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Democratization and forces in the African media.

On 16 April 1993, the Journal of International Affairs sponsored a conference entitled "The Role of the Media and the Emergence of Democracy" at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. The conference brought together journalists, academics and policy makers who are involved in setting or responding to the agenda of the global media, particularly in their role as democratizing forces in countries throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. Panel discussions focused on the characteristics of the media in each of these regions, examining such aspects as the power of technology, human rights violations against journalists and the influence of business and government ownership of the media. Here, the Journal reprints excerpts from the remarks of Nigerian journalist Tunji Lardner on how the convergence of communications technology and various indigenous pressures in Africa is enhancing the media's influence in that continent's democratization.

It is always difficult to talk about Africa: It is tantamount to trying to take a still picture of a moving object. The essential understanding of Africa which I hope to establish is that of a continent in transition. Although we have seen a fundamental shift toward a more democratic political and economic climate in the continent over the last five or six years, our destination is still not very clearly defined. Such is the premise upon which any credible attempt to understand Africa should be based.

My own theory about these changes is that there is a simultaneous convergence of three elements within Africa. The first element is the expansion of the African media -- predominantly the print media -- toward finding a set of principles or vocational responsibilities to which they should address themselves. In an anthropological assessment of the media, I would put forth the argument that any medium best serves its. own society; likewise the African media should have an agenda specific to their continent's unique context and problems.

The second element is a movement to contrast the role of the media against the backdrop of democracy. We should use the term democracy guardedly, however, because democratization is not essentially the definition of what is happening on the continent today. Certainly there has been a broad shift away from central, statist, command economies toward free-market economic systems -- combined with more forced government accountability. With varying degrees of success, this process has translated into the holding of elections. However, the conventional wisdom that the electoral process is in and of itself democracy is not entirely true in Africa. Rather, the real mandate for reform lies in the post-electoral phase of democratic consolidation.

The third element is the role of technology. By technology, I do not mean flashing lights and twenty-first century computers, but very basic things that are being utilized by domestic forces in Africa -- including the media and grassroots, non-governmental organizations -- to decentralize and democratize information flow. The reality is that Africa is part of the global information grid, a fact even the most centralized governments on the continent have now acknowledged.

Referring to democratization in Africa as the domino effect of the revolutions in East Central Europe and of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika does not give enough credit to the domestic forces at play on the continent. At the onset of African independence in the early 1960s, we felt the proverbial "winds of change" sweep the continent. Today, Africa has felt the coming of a second wind. Africa is a very young continent: 60 percent of all Africans are estimated to be under the age of 30. The generation born in the post-independent phase of national development is now coming of age and is asking questions. Furthermore, this new generation now has a global platform -- and a global reference point -- from which to view its own domestic and indigenous experiences. The strength of this generational movement is evidenced by the fact that in most of the African nations where social and political movements are underway, the initial fractures in society were forced by students.

It is also true that in the last two decades all of Africa's net economic indices have been negative. Yet while it appears on the books that Africa is doomed to self-destruction, I always hasten to add that reports of the continent's death have been greatly exaggerated. The continent is not going to sit still; in spite of the prevailing Afro-pessimism, there is hope. It is not a romanticized kind of hope, but perhaps better described as a kind of a subterranean revolution -- partly generational and partly due to the fact that advances in communication technology have made the global village a reality.

Several lessons can be learned from the evolution of the relationship among the media, government and society in Africa over the last 30 years. With regard to the media-government relationship, traditionally the media have been centralized and controlled by the state. This is the result of a couple of factors. First, there was the colonial legacy. Those Africans who inherited the mantle of colonial leadership continued their predecessors' policies of controlling information.

Second, the Cold War defined how society was shaped and governed in Africa's post-independence period. Most countries adopted a type of centralized control such as a command economy, an African brand of socialism or a statist government. The media evolved in a culture in which governments tended to concentrate their political power and control over civil society through control of information flow.

The relationship between the media and society in Africa mirrors that of the media and government in its vertical integration. If we consider classic theories of the media and their role in development from the 1950s and 1960s, there was a strong belief that media influence could be a magic multiplier for development in non-Western and developing countries. This view held that the media would always be controlled by the state, and the state -- in its profound sense of altruism -- would assure that this control would be manifested in a way that was best for society. This scenario has not been borne out, however. Today, the state remains at the center of African culture, but technology has introduced a new element in the triad relationship between the media, government and society: It is now possible for the media to link up with society directly, without having to go through the filter of government. That is the premise of technology: It is obliterating state boundaries, decentralizing control of information and -- in a very crude and ill-formed manner -- democratizing information.

Several recent examples serve to illustrate how the media can play an important role in determining the speed of Africa's democratization. For example, without radios -- and subject to leaders who choose not to inform them -- most of the displaced families in rural Mozambique who were waiting for Red Cross assistance were unaware that a peace treaty had been signed. This example shows how profound changes may be happening in society but those changes do not always reach the people who could most benefit from them -- mostly because of the way the instrument of information is structured and organized. They only find out what the government wants them to know.

Yet in another, more positive example from Mozambique, Media Fax -- Africa's first newspaper distributed by facsimile -- is giving new meaning to the expression "the public's right to know." This new information source has become a tool for democratization despite the continuing predominance of the state-controlled media. The publication was started by journalists from the state-controlled media, and even the Mozambican government now subscribes to Media Fax, because it provides news that the official media would not ordinarily carry.

In Ghana -- one the few African countries to produce a large part of its broadcast programming from domestic sources -- the media's agenda has always been to ensure cultural integration. National unity has been invoked to justify the continued existence of a centralized communications system in a multilingual society such as Ghana. Today, however, there is growing criticism of the structure of the centrally controlled Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) as existing purely for political expediency.

Privatization of the media is another powerful trend in the decentralization and democratization of information flow. In Nigeria since September 1992, the passage of Government Decree 38 has paved the way toward full private ownership of television and radio, which previously had been the monopoly of the government. This act has already begun to affect the political climate in Nigeria through increasing the level of public debate on the government's promised transition to democracy.

The Nigerian case is an example of how technology is ahead of public policy, and -- through technological advances such as satellite feeds, which reach the people directly -- is forcing new public policies and new approaches to policy making. Freedom of information and information sources have become increasingly important as African governments have failed both to deliver economic prosperity to their people and effectively to centralize information flow. While in a prosperous economic environment people are often prepared to tolerate circumscription of their rights, we see today a generation of Africans that has been suppressed in its self-expression and in attaining its economic potential. The leaders of this new generation are willing to use the media, technology and. other democratizing tools to force real and permanent change on the continent.
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Title Annotation:Power of the Media in the Global System
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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