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The Under-Recognized Guardians of Freedom

The importance of media academics, especially those with an appetite for public service, is often under-played.

by Peter Gross 11 February 2019

In this time of concern over journalists' freedom to provide news, information, analysis, and opinions – shaping the views of elites and voters alike – it is easy to focus on that struggle. But there is another line of defense for media and public freedoms – media scholars engaged in research, writing, public service, and the use of the bookish bully pulpit. These scholars receive much less credit, and are much less likely to be noticed outside the hallowed halls of academia.


The upcoming announcement of the winners of the second Media and Democracy Karol Jakubowicz Award offers a chance to stop and reflect on media scholars’ powers to affect change.


April 2019 will mark the sixth anniversary of Dr. Karol Jakubowicz’s untimely death and the second award of the prize, which recognizes innovative scholarly works in the field of media studies. The prize was founded in 2018 by Jakubowicz's widow, together with some of his friends, and under the auspices of the Polish Communication Association.


In his enormous and brilliant contributions to understanding media roles in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989, and in his untiring struggles on behalf of press freedom, fact-based journalism, and the democratization of societies wrestling with the many deficits inherited from their socialist pasts, Jakubowicz set the ultimate example for young academics.


In addition to the many books and articles he wrote, on a wide range of media and journalistic issues, and on their relationships to politics, society, and liberal democracy, this University of Warsaw researcher was actively and personally involved in the processes of change.


In the course of his career in Poland, he served on the editorial board of the African Program of Polish Radio for Foreigners (1970-1979), worked with the Polish Public Opinion Research Center (1979-1990); directed the Polish Television Program Office; headed the (Polish) Radio and Television Reform Commission (1990s); advised the Polish National Broadcasting Council (1993-2013); chaired the supervisory board of Polish Television (1994-1997); and administered the Strategic Analysis and Planning Office of Polish Television (1998-2013).


Success in these national roles led to international recognition and higher-profile, more wide-ranging appointments. Jakubowicz headed a number of committees dealing with media issues at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe (COE).


On Jakubowicz's death in 2013, COE Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland eulogized this unique academic as “a privileged mind, a man with vision and profound knowledge, [and] the capacity to see beyond,” and praised his “hugely respected” work.


To say that we need more media scholars like Jakubowicz is a blatant understatement – and not only because of the current state of media freedom, and deficiencies in media roles and professional journalism. There is a shortage of media scholars who are able and willing to transcend repetitious data-gathering and shallow, context-poor analysis, and to go beyond trying to prove some predetermined, politically correct thesis.


We also need the public at large to appreciate and support academics like Jakubowicz. We need universities and other societal institutions to bolster, protect, encourage, and applaud them. These needs are as important in the West as they are in Central and Eastern Europe and in the rest of the former communist world.


All of us should fervently hope that the recipients of this year's award will meet Jakubowicz’s core standards: devotion to ethics, original scholarship, public service, and liberal democratic values.


It’s a tall, tall order.  However, his standards are desperately necessary ones in a world in which press and academic freedoms, as well as liberal democracy itself, are being threatened. That menace comes from the illiberalism of resurrected ideologies that failed so very spectacularly in the 20th century, their related political correctness, and – in many cases – by the very ineptitude and biases of journalists and scholars themselves.


Right now, Poland, Central and Eastern Europe, and the rest of the world could use an army of Jakubowiczes.

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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