there is a broad range of topics. One of Berlin's specialties is the fact that the producers of the television programs come from 30 different countries and 30% of the productions are in a foreign language; on radio 10 countries and 10% of the productions. The great need for foreign groups to broadcast in their native language strongly illustrates the idea of Open Channels. All those having no voice in the other media get a chance to speak here.

You are I - A Model for Integration

Introduction

Since August 1985, programs produced by women and Turks, the unemployed and students, homosexuals and artists, Iranians and teachers, homeless persons and pupils, have been transmitted on the Open Channel Berlin. During the blueprint stage preceding the beginning of broadcast activities of the Open Channel Berlin, there were many discussions whether certain fringe groups should be offered a privileged access to the channel. In these discussions German fringe groups took precedence. At this time the opportunity to provide access to cultural and ethnic minority groups was secondary. In spite of this or maybe exactly for this reason, cultural and ethnic minority groups have pretty soon discovered the channel for their own purposes. Special efforts to rouse this interest in the Open Channel Berlin would possibly have had a counterproductive effect or might only have attracted certain interest groups and in this respect would have undermined integration.

Functional Integration

In the following reflection, the term integration need not be understood by the meaning attributed to it by policies that address the social relations with cultural and ethnic minorities. The Open Channel Berlin is itself a social system in which integration can be seen to result from interdependencies, even where there are quite divergent attitudes toward basic social values.

Interdependence No. 1: You transmit because I transmit.

No matter how anti-democratic, radical or fundamentalist a program producer may be, if he crosses the threshold of the Open Channel Berlin, he becomes subject to its rules and regulations. The producer accepts the fact that he is only allowed to transmit because others with quite different views are also allowed to transmit. Each producer claims a democratic and constitutional right - the freedom of speech - and he can exercise this right by observing the equality of this constitutional right enabling all to have the same right of access. By way of his activities at the Open Channel Berlin, the producer demonstrates his participation in the society that is based on equality and freedom for all citizens.

Interdependence No. 2: You transmit because I watch.

Program producers are concerned that their programs are watched or listened to by as many people as possible. Regarding programs made by minority producers there is a large demand among the viewers in their target groups. For these viewers, the programs transmitted by the Open Channel Berlin are often the only means by which to receive transmissions in their mother tongue. Thus, it is no wonder that as early as 1989 the Open Channel Berlin was known to 43 per cent of the immigrant and minority population, and that Turkish programs in particular were well received, scoring audience ratings of 17 per cent (cf. Roters: - Audience without Programs? ).

The willingness to produce and transmit programs by producers and the willingness of viewers to watch and listen form the preconditions for an intense exchange to take place between these two groups. By way of their engagement in the Open Channel Berlin the minority producer can move from the fringes of society into its centre. Producers quickly become public institutions whose views and opinions soon become part of the wider public domain. The public reacts and the producers realise that they are not alone with their views and understand that others have different views thus, through exercising freedom of expression; the producers learn and contribute to the political exchange in a democratic society.

Final remarks or the hopeful social integration

In the Open Channel Berlin producers coming from over 30 nations have transmitted their programs; in television a daily average of four hours of programs are transmitted in foreign languages, by radio a further 1.5 hours. Equal treatment and access by all persons has been the basis for the largely conflict free development of the Open Channel Berlin and the high percentage of foreign and minority producers who feel comfortable using this channel.

Berlin's Municipal Government Representative on behalf of Immigrant Minorities, Mrs. Barbara John, believes that an important part of the successful integration can indeed be attributed to the fact that many non-German groups have seized their opportunities in the Open Channel.

In the Open Channel Berlin, basic democratic values are a practical experience for the producers which they daily address through their own activities - and this is regardless of whether they are non-German or German. This experience unifies: You are me.


Federation of Open Channels
Declaration of the 5th Convention of the German Open Channels
Berlin 1998

We, the members of the Federal Association of Open Channels, declare that

  • Open Channels are local or regional radio or television broadcasting programs produced by citizens. They form the third pillar of the broadcasting system in Germany alongside the public service and the private commercial broadcasting stations and are either partly or wholly financed by license fees.
  • Open Channels are a part of our democratic civilization. They guarantee the basic right to communicate in the radio and on television through free and equal access to these media.
  • Open Channels provide publicity for the opinions of individuals, groups and associations, who are otherwise not represented in the other media. This represents an essential precondition for a functioning democratic process, which lives on the exchange of arguments, continual public debate and the fight for opinions in public.
  • Open Channels impart media competence. They thereby provide the prerequisites for critical and self-determined dealings with the media, which are increasingly influencing the development of our society, in some cases to a disquieting degree.
  • Open Channels are places for local communication. They stimulate social and cultural activities and promote the integration of many different groups within a democratic community.
  • Open Channels support and show solidarity to non-commercial initiatives and organizations both domestically and abroad, who defend and develop the human rights of freedom of communication, information and expression.
  • Open Channels demand that, in the context of the impending digitalization of the methods of broadcasting, there will be a guarantee that their programmes will be collected and fed in both locally and free of charge, that they will become a constituent part of the local or regional programme offer and will be able to participate in pilot and model projects.
  • Open Channels calI upon the state parliaments to provide the legal prerequisites to guarantee their continued existence and development, which will allow more than ten years successful work in currently more than 60 communities to be continued and further developed. This work gains in importance with the increase of antidemocratic tendencies in our society.

13th September1998


4th Convention of the German Open Channels 1997
Open Channels for Europe!
Berlin
November 13 - 16, 1997

Berlin Declaration

We, the participants of the congress Open Channels for Europe!

  • SUPPORT the principles stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on the right to development, and welcome the Amsterdam Protocol to the Treaty of the European Union.
  • AFFIRM that, in the spirit of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the MacBride Commission, the right to communicate - including the right to expression - must be recognised and defended as inalienable for individuals and peoples and as indispensable to the democratisation of societies.
  • AFFIRM that, in the sense of The Peoples Communication Charter, communication should contribute to the empowerment of people to defend human dignity, equality and liberty against pervasive forms of censorship, distorted and misleading information, stereotyped images of gender and race, restricted access to knowledge, and insufficient channels to communicate their ideas and opinions.
  • AFFIRM that guaranteed and non-discriminatory access for the public to all means of communication are essential to the creation and preservation of a democratic process leading to a cohesive Europe built and sustained by its inhabitants.
  • VIEW the ongoing pursuit of deregulation and liberalisation policies in media and communication; the continued growth of poverty, unemployment and exclusion as the increasing risk for reinforcing nontransparent, elitist and undemocratic trends in Europe.

Based on the above, we

  • COMMIT ourselves to building a European coalition for citizens media as part of a global movement for media equity and democratic communication structures. This coalition will encourage and strengthen the effort among groups working at national level, as well as develop and consolidate their cooperation. The coalition will also advocate on a European level the non-discriminatory access for the public to all means of communication as an essential part of the civil right to free expression.
  • CALL UPON the European Parliament and the European Commission, as well as national parliaments and governments in Europe, to recognize that people direct access to information and participation in community television and radio and open channels are indispensable to democratic societies. They are essential for the development, preservation and integration of cultural identity and national, regional and community identities. Thus, they are an important part of the foundation for a Europe for all people.
  • DEMAND that in Europe, as well as on a local and regional level, an adequate legal and economic framework be created which will guarantee for the public non-discriminatory access to all means of communication, all relevant public information and institutions, media policy decision-making processes, and appropriate forms of expression.

Attachments:

Name and organization of signatories
People Communication Charter
Relevant recommendations of MacBride Commission
Art 10 of ECHR
Article 19 of UDHR
Relevant article of Amsterdam Protocol


Berlin's Public-Access Channel in Fight for Survival

Just weeks after its launch, a Munich-based TV news channel pushes for a cable slot in the capital, threatening the grassroots Offener Kanal.

By Didi Kirsten Tatlow

Berlin's only public-access TV station, the Offener Kanal, is fighting for its life in the face of pressure from the conservative Munich-based Pro Sieben TV group, which wants the grassroots station's cable slot for its Nachrichten 24 news channel, Offener Kanal boss Jurgen Linke said yesterday.

Breaking a 1999 Berlin campaign promise and siding with the Christian Democrats, who have long opposed the grassroots channel, Social Democratic spokesman Andreas Kohler last week said the channel, now 15 years old, was not relevant and "an experiment" that could be ended.

"I don't even need to speculate about what's going on here. It's clear that the impulse was N 24," Linke said. He denied the channel had become irrelevant, pointing to its multinational contribution to Berlin's international profile. "There are different criteria you could apply here, but just look at this one: Over the past years we've provided a platform for 30 different nationalities to broadcast in Berlin," he said.

The root of the problem is that Berlin offers only 33 cable-TV slots, making competition fierce. About 60 channels compete annually for the analog spots, said Susanne Grams, spokeswoman for the Medienanstalt Berlin Brandenburg. The authority says competition won't ease up until 2010, when most households are expected to have digital-TV reception. Pro Sieben spokesman Torsten Rossmann confirmed the station was seeking a capital city slot for N 24. Its round-the-clock news channel launched at the end of January.

"Of course, Berlin is for us a very important region, and we have a lasting interest in getting a cable channel," said Rossmann, speaking from the group's headquarters in Munich. "The decision how, and to what extent, to give us a channel hasn't been made yet. That's up to the Berlin media authorities. I can't comment on to what extent this decision will affect the Offener Kanal," Rossmann said.

Grams said while the media authority distributed channels, the decision whether to maintain the Offener Kanal was a political one.

Founded in 1985 and modeled on US public-access TV - which aims to further the freedom of speech of small, special-interest groups - the Offener Kanal provides a TV- and radio-broadcast platform for any legal German resident over the age of 18. It is one of over 70 such channels in Germany and broadcasts 110 hours a week. The channels provide voices in the media that are not dominated by commercial interests.

Opponents say the channel is out of date and a refuge for egomaniacs and the mentally disturbed. They argue the special-interest groups don't reflect society as a whole.

Channel boss Linke called critics "irresponsible" and said the station plays an important role in maintaining German democracy at a time when public confidence in politicians had been shaken with the revelation of CDU slush funds. "The Offener Kanal is relevant - particularly now, at a time when citizens are turned off from politics with this funding scandal, something the SPD has itself said," Linke maintained.

He dismissed speculation that financial reasons lay behind the move to close the channel, pointing out its 1.9 million mark annual subsidy was paid by licensing fees, not taxes. Nor did the SPD's argument that the Internet, not TV, was the proper forum for public discussion, make sense. "N 24 is already on the Internet. If the Internet is good enough for TV stations, why doesn't it just stay there?" asked Linke.


Jugen Linke, Offener Kanal Berlin (Open Channels in Germany)
Voltastr. 5, D-13355 Berlin
Telephone +49 30 464 005-0, Telefax +49 30 464 005-98
email: linke@okb.de