The history of public broadcasting in Africa in relation to elections, democracy and human rights can be mostly summarised in six words, "abuse of power by incumbent governments". This may seem harsh, but this is the truth.
From Egypt to Zimbabwe, Gambia to Ethiopia and in almost every country between the four points of and centre of Africa - North, South, West, East and Central Africa - most governments have converted the power of public broadcasting to the abysmally selfish motive of sustaining themselves in power - indefinitely if possible.
Were this to be of no consequence to the social, political and economic development of African countries and the continent as a whole, this observation could be considered an exercise in intellectual ball juggling. However given the unrivalled power of the broadcast media to shape public opinion, its continued abuse by numerous African governments can be likened to the use of a dis-information nuclear option by governments against their own people.
How has the abuse of the broadcast media by these governments been used to damage the development of Africa and what can be done to end it? The first and most blatant indicator of the abuse of public broadcasting in Africa is its now infamous description as 'state broadcasting'. 'State' radio and television are often seen as one of the prizes of capturing power.
The dangerous consequence of this is that public radio and television are seen as a means to propagate the opinion and agenda of governments or the state to the exclusion of the rest of society. In the 'state' controlled media, the interests of the state are merged with that of the ruling regime, and its leadership. The interests of the leadership in turn become the 'public interest.' The 'state' media is therefore used to, and sees its role as that of promoting the interest of the state, the ruling party or regime and its leadership - all of which have become indistinguishable from each other and the 'public interest'. Going by this, any opinions or events that may be opposed to or embarrass the 'state' are often not transmitted by the state broadcaster since this is assumed not to be in the interest of the public, i.e. state, i.e. leadership of the ruling regime.
The clearest manifestation of this can be seen in the role of the 'state' media during most elections in Africa. The ruling party and its candidates are given wall-to-wall coverage, and everything good that happens is attributed to them with the possible exception of sunrise. The opposition on the other hand are excluded from or allocated the minimum coverage possible, which is almost always bad news. In the present world context of the "war against terrorism", legitimate activity of the democratic opposition could even be portrayed as "terrorist activity". Even paid or sponsored election campaign advertisements are not guaranteed airtime and have been considered subversive. We saw this happen in Zimbabwe and again to a lesser extent during the recent Kenyan elections in December 2002.
Most opposition parties complain bitterly only because they are victims of such abuse. However, their philosophical perception of public broadcasting is no different from that of incumbent governments.
The primary implication of denying the legitimate and democratic opposition appropriate visibility to the public via equitable access to the public broadcast media is the lack of a level playing field for competing political ideas. This applies not only to elections, but also to in-between elections when the 'state' media bombards the public with a constant stream of subtle and overt propaganda.
The secondary implication of this is that anything that is perceived as being of possible help to the opposition is censored by the state controlled broadcast media. Censorship as we know, leads to lack of accountability, and lack of accountability reinforces dictatorship. In countries where the private or independent print media is located mainly in the cities, or where income and illiteracy limit their scope, the broadcast media becomes the eyes and ears of most of society. Since government with the exception of FM stations with limited reach largely controls the broadcast media, state control and abuse of the public media is bound to give governments an unhealthy capacity to control the flow of news and information. Such control lends itself easily to the manipulation of public opinion and thus society.
For instance, where there is an impending famine and tens or even hundreds of thousands are facing mass starvation, as is presently the case in southern Africa and the Horn of Africa, news of this is censored. In other words, the public is denied the benefit of advance warning, knowing the causes of this, and debating potential short and long-term solutions in the public broadcast media. The lack of a collective sense of impending disaster and the opportunity of collective preparation for it means the first that the public knows of a famine is when it has actually hit them.
But state censorship is only fully effective when backed with the full force of the levers of power. This means the subversion of democracy and in particular freedom of expression and opinion by means of manipulating public broadcasting is necessarily followed by the suppression of human rights in general, and media freedom in particular. This highlights the fact that media freedom cannot be secured in isolation from other pillars of democracy such as the right to freedoms of association, assembly, political participation and rights to be free from discrimination and persecution.
It is therefore not out of place to posit that an open and accountable public media, which is guaranteed its editorial independence and facilitates equitable access to all shades of opinion in society is vital alongside other factors, to the sustenance of democracy.
In order to achieve this several specific steps must be taken.
Firstly, civil society must campaign unrelentlessly for the appointment process of boards and senior editorial and management staff of the public broadcast media to be removed from the control of executive arms of government. This campaign must involve all sectors of society, the professional associations, trade unions, NGO's and so forth. The body overseeing these appointments together with parliament must also reflect this diversity.
Secondly, principles of editorial independence and the protection of journalists from political persecution for refusing overtures from political interests must guide parliamentary oversight. This editorial independence must go along with the media's obligation to promote accountability in both the public and other sectors of society.
Thirdly, media freedom must be guaranteed for both the print and electronic, private or independent media.
Fourthly, freedom of expression must be a constitutionally protected right that cannot be curtailed arbitrarily. Civil society must also make it clear, that for the political opposition to be accepted as legitimate, it should also sign up to these principles and not just oppose the government opportunistically.
With specific regard to elections, certain principles are essential and must be institutionalised in respect of the public broadcast media:
- Guaranteed equitable access to publicly owned broadcast media for all political parties.
- A commitment to voter education with respect to the voting process, venues, times, political parties and candidates.
- A limited number of brief and free slots for electoral campaign broadcasts be given to all political parties to outline their programme and candidates at relevant levels of government. This will ensure that at least all parties and candidates are given the equitable visibility necessary for genuine democracy.
- A ceiling on the fees to be charged by all broadcast media for any additional election campaign broadcasts.
- A ceiling on the total number of election campaign broadcasts that any one political party and its candidates can run over the period of the campaigns. This will prevent the outright buying of the elections by parties backed by richer members of society.
- No discounts to any one political party for paid election campaign broadcasts.
- A code of conduct and ethics regarding what is appropriate to run in an election advert or campaign. This will also cover incitement, hate speech, defamation and other standards agreed in advance by all parties.
- No turning away of campaign adverts of any party to the advantage of other parties.
- The rights of reply and correction for candidates that may have been defamed.
- That the publicly owned media must not to be used by incumbent political parties to attack other political parties, and that ruling parties in particular not undermine the editorial independence of the broadcast media.
- Guarantee of the safety and security of journalists, editorial and management staff, and media houses that exercise the right to editorial independence.
- Fair, balanced and equitable news coverage of political party campaign activities especially during news broadcasts. This should include distinguishing between government activities and campaigning.
- An agreement on fair, balanced and equitable coverage of election debates.
- No broadcasting of speculative results that may truncate the will of the electorate and lead to conflict or violence based on electoral disputes. Any results broadcast should be based on results obtained from polling stations and agreed by agents of all parties present. Also, that coverage of disputed results not be broadcast in such a manner that is inflammatory and could lead to violent conflict.
Significantly, these requirements for the public broadcast media to be able to play its role in facilitating democracy are not unique to Africa. Some of these and more are currently applicable in many countries around the world including in Africa. However, many countries around the world including the majority of African ones are yet to institutionalise these and other principles not outlined here. The institutionalisation of these principles is one of the urgent tasks facing African civil society and there must be no delay.
But this is not a task for African civil society alone. The African Union must prove its relevance by not only adopting these principles, but also ensuring that its member states implement them.
* Sankore is Coordinator of CREDO for Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights an international organisation focussing on rights issues in Africa.
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