African media and African transformation
As Vision Group CEO Robert Kabushenga once fiercely said, “We only have Africa. The Europeans don't want us. The Americans make it impossible for us to go there. The Chinese are here because of what is in the ground. It is left to us to build Africa.”
In that indomitable spirit, Addis Ababa hosted the African Media Leaders Forum (AMLF) in November 2013, where an impressive array of panellists representing the media, civil society, and government, asked a critical question, which provided the theme for the proceedings; "Are African Media Capable of Transforming the Continent?”
Guided by this inquiry, participants addressed the central link between media and the African Renaissance, giving special attention to the, now more than ever, essential issue of free press and speech on the continent.
AMLF is a full member of African Media Initiative (AMI), the continent’s largest umbrella association of African media owners, senior executives and other industry stakeholders. AMI’s mandate is to serve as a catalyst for strengthening African media by building the tools, knowledge resources and technical capacity for African media to play an effective public interest role in their societies. This mandate includes assisting with the development of professional standards, financial sustainability, technological adaptability and civic engagement. Coming on the heels of the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the African Union, AMLF panellists analysed the role that media has played in shaping Africa for the past half century and, even more importantly, how will it do so in the next.
Dr Abdissa Zerai, the Head of School of Journalism and Communication at AAU one of the forum’s key contributors, noted that the question was a deeply nuanced one and offered an overarching account of the history of African media’s performance over the past fifty years, starting with the onset of African independence movements, and their early drive towards press freedom.
“New leaders desired to dissociate themselves from Western forms of modernization and focused on nation building, spearheading socio-economic development and forging national and continental unity,” he said. “The Pan African News Agency (PANA) was seemingly meant to be the Al Jazeera of Africa, and created to rectify the distorted image of Africa created by the international news agencies.”
Dr Abdissa also made the case of how these could impact the African Media's potential to transform the continent and let the voice of Africa to be heard. He discussed the influence of new technology, particularly social media, in bringing young people into the fold and giving them a chance to express their views.
Dr Abdissa also warned against the hangovers – his words – of hybrid democracies where transition were incomplete. He cited the limited liberalisation of media on the continent and “draconian” laws introduced to address security concerns, but also impinge on media freedom and the freedom of expression. He called on the African media to play a guiding role in transforming the continent in the years to come.
“We also need to educate the evolution of the media, looking at where we are, from where we are now and where we aim to be in the future,” he said.
Dr Robert Kabushenga, started his speech with another the question, directly in conflict with Mr Abdissa’s approach: Should African media be obliged to transform the continent at all?
According to him, “The newsroom is not an alternate for a political party. No, it is not. It is a news room period!”
Dr Abdissa stressed that African media needs to set its own editorial agenda.
“It is time to sit down and redesign our agenda and engage the public,” he said. “The three major western media - namely, BBC, Al Jazeera and CCTV (China) - are setting houses in Africa with the intent to serve foreign policy agendas for their countries while our media is still adversely focused on the wrong view.”
Like Abdissa, Dr Kabushenga was straightforward in calling for a shift in ideological thinking that has long been shaped by the West.
“The African media report as if the West is the definition of democracy. We follow the terms without questioning and the continent and citizens end up the biggest losers.”
He also called for a change in the continent's focus on development. “We should portray the African agenda. Stop aping and realise that we can do it,” he implored. “This,” he said, “should be the editorial agenda.”
For her part, Tigist Yilma, the MD of Capital News, asserted that Africa is in transformation. “Over the past decade, six out of the ten fastest growing countries are in Africa. However, the economic growth was necessary but not sustainable and shared,” she said. To her the media, at least in part, is to blame.
“The media failed to make governments honest and accountable,” she said, citing a lack of investigative journalism, diversity and defamatory laws (especially in countries where democracy is wanting, like Zimbabwe), and lack of respect between the media and governments.
“The media has become an important factor in determining the course of international affairs, the future of nations’ economic prosperity, military strength, use of natural resources and national will,” she noted. “The development of the 20th century has a lot to credit the mass media for transforming living conditions.”
Like her fellow panellists, she called on the African media to reflect the true efforts made by governments but not to let up on pressuring those who need to fill pot holes and ensure the provision of services. She concluded by saying that mass media has influenced and even determined the outcome of major social, cultural, economic and political acts, and that trust and respect must be established between governments and the media.
The panel’s final speaker, Madam Biloa, a publisher with more than 20 years of experience, noted that people look up to the media expecting solutions to almost all kinds of problems. “They expect the media to give them a vision. Therefore, the media has an important place in the hearts of the people.”
She also stated that African media ought to be a contributing factor in reflecting positive stories from the continent. “I beg the media to be proud and assertive by looking at providing the solution to our problems.”
Common interests and issues
In summary, the general sentiment among panellists was that African media failed the continent and that Africa has suffered greatly because of poor journalism and unnecessarily adversarial relations between media and government. As a result of these twin failures, most of the stories that have been printed and broadcasted by outside media are on the woes of the continent, rather than its successes.
Panellists also went back and forth over a panoply of other topics, like the need to address and control the brain drain in the media, and tackling the problem of the western media’s control on African media. What is our interest as the African Media? What and whose interests are we supporting? Is it the government or the people? How are we able to transform the continent if we cannot resolve local issues?
This writer agrees with the panel that Africa is covered by other media because the African media has no strong set up and that African media share common challenges in infrastructure, technology and skill. It is high time that Africa tell its own story form its own perspective. But, the issue at hand then is how the media can be party to creating a better scenario, so that African media can one day effectively and accurately report on its continent’s accomplishments.
The voiced grievances and concerns are shared by me, as well as many of Africa’s journalist. We also understand acutely that there is no shortcut to attain what Africa, and we, the professionals, aim to be. So, we must go through what the western media has gone through to be where they are, but we need strong media houses and councils who stand for responsible press that can make governments, institution and even individuals accountable.
While this panel most directly addressed failures of government in its handling of the media, it also pointed out the need for greater accountability on the part of the media itself. As one delegate put it, “You reap what you sow. Bad leadership isn’t only in the government. Media leaders also need to change in their administrative laws. We need to develop capacity so that we can compete with a global media.”
As a journalist, I believe that we, the African media, have it in us and are capable of transforming the continent, even though we are plagued by poor leadership (in the media as well as in government) that don’t allow us to do our job properly and freely. Unethical and bad reporting, lack of skill, self-censorship still hold us back. But we owe to ourselves and to the citizens of African countries to hold governments accountable for their actions in order to transform the continent. We also need to counter Africa’s negative image by reporting the good and positive, as well as the bad, truthfully.
Indeed the media is needed and is key for development. But also there is a need for balance between the all actors involved. The African media serves as a bridge between the governed and the governors. Here a clear communication essential. As the African proverb correctly put it, “You cannot clap with one hand.”
Nwame Nkrumah's speech at the 2nd African Journalists Conference in 1963 said it all. “The truly African revolutionary press existed in order to present and carry forward out revolutionary purpose and establish a progressive political and economic system upon our continent that will free men from want and every form of injustice.”