The Impact of Democratic Deficits on Electronic Media in Rural Development

Robin Koert


In the second half of the 1990s the enthusiasm for the potential of ICTs, or electronic media, to facilitate, or even to create, economic development in developing countries was buoyant. In a sense, ICTs were expected to create information flows which would no longer be limited by geographical boundaries. As a result, experts on rural development in developing countries claimed that, finally, people in rural areas in developing countries would have access to huge amounts of information. Those same experts also typically envisaged the advent of free flows of information, which would elude conventional restrictions on information flows imposed by nation-states concerned with the impact of such free information flows on government power. Governments, so it seemed, would no longer be capable of denying their citizens access to the large pools of information available through the Internet.

Amidst the enthusiasm for the "liberating potential" of ICTs, I decided to conduct in-depth research on the validity of the widely accepted premise that the influence of the political situation in a nation-state on the free flow of information was rapidly diminishing. The basic assumption of my research was that the value of the "democratic deficit" of a nation-state would be more decisive for the actual role of ICT in rural development than the intrinsic interactivity of ICTs. In order to test the basic assumption, I conducted field research in Indonesia (1998), Peru (1999) and Vietnam (1998). The qualitative research data suggested that the level of interactive use of ICT in rural development efforts appears, to a large extent, to be determined by the state of democracy in a nation-state. Unsurprisingly, the research data indicated that the value of the "democratic deficit" increased from Peru, through Indonesia, to Vietnam. At the same time, the level of interactivity of ICTs in rural development decreased in the opposite direction.

In this paper I will present the main results and conclusions of the research, which indicate that, despite the unique and acknowledged de-centralizing features of the Internet, governments continue to be capable of controlling information flows, either through political or economic restrictions on the use of ICT, or electronic media. Although this may not be a revolutionary finding, it is a conclusion which serves as a reminder that the way technology eventually contributes to rural development by and large is still determined by the nature of the socio-political and economic context of a given nation-state.

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