In December 2003, with generous donor funds, we set out to cover the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, Switzerland. Eighteen journalists drawn from the several African countries sought to report on what we considered to be a critical event for the developing world. We thought we should hear the voices of the powerful and the marginalised as they contested the definitions and implications of the so-called "Information Society" and transmit the information to our audienc...read more
In December 2003, with generous donor funds, we set out to cover the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, Switzerland. Eighteen journalists drawn from the several African countries sought to report on what we considered to be a critical event for the developing world. We thought we should hear the voices of the powerful and the marginalised as they contested the definitions and implications of the so-called "Information Society" and transmit the information to our audiences across the continent. Under the rubric of Highway Africa News Agency (HANA) we had set up a subscriber list of over 150 individuals, organisations and networks based in Africa. We saw our role as:
* to report the proceedings, issues, personalities, positions in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to African audiences via the media networks and individual subscribers;
* to report the proceedings, issues, personalities, positions in WSIS from an African perspective.
We did that and more and our stories are on www.highwayafrica.ru.ac.za
The gist of my article, however, is not about what we did but of the challenges that we now encounter as we try to set up a news agency dedicated to reporting on "Information Society" issues and on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). These challenges are fundamentally ideological. They relate to how do you create viable and sustainable media that is different from mainstream commercial media in terms of its focus.
What kind of media for what kind of society?
To make my point clear I should go back to the vision for HANA. My dream for the news agency is:
- to create a virtual platform for reporting on developments in technology and how these relate to our societies (read the poor and marginalised);
- to interrogate ICT policies and practices from the point of view of the public (the poor and marginalised);
- to create a space for ordinary voices to be heard and also for their views to be mainstreamed.
Now to go about making the above a reality is a challenge. Donor funds can only take you for a couple of years until the demand comes in for sustainability. It is this issue of sustainability that is killing ideological media. The world over both commercial and non-commercial media are grappling with how revenue and profits can be generated online. Various business models are punted on a daily basis but the reality is that most "successful'' online news publishers rely on their printed newspaper. The profits of the shareholding company sustain them through the start-up years (it literally takes years to develop a profitable online news publishing business). In any case not much of the content generated is new. Various sources of content are identified and the result can be a myriad sites carrying virtually the same stories.
So faced with problem how do we create viable pro-poor media? I think we need five key ingredients:
- clear ideological vision
- individual commitment
- partners who share same vision
- some money
In this so-called post-modern world and its fear of any claims to 'truth', 'ideology' and what post-modernists term meta-narratives when they refer to Marxism and other 'isms', there is such a fear of taking a clear ideological stance. All Marxists seem to have disappeared into something loosely calling itself left-leaning. But our media have to state their position clearly and my dream is to have an agency that proudly proclaims 'We support workers; We support the poor; We support the marginalised.' The use of the ritual of 'objectivity' is often used by journalist and the media when they do not wish to state their political leaning. The result is an attempt to play god and pretend to be above the social, political and economic contradictions of our societies.
The e-mail bulletins, independent online news sites and other small media are normally driven by the zeal of one individual. That commitment is an essential ingredient in the creation and sustaining of pro-poor media. But an individual can only do so much, hence the need for partners (strategic and financial) that buy into that vision and help drive it. Empathetic sponsors are crucial in making the dream take off. Someone has to pay for the editor's living expenses, some equipment and all that.
Above all else, driving a vision for viable media needs a huge dose of hope. The hope is for a changed world and for equally transformed media.
When all five - ideological vision, commitment, partnerships, money and hope - come together we can build media that truly speaks the language of our people's dreams.
I hope the Highway Africa News Agency will go some way in speaking that language.
* Chris Kabwato is the Director of Highway Africa, a programme of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa.
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