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Community based newspapers sometimes claim to be the community’s watchdog. can this be?

Since the establishment of the first modern day newspaper in 1447 there is an on-going debate what the exact role of a newspaper is and whether the claim that the newspaper is the community’s watchdog, is correct.

Newspapers were established by communities for communities with the sole purpose to spread news and information to the masses. As newspapers developed, their purpose became more defined and society driven – to inform, enlighten, educate and entertain. With this shift in role, newspapers also became more localised and that is where community based papers came from.

Society took it upon them to be the watchdogs of their local newspapers and that is where self-censorship of newspapers came from. Society was with happy with this arrangement. They wanted to be educated, informed of what was going on in their community, they needed entertainment and education. That was all.

That was the ideal situation in an ideal world. Until the world changed with the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transport and technology had a profound effect on the socio-economic and cultural conditions in the industrial world or new world. Almost every aspect of human life was overturned. Most importantly average income and living conditions saw unprecedented sustained growth.

This also had an impact on newspapers. Newspapers became a source of revenue for community based owners and the race for establishing newspapers was on.  Newspapers became a cut-throat industry. The first thing that flew out of the window was self-censorship. This was also the first time when the term ‘’yellow-press” was heard of.

In their fight for survival or the struggle to top position, newspapers took up a new role, the role of self-appointed watchdogs. Now they wanted to be the watchdog over every aspect of life, even over the Government of the day. That is when the struggle between government agencies and newspapers started over the question whether they are watchdogs or not.

The answer is clear. They can only be watchdogs if their watchdog role is statutory controlled. For instance, government appoint ombudspersons to guide and regulate the doings of government agencies and thus to protect citizens. Their roles and functions are clearly defined and they know exactly what to do and how to address and solve problems.

Unfortunately there are currently no statutory or other legal grounds for newspapers to claim their right of being the communities’ watchdogs. Their only right or duty is to inform, enlighten, educate and entertain. That is all.