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AFRICA MEDIA IN TRANSITION: DEMOCRATIZATION AND DIGITAL DIVIDE
Nairobi, Kenya, April 18-19, 2001
 
Background paper
African Media in Transition: Democratization and Digital Divide

Summary Report

The GCA meeting on the African Media was held in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 18-19, 2001. Participants were African and non-African media executives and journalists, parliamentarians, representatives of African and non-African governments, international organizations dealing with media issues, and of NGOs. This summary report does not reflect the richness of the discussions but rather highlights some of the main issues considered and the conclusions reached.

After a brief welcome statement by Mr. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, Executive Secretary of the GCA, the meeting was officially opened by Hon. Musalia Mudavadi, EGH, MP, Minister for Information, Transport and Communications of Kenya.

In his statement, Mr. Ould-Abdallah welcomed all participants and thanked the government of Kenya for hosting the meeting. Before introducing Minister Mudavadi, Mr. Ould-Abdallah reminded participants of the critical role the African media plays in the democratization process within the continent. He emphasized that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss how to strengthen the African media, especially given the challenges of both globalization and the digital divide. In his opening remarks, Hon. Mudavadi, described the meeting as timely and expressed confidence that it would address the challenges faced by the African media in the new social, political, and economic environment. Stressing the importance of strengthening and enhancing press freedom, as well as the need to create collaborative bridges in information and telecommunications technology, he urged participants to focus on how the African media can be a constructive partner in the development of the continent. Accepting to respond in promptu to questions, Minister Mudavadi said that the Kenyan government was committed to a fully deregulated telecommunications sector and would issue broadcast licenses to qualified applicants in due course. He emphasized that deregulation and press freedom demand responsibility on the part of media professionals as well as from governments.

Mr. Peter Kibiriti, Editor of the Kenya based EnterpriseAfrica magazine and Africa Coordinator of the World Bank Institutes Training Program, made a brief presentation, before the floor was opened to discussion. He saw one major role of African media as helping reverse what he called Africa's crisis of confidence. He argued that in order to be effective agents in emboldening the African citizenry, the media themselves needed to be confident of their roles. One of the objectives of the meeting, Kibiriti said, was to discuss ways and means of engendering confidence among African media.

Role of the media in democratic transition

There was agreement among participants that the process of democratization, set into motion by the end of the cold war, and the transition from single-party to multi-party systems gave impulse to the media for their own transition to a more democratic and competitive environment. While numerous countries continue their internal discussion on the nation building, and on constitutions to be drafted or amended in many instances - due to an often inaccessible bureaucracy - the media still finds it difficult to discuss issues related to governments and leadership, and to deal with accountability. It was also pointed out that constitutions that favor excessive domination of the executive over the legislature, and of the stronger ruling party over the small ones, ultimately weaken civil society and therefore the development of a sound independent media. In this context, it was highlighted that in presence of a weak opposition, the media are prone to take up that role or simply are identified as the adversary of the government. However, there was consensus that had the democratization process not started, meetings like this could not have taken place in Africa.

A renewed discussion on the role of the media in transition to democracy did not help participants to reach an agreement on a definition of that role. However, the very lively exchange highlighted some of the roles the African media have been playing and therefore their achievements, but also the constraints to the freedom of the press and to its development as an independent institution.

The recent electoral experiences of Senegal and Ghana where journalists, using mobile phones, were able to report live from voting stations and counting centers were mentioned as very successful means of pre-empting electoral manipulation. Notwithstanding, it was emphasized that the role of the media in democratization should not be linked exclusively to the elections, nor should elections be considered as separate entities. They are one of the anchors of Africas transition. The media have been very active in sensitizing and educating audiences to democracy and on how it functions, and therefore in championing citizen participation. They have also been exposing cases of embezzlement, hence contributing to stronger anti-corruption sentiments, and countering abuse of power. Despite the infamous case of Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda, in some instances, media have been able to mitigate the effects of violent political confrontations and of conflicts. In sum, the media helped enlighten and encourage people to be active, to have a voice, and to formulate new ideas. Therefore, in promoting tolerance, democracy and transparency the new African media gained popular support. In this early part of the discussion, participants stressed a recurrent theme of the meeting: the specificity of each country, its media environment, and experiences.

It was clear that for participants, the primordial role of the media is to report events, to investigate and provide readers with information, and not to solve problems or to provide public services. However, to be able to report to their public, it is critical that journalists dealing with the democratization process understand what democracy is as well as the dynamics of its process. In this context, two main issues were raised. The first was related to the rural divide. It was highlighted that most newspapers and magazines are not published in local languages but in English or in French, and that, due to the difficulty and the cost of domestic transportation, circulation is concentrated by and large in urban areas. In addition, nationwide distribution is limited by higher levels of illiteracy in rural areas. This restricts access mostly to urban elites and to those who can afford the relatively high price of newspapers and magazines. It was emphasized, however, that this rural divide, is partially bridged by local radios that broadcast in local languages and that cover vast areas. Secondly, participants indicated that the environment in which the media operate is not always conducive to their development. Not only is freedom of the press often restricted by laws and practices, but the African media are also inhibited by difficulties including lack of funds, equipment, training, and information that is otherwise available worldwide. Indeed, participants cited the legal environment as an issue of major concern. It was stressed that in some instances the laws that govern contempt of the court and of the parliament need revision to allow the media to cover the activities of the judiciary and legislature. Moreover, criminal libel laws, and penalization of media crimes need to be reconsidered with much more attention and urgency. Suggestions were made for cases of media malpractice not to be subject to penal law but to other professional sanctions. It was proposed also that the creation of independent bodies composed of journalists, members of human rights organizations, trade unions, former judges, etc. could deal with issues related to press freedom and ethics.

Some participants indicated that the difficulties faced by the media have weakened their confidence and therefore their capability to set the agenda. In this context the issues of pluralism and of ownership of the African media were discussed. While some participants stressed that the African media are difficult to categorize as neutral and independent, others questioned such classification, indicating that inevitably news rooms take sides. In support of the latter position, it was recalled that in western countries independent and opposition media are usually assimilated. However, the inclination of the media aside, some participants indicated that ownership of the media is more critical for agenda setting. East African media representatives stressed the importance of national ownership to safeguard an independent agenda setting. On the other hand, in West Africa, not only is the presence of foreign shareholders not an issue, but in countries like Cameroon and Ivory Coast foreign ownership of the media is illegal. However, in South Africa, the strong presence of foreign investment/capital in the media sector, vital for the opposition during apartheid, continues to provide a valuable financial support. It was also emphasized that the issue of ownership should not be related to foreign equity only, but also to the ruling class and local political parties, as well as to ethnic or financial groups and sometimes the military, who move into the media to control information. It should also be taken into account that in some instances the survival of the media is linked to their compliance with the agenda setting role of the government. However, the presence of foreign media on the continent and their influence on national politics should not be underestimated, nor dismissed wholesale as negative. Finally, it was agreed that the agenda of the media should be set by the editor and that the owners, whether private or governmental, should be kept out of the news rooms.

Discussing issues related to deontology and ethics, it was highlighted that to be effective the media can neither engage in nepotism nor corrupt. Notwithstanding, a major problem for the written media in particular is the effective commercialization of their products. The economic situation of many African countries affects the financial position of the media. Inadequate financial resources combined with lack of professionalism optimize opportunities for corruption. It was stressed that sometimes corruption within the African media represented a major obstacle to their development. Indeed, the difficulty of the media to report openly and transparently would jeopardize their independence. Furthermore, in order to report on corruption-related issues, and in light of the personal risk that this entails, it was emphasized that solidarity and networking at national, regional and international levels is critical. Networks have become crucial to both exchange information, and provide protection since international exposure of violations of the freedom of the press and threats to journalists has proved to be effective.

In this context, participants agreed that external support to the media that might help to address the digital divide, is welcome. However, they stressed that long term dependency is not desirable. It was also noted that to be able to bring an African perspective and to set the agenda, the African media need to balance the presence in the field of an increasing number of foreign reporters.

Strengthening responsibility and professionalism

Participants acknowledged that responsibility and professionalism are increasingly evident in the African media. Hence, they emphasized the need to train more journalists, to strengthen the media, and to access Internet, todays important source of information. The discussion focused mainly on the issue of supervision of the media and journalists. In this context, Media councils were discussed as well as ad hoc bodies composed of journalists, human rights activists, former judges, etc., as independent entities that could exercise oversight. Indeed, an independent structure should issue press cards, and monitor revenues, conflict of interest, and professionalism. The discussion also questioned whether the purpose of press cards is to control access to the profession, or to confer professional recognition. However, it was pointed out that the risk of the use of press cards to control and censor should not be underestimated. Indeed, in many African countries the Ministry of Information, in charge of issuing press cards, uses it as a means of control. Therefore, deontology, authority, and credibility of the institutions that deliver the press cards are critical. However, there was agreement that whichever institution issues press cards, journalists should be represented. Some experiences in West Africa indicate that a successful solution might be to put in the forefront strong professional bodies. In this context the Union Nationale des Journalistes de Cote dIvoire (UNCI) and the West African Journalists Association (WAJA) were cited. It was also noted that the existence of a credible independent institution to deal with these media issues would prevent the government from doing it. While the state cannot give legitimacy to the media, it was suggested, nevertheless, that it could create a legal framework for their practitioners as it does for other professions.

The challenges and dangers of reporting on corruption, in particular, were often referred to as main hindrances to professionalism and good performance. Numerous are the cases in which solidarity among journalists helped those involved in dangerous situations to regain freedom and security. Therefore, any supporting structure addressing the security of journalists should include both journalists and human rights professionals and focus on human rights violations. In light of the important role played by media networks to support journalists in distress, participants suggested that the GCA help to support regional media houses and the networks they administer. However, it was pointed out that the best guarantor of the rights of journalists is society itself. Once the importance and the usefulness of the press are recognized, people will protect the media and the environment in which they operate. Another important ally of the media is organized civil society and in particular the NGOs with which they often share common interests and risks.

It was recognized that todays technology could make a difference in dealing with both security and censorship. Information on violations of the freedom of the press and on the rights of the journalists, as well as articles that would not otherwise be published, can be posted on line and reach a greater, and even an international audience. In addition, this could help improve the image of the continent. Participants stressed the importance of the Internet as a source of information, and of e-mail as a tool to network among journalists. However, availability of technology is not to be considered as a panacea, and additional training on the use of the Internet and e-mail, and other technological tools will be required. It was also noted that boldness and self-regulation might help improve professionalism.

It was pointed out that there would be no discussion over professionalism if there were no limits of access to information. In this particular context, the example of information denied to the media by governments, but made available by international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF was very relevant and once again proved the importance of the Internet as a source of information.

Support and assistance to the media

Technology is perceived as a means to improve the performance of the African media but also to jump onto the bandwagon of globalization, as it helps to cover issues not addressed by the local media, and to counter its isolation and balkanization. Representatives of AllAfrica.com made a presentation of their website and explained how the Internet can help African media to reach readers outside their countries and allow African news agencies and newspapers to have additional income. The Internet makes available a different image of Africa mostly created by Africans, and allows African diasporas to get the news from their countries whereas, as it was pointed out, the access to Internet is still very limited within the African continent. Taking into account that most Internet users in Africa belong to the elite, it was suggested that governments invest more on technology education to help bridge the gap and also to create a market for the media on-line. Self-sustainability remains a major issue for the media, as Internet is yet to be helpful. The written press has to deal with a limited distribution in urban areas, with illiteracy, and in some instances with new phenomena like rented and photocopied newspapers. For a discounted price, customers read and return newspapers that at the end of the day newsagents return as unsold or, almost at no cost at all, they read relevant articles that are photocopied and widely circulated. To resist the pressure from both the market and the economy of the country, many newspapers decided not to raise the price per copy. However, this has made sustainability more difficult.

The availability of technology to the African media is overdue. The lack of even portable phones prevents African journalists from competing with the foreign media and to file first reports at their own duty stations. It was recalled that when the terrorist attack against the USA Embassy took place in Nairobi, in 1999, CNN was already reporting on the event thanks to satellite telecommunications, before Kenyan journalists were able to report back to their local news-room in the city. It was pointed out that if the payment of wages in Africa is still affordable, the real problem at this stage is the access to technology, and the high cost of telephone connections.

The discussion continued with the aim of identifying ways and means of strengthening the media and bridging the digital divide. It was pointed out that, benefiting from the GCA experience in the preparation and adoption of the Principles to Combat Corruption in Africa, February 1999, participants in the meeting could prepare a declaration on the African media. The declaration would include principles, priorities and means needed to strengthen the media and should be extensively circulated. In this context, the representative of the World Bank informed participants of the many initiatives that this institution launched in support of the African media in particular in training journalists. In addition, other participants shared other experiences: a) in Tanzania, funds are available to partially cover media training with the rest of the cost paid by the trainee; b) the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) supports small loans to the media that are usually denied by banks and for training activities; c) Institut PANOS de lAfrique de lOuest helped to put on-line both papers and radios; d) la Maison de la Presse created by WAJA makes available information communication technologies (ICTs).

Before closing the meeting and taking into account the growing importance of the media, participants:

called on the GCA to follow up on their discussion to inform all concerned parties, and in particular governments, Africas partners, media professionals, and the private sector, of the outcome of the meeting;
emphasized that, given the existence of numerous bodies of professional media that train, protect, support, and provide journalists with limited ICTs, GCA follow-up activities should aim at strengthening existing reliable media structures where available;
stressed that to repeat on a larger scale any or all of the successful African experiences discussed financial resources are needed, a media fund should be established, and the issue of revolving loans addressed;
proposed that taking into account the existence of an international structure to coordinate activities in the media sector, the conclusions of the meeting be communicated to its Secretariat, run by the Paris based Groupe de Recherche et dEchange Technologiques (GRET);
recommended that a declaration on the African media be prepared and adopted, and widely distributed to all parties interested in and relevant to the development of the African media. Thus, a steering committee should be established to prepare the declaration and monitor its progress;

suggested that an ad hoc structure be established by participants to the meeting to look at bridging the digital divide. This may include as a first concrete step - the possibility of donating second hand computers and other equipment useful to African journalists.

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