Highway Africa Chair of Media and the Information Society, Jane Duncan has just released some
comments on the proposal for a Pan-African Media Observatory set forth by the African Union Commission and the European Commission. Below are the comments.
Highway Africa (HA) is a partnership between Rhodes University (School of Journalism and Media Studies) and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), with the support of several partners, development agencies and sponsors, promoting the use of appropriate technology by journalists. 2009 sees the 13th conference being hosted in Grahamstown with a record attendance of 735 persons in 2008 and offers journalists reflection on 2010 in the New Media environment. The Highway Africa annual Awards expand to over 5 categories in their ninth year, continuing to recognise excellence in ICT journalism in Africa. HA has established a Chair in Media and the Information Society, which is responsible for the encouragement of research, teaching on information society issues, management of the Highway Africa conference and advocacy work, particularly on media freedom issues.
1. Comments on proposals
HA does not intend to re-hash points that have already been made in other submissions; suffice to say that HA associates itself with the basic principles to guide media development in the African Forum for Media Development (AFMD) and Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) submission. We also associate ourselves with their comments on the project. Our position is informed by our view of what preconditions are required for an African information society, and these intrinsically include an environment that is conducive to media freedom and growth. Our view further focuses on the interconnection between the information and communication spheres of society, and therefore on telecoms/internet and media. Our specific comments are as follows:
1.1 Charter of Rights and Responsibilities
Tellingly, the proposal for this Charter makes reference to the rights and responsibilities of the media only, and not governments. As a result, it is hard not to view the proposal as an attempt to curtail media freedom under the guise of ‘making the media more responsible’. HA does not believe that there is a need for a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities for the media. Charters of rights already exist, in the form of the African Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, and the Windhoek Declaration. These documents enjoy widespread legitimacy. The articulation of media responsibilities should be left to independent media councils, media professional bodies and media unions; it is dangerous for governments to have any hand in articulating media responsibilities, as the temptation to use such a Charter to censor critical reporting may be irresistible. Rather the AU-EC partnership should commit itself to strengthening the implementation of these existing Charters, and promoting enforcement mechanisms in the event of non-compliance.
1.2 Pan-African portal for all media
The proposal on the development of a Pan-African portal fails to recognise the many information initiatives that already exist. Rather, the resources set aside by the EU-AU partnership should be used to strengthen these initiatives, instead of creating another institution. The danger of setting up such a portal is that it may shy away from controversial material, given government involvement, which may not lead to the creation of credible knowledge resources on media development issues. Rather grants should be provided by the partnership to existing, independent projects promoting media development and media freedom as interconnected, mutually-supporting concepts.
1.3 Pan-African Media Observatory
As HA, we are particularly concerned about the proposal to establish a Pan-Africa Media Observatory, as the case for the establishment of such a body has not been made. In fact, in spite of its assurances to the contrary, the proposal flies in the face of the principle of media self-regulation for the print media and statutory but independent regulation for the broadcast media, without which a diverse and independent media would not be possible. The proposal could be read as an attempt to re-regulate African media under a body that could all too easily fall under the control of the very governments that have been responsible for erosion of media freedom and media underdevelopment. While the strength of media self-regulatory systems is uneven across the continent, there are many initiatives in place to try and strengthen the self-regulatory system. The same can be said for broadcasting regulation. This proposal will probably undermine these initiatives.
To bind the parties to a process of mediation violates the independence of media councils and communications regulators, as their decisions will not be final, but may be subject to review by another body other than the courts, and that is itself not independent from government. It is also not clear in the event of mediation breaking down: possibly an arbitration will follow, which risks undermining the independence of national institutions even more as these decisions will be binding on these institutions. The establishment of the Observatory may also give rise to forum shopping, where aggrieved members of the public or state officials play off different regulatory bodies against one another, which may create confusion and undermine public confidence in these institutions as the complaints bodies of first resort (it is not at all clear from the document whether or not the Observatory will be a complaints body of last resort, when all other national redress mechanisms have been exhausted) . An additional problem is that access to justice may be undermined, in that state parties will be bound to refer disputes to the President of the Media Observatory before taking legal action. If legal action is the most suitable route to take in particular media disputes, then the hands of citizens should not be bound by the decision of state parties to commit to mediation first.
With respect to the print media, HA believes that the Observatory proposal fails to take into account the many initiatives in place to strengthen media accountability, apart from the establishment of independent media councils. HA, for instance, is involved in developing knowledge resources on public accountability systems for media in Africa, on behalf of UNESCO. Media accountability refers to any non-state means of making media responsible towards the public, and may include press councils and broadcasting regulatory systems, as well as daily self-critical evaluations to corrections boxes, letters to the editor, web feedback, accuracy and fairness questionnaires, petitions, ethics columns, critical blogs, in-house critics, ethics committees and coaches, reader clubs, internal whistleblowers, etc. Crucially, the concept of media accountability precludes government involvement in the setting up of statutory media councils, or any form of state partnership to oversee journalistic standards (which is what the proposed Observatory will be). The dangers of state censorship creeping in and informing the decision making of such bodies is simply too great.
The proposed composition of the Observatory is highly problematic. The advisory committee will consist of representatives from the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU), which means that, in effect, government officials will have a strong say in the committee. The list of professional bodies on page 8 of the concept document is inadequate, as is the list of consumer associations. It is not clear at all why a closed list of professional and consumer bodies is needed at all, as such a list could lead to a ‘cherry picking’ exercise where less critical organisations are included and more critical organisations are left out.
2. General comments
Curiously, the details of the Observatory proposal, as well as the other two proposals, do not really speak to the objectives identified in the background. The Observatory purports to be about ensuring that the media play their role of challenging established authority. The document claims this role has been eroded owing to media being a player and a vector in neoconservative globalisation. While it is acknowledged by HA that – to the extent that it has led to a ‘dumbing down’ of media – globalisation has had an adverse effect on media standards, governments also have agency in how they respond to globalisation.
More specifically, the proposal fails to acknowledge government’s own role in contributing to the erosion of standards of journalism, through the promulgation of retrogressive ‘insult laws’ to prevent those in high office from being criticised, and other national security laws prevented the media from publishing information deemed to be against the ‘national interest’ (which was all too often equated with shielding ruling elites from scrutiny). Many other measures have eroded the quality of media. The climate of impunity that prevails in countries such as the Gambia and Somalia – where journalists have been physically threatened and even killed – contributes to declining standards. Quality, ethical journalism cannot take place in a climate of repression. It is simply too easy for governments to hide behind the skirts of globalisation to shield themselves from criticism when they act to restrict media freedom, or when the fail to act adequately to curb informal repression. What also needs noting is the enormous problem of governments controlling state-owned media in such a way as to preclude public service in favour of being a ruling-party mouthpiece. This has been a huge contribution to media’s role being compromised in Africa for which governments are responsible.
State control of media still dominates the media landscape in Africa, and to the extent that these media act as voices primarily of ruling parties, they present the most significant obstacle to media freedom. Radio is the most popular and accessible medium, and state owned and controlled stations continue to dominate national radio. According to research undertaken by the African Media Development Initiative, by 2006, only six countries had national commercial radio broadcasters. However, more regional or local commercial radio stations are establishing themselves in countries that have liberalized their broadcasting markets. This suggests that it is still very difficult for commercial radio to afford to operate on a national footprint. Community radio is growing, although definitions of community radio remain contested. Television growth has been slow, owing to high entry and running costs, with the medium being dominated by state television. Newspapers are the least accessible media, with an urban-centric bias, and tabloidization is also evident in sections of the media. Unlike radio growth, newspaper growth is uneven across the continent. Owing to the lack of commercial advertising, newspapers rely heavily on state advertising. Access to the internet is still extremely low, with only two countries (Zimbabwe and South Africa) where more than 5% of the population is online, with the internet population being dominated by Nigeria and South Africa. Mobile phones, however, are becoming an increasingly important means of disseminating information.
What this brief survey of media access implies is that resources directed at African media development are needed: to this extent, the AU-EU partnership decision to direct resources towards media development must be welcomed. But these resources must be geared towards addressing the above mentioned disparities, and to creating an environment of media freedom and pluralism through support for appropriate policy and practice by media houses, media workers, media support groups, judicial and constitutional agencies, and politically representative bodies. At all costs, the AU-EU should avoid the Observatory model which threatens to undermine initiatives to promote media development within a framework of media freedom.
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