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The media landscape in Africa is quite diverse. And although spirited campaigns for media freedom and freedom of expression have resulted in the repeal of repressive laws in some countries, old and new challenges persist. Now there are interesting debates about the place of the media in the continent’s development

In May, Malawian President Joyce Banda had a nasty spat with the media in her country. The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi Chapter had requested the president to sign the Declaration of Table Mountain. The document urges African leaders to show their commitment to media freedom by abolishing ‘insult laws’ and criminal defamation which have landed many journalists in prison and crippled newsrooms around the continent.

President Banda hit the roof upon receiving the MISA request. One news report quoted her declaring at a political rally that being a woman did not mean she was ‘stupid and has no brain.’ It is not clear how the president’s gender entered MISA Malawi’s request for her support for media freedom.

‘They gave me five days to sign the document. When I consulted my lawyers, they said they knew nothing of the document. On legal matters, I consulted the attorney general and he had not seen the document, how would I sign?’ Mrs Banda ranted. ‘Even Britain has not signed the document, why are African leaders not signing the document? The whole of the SADC [Southern African Development Community"> region leaders are refusing to sign the document, why me? Is it because I am a woman?’

But MISA Malawi on their part denied holding a gun to the president’s head demanding her signature on the declaration. The Chairperson Anthony Kasunda said they had followed all the right procedures.

President Banda’s attitude towards the media as reflected in this reaction is quite telling. According to media reports, she did not say anything about the merits or otherwise of The Declaration of Table Mountain. It is a short document of two pages. And it was issued way back in 2007. But apparently, the only legal opinion on the document the president got from her lawyers and the country’s chief attorney was that they had not seen it. In any case Britain (well?), African and SADC leaders had not signed it. (How did the president know this, apparently having never heard of the document?) And so on and so forth…

We recall this incident as we reflect on the media in Africa, which is the subject of this special issue of Pambazuka News. Overall, there is nothing peculiar about President Banda’s outburst against journalists and their quest for media freedom. It is the likely attitude of officialdom throughout Africa. Sometimes the reaction is worse, as numerous media watchdog reports and several articles in this issue show.

African citizens vote for progressive constitutions with a Bill of Rights that enshrines freedom of expression and of the media. Governments go on to sign on behalf of their citizens lofty international declarations on these fundamental freedoms. Upon election into office (selection is more like it), presidents swear to God/Allah to uphold and defend the letter and spirit of the constitution. But the same political class is in reality invariably unwilling to let citizens enjoy these rights meaningfully. Some of them are utterly allergic to the very notion of the media putting them under the spotlight. In their minds and those of their supporters, the media should ‘promote development’ by covering only positive news about the country and ignore the rot that often accompanies the exercise of public power.

The Table Mountain Declaration that sent Malawi’s Joyce Banda choking on her own venom states that ‘Africa urgently needs a strong, free and independent press to act as a watchdog over public institutions.’ Media freedom, the document continues, ‘remains a key to the establishment of good governance and durable economic, political, social and cultural development, prosperity and peace in Africa, and to the fight against corruption, famine, poverty, violent conflict, disease and lack of education’.

No one, not even Joyce Banda and other abysmal media predators around Africa, can doubt this. Indeed many times one hears politicians at various forums echoing exactly this sentiment when commenting on the role of the media in the advancement of their nations. But few of them honestly believe their own rhetoric. Because they are in politics for power and money, they know deep in their dark hearts that strong, free and independent media is a threat to their careers. So they devise ways of emasculating it.

How many citizens in any African country enjoy the protection offered by ‘insult laws’ or criminal defamation that curtail media freedom? It is the political class and the moneyed elite, not ordinary citizens, who are shielded from public scrutiny and criticism by those laws, whose net outcome is entrenching impunity. How then can anyone even talk about ‘thriving democracy’ or ‘emerging democracies’ in Africa when there are laws that expressly protect leaders from being held to account by the people who voted them to power? Laws that are contrary to democratic constitutions and international conventions that those same governments have ratified?

In President Jacob Zuma’s South Africa, the African National Congress-dominated parliament approved in April the Protection of State Information Act, under which whistleblowers and journalists who expose corruption and other issues of public interest could end up in prison. South Africans are supposed to believe that that is how their post-apartheid regime is going about serving them.

Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, shuts down radio stations and newspapers that irritate him - or whenever he wants to distract public attention from pressing national concerns - without reference to any law. In Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, critical journalists lie dead in their graves, are doing time in prison or have fled to exile. Ditto Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea and several other ‘free’ nations that are proud members of the African Union.

At the height of the crackdown on pesky FM radio stations in 2010, Mr Ofwono Opondo, the Deputy Spokesman for Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement told a journalist that: ‘What I can tell you about [President Museveni"> is that he doesn’t have regard for the Ugandan media because he thinks they are ignorant about what they write and broadcast. He thinks a few of them do not go beyond cheap politicking to have their facts right and deep understanding of issues.’ There is no evidence that Museveni’s arrogant view has changed today.

During the 53rd ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights in Banjul, Gambia, in April the Arid Lands Institute decried the now widely known repression of the media and the shroud of fear covering Ethiopia as follows:

‘What distinguishes humans from animals is not the capacity to think but the capacity of humans to express what they think in speech and writing. If that capability is deprived, humans are reduced to the level of animals. Today, the Ethiopian people are reduced to this deplorable level. Ethiopia, the seat of the African Union and the Economic Commission for Africa and considered as the symbol of African independence, has relinquished this prestige by muzzling its own people from expressing what they think.’

But media freedom in Africa goes beyond repression by the state. Capitalist greed is also a culprit. A few years ago, Uganda’s largest newspaper, New Vision, carried an editorial that said: ‘Of late there is increasing pressure from businesses on media companies. Some companies have thrown caution to the wind and dangle the dollar to influence coverage. This has gone to absurd extremes with advertisers entering unholy relationships with unprofessional journalists to tilt coverage.’

Influential media houses in Africa, as elsewhere, are successful businesses pursuing profits for the shareholders. Cutthroat competition for advertising revenues sometimes has serious implications for media professionalism in a world where news and entertainment have become heavily commoditized. It is unlikely that a media house can do an exposé on a company that gives them a million dollars worth of advertising a year, or rake up muck about a firm in which the directors of the media house are shareholders.

In the past 20 years, Africa has witnessed an unprecedented mushrooming of radio stations following the liberalization of the airwaves from the 1990s. But the content of many of the radio stations leaves a lot to be desired. It is mostly entertainment in the form of music and banter without any useful programming. The whole idea is to build audiences and attract advertisers.

Addressing the 54th General Assembly of the International Press Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2005, His Highness the Aga Khan, founder of Eastern Africa’s largest media empire, the Nation Media Group, summed all this up quite appositely. His capitalist bent aside, the Ismailia spiritual leader deserves quoting at length:

‘Too often, those who set the media agenda see it primarily as a business agenda. Too often the measure of media success is simply financial profit. I think this attitude is wrong -- it often makes for manipulative media, distorting and misleading in a narrow pursuit of readers and ratings. It means that journalism is subordinated to entertainment, and that the need to inform must yield to the need to please. Responsible and relevant reporting is not the priority in that business model. Instead, the power of the press is used to turn traditional value systems on their heads; to take what is really quite unimportant and to make it seem very important, to take what is trivial and to make it seem titillating.’

It is difficult to contradict that conclusion.

Related to this is the issue of media ownership and its effect on freedom of journalists. Where media houses are owned by politicians, or where the owners have strong political affiliations, it may be impossible for journalists to insist on fair coverage especially at critical periods such as during elections.

Given all these realities, can the media in Africa act as drivers of progressive change? Opinions may differ on this, but it is obvious to any observer that the big commercial media outlets on the continent are largely platforms for the propagation of conservative views of the dominant classes in society, and thus entrench the status quo. They may not want to champion any controversial causes (homosexuality, reproductive health) for fear of losing audiences to competitors.

And what models of development does the media in Africa generally crusade for? Again it is no exaggeration to say that across media platforms there is noticeable paucity of robust alternative perspectives on current affairs or trenchant interrogation of some of the remedies proposed, often by outsiders, as solutions to Africa’s persistent challenges. The neo-liberal capitalist views of foreign ‘experts’ and their local acolytes, diplomats, corporate honchos, superstars, etc, receive extensive uncritical media coverage inside Africa daily. But how many Western newspapers, for instance, would publish op-ed pieces by Africans about European public affairs? How many African diplomats or celebrities are quoted in Western media commenting on elections or farming in a European nation?

One cannot end a reflection on the state of the media in Africa without mentioning the oft-repeated concern, as one journalist in an article in this special issue puts it, that the agenda for African news is decided in far-off Western capitals and written by dashing foreign correspondents who do not understand the local complexities and base their narrative on sweeping, misleading generalisations. It is true that the bulk of continental news published by national media in Africa consists of reports by Reuters, AFP, BBC, VoA, CNN, etc. When will Africa start telling its own stories?

There are many more other matters that merit attention: poor training and pay for journalists, stereotypical coverage of women, male domination of the news content and newsrooms, the neglect of other voices in preference for ‘important’ newsmakers, and so on. With this special issue, we hope that the insights carried here will add to the continuing debates on this important subject, and energise the forces of social justice to continue the struggle for truly free and independent media that would help realise the deep democratic aspirations of the African people.

*Henry Makori is an editor with Pambazuka News



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