Jan 23 2007

Media and Development

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:39 PM

The BBC has published a fascinating and comprehensive survey of the state of African media. The report is funded by a variety of donors from the U.S. and Europe who are seeking to help promote development in Africa through “stronger” media. The logic is clear: “Fostering a stronger media in Africa is an indespensable part of tackling poverty, improving development and enabling Africa to attain its development goals,” according to the report’s introduction.
Media in Africa are burdened by many problems, which I saw first-hand when I trained journalists in Ghana in 2003 for the Toronto-based organization, Journalists for Human Rights. Last September, I led a seminar with journalists in the capital of Malawi, and I was reminded that bribery of journalists remains a scourge in sub-Saharan Africa.
For some years now, the World Bank and other aid donors to Africa have been pushing the notion that stronger media can help reduce poverty and promote economic growth. I am skeptical about this proposition, which arises from the frustration that official aid experts have over the macroeconomic programs they have pushed onto many African countries. Rather than examine the failures of these economic programs, donors have simply shifted the blame onto “weak” civil society institutions such as the media, who they say should hold politicians more to account. That would be good of course, but media failures are no more the cause of inequality and poverty in Africa than the success of the Bush Administration to win political support for its moronic Iraq project flows from the American media’s relatively uncritical acceptance of the effort. Media remains a reflection of powerful social and political-economic forces, not the cause of them. African journalists actually do a terrific job of holding power to account, generally showing great resourcefulness and bravery in the face of relatively low pay government opposition and the suspicion of their fellow citizens. To be sure, African journalist can do better, especially by working harder to include what I describe as the “voices of the voiceless” in their reports.
However, donors are wrong to put the onus on the media for the difficult task of expanding the willingness of citizens to challenge bad governors.
Citizen movements against government incompetence and corruption arise from political mobilization of the grassroots — and in turn ignite media agressiveness. The pattern is actually the reverse of what the donors suggest. The record in Poland during the 1980s, for instance, when Samizdat undermined the legitimacy of the Polish government, provides a classic illustration of how citizen activism drives media reforms — and not the other way around. New media tools, such as text messaging, also highlights the way in which ordinary people — rather than professional journalists — can more effectively counter the propaganda of rogue governments. Professional journalists remain too vulnerable to official intimidation because they operate in the open. Citizens, on the other hand, are harder to identify and have many more communication tools available than they had even 5 years ago, what with the spread of cell phones, the Internet and radio in recent years.

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