Media Freedom and politics
It’s a real pleasure for me to join you this morning at this beautiful venue. Kampala is one of the most vibrant cities on the African continent, and by taking its pulse one can tell the health of mother Africa. It is always a great thrill for me to meet other media professionals from the continent. I also especially enjoy meeting younger professionals at the key milestone moments in their careers.
That the organizers should have this event at the Golf Course Hotel tells me that they did their homework and they know my love for golf. Perhaps my love for golf is not as indulgent as it may seem, but merely confirms that given a choice I’ll make the tough one. Like golf, a game that can frustrate even the most gifted players, the media industry is also tough on those who invest in it. To make it in both, you really do need to have nerves of steel.
When I received the invitation to speak to you on media freedom and politics, I was most pleased because it is one of the topics that is dear to me. But I also believe that it is one of those topics that so many shy away from because it can be so risky. Clearly one has to state at the outset that in a democracy, it is not only the media that has a right to free expression, but all individuals.
This is especially important in the age of the internet and social media when ordinary individuals have added their voices to those of the formal media. There have been attempts to limit or police what ordinary citizens can report on their timelines by insisting that only licensed journalists can report certain things.
My view is that this is censorship by other means. In any case it has become clear that there’s a symbiotic relationship between the formal media and ordinary individuals armed only with a Twitter or Facebook account. Within the M&G we were one of the first publications to tap into the power of social media and our editors and journalists engage ordinary citizens on these new platforms. I have no doubt that when the next chapter of democracy is written it will reflect the tremendous impact on political organization and outcomes as a result of digital tools.
We’ve already seen how in Ouagadougou, a president who’d installed himself at the palace for 27 years had to flee when determined Burkinabe harnessed their own resolve with the power of the hashtag to oust Blaise Compaoré. In this instance the internet proved itself a handy tool for sharing information, images, inspiration and also in enhancing organization.
WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have become the new politically rally, the new meeting point and the new stadium.
Reporting on Compaoré’s ousting from power was also a reminder that when Africans rely on ‘international’ news organizations, they also subject themselves to the power of ‘national’ interest. The reporting of Radio France and France 24 reflected the official position that Compaoré was a ‘stabilizing’ influence in the region, and out of control mobs were risking political instability in the region by kicking him out of the palace. This case, as the one of Gaddafi before, reinforces the role of national or foreign politics in influencing the work of reporters.
I hope that these remarks put in context my often quoted words that “Many African government’s see the media as an enemy…are particularly uncomfortable with investigative journalism…have enacted undemocratic laws that impinge on freedom of expression and press freedom.” Whilst I hold these views, it would be incorrect to suggest that it is only African governments that frustrate or limit freedom of the media. In the US the Obama presidency has been accused of acting against media freedom. The issue of digital surveillance by the state is at the heart of the Snowden affair. The UK has also acted with draconian intent against some journalists, especially where the issue of terrorism is invoked.
The Snowden affair has unfortunately given cover to many African governments to up secret surveillance of their citizens.
I love that digital tools have made the work of despots and dictators that much harder. Gone are the days when all a despot facing rebellion from his citizens had to do was take the radio and TV off air. Now Social media, independent websites, YouTube and other tools will carry the story. Uncensored. And this is the worst nightmare of those who rely on brute force to stay in power. The US Godfather of Hip-Hop, Gil Scott-Heron famously said that the revolution would not be televised, but were he alive today he would have said that ‘the revolution will be tweeted’
Outside of politics proper, there’s an especially important reason why journalists have to question official positions. Over the past two years the Africa Rising story has taken over reporting on Africa. As an optimist and investor across the continent, I like the Africa Rising narrative because it makes it that much easier to attract the attention of audiences and decision makers that were previously uninterested in Africa. But it is important for journalists to resist the urge to be swept up by the euphoria and expose any contradictions that go against this narrative. To do so is not to be unpatriotic or UnAfrican, but in fact to strengthen the quality and reliability of public information.
One of the most promising developments of the past few years is that the best and most talented university students no longer think only of emigrating as soon as they have their degree. Many are finding their voice in social enterprise, and we’re witnessing a new class of social entrepreneurs who want to make a difference. More importantly very few of them are going into politics, as was the case a few decades ago. They realize that politics is not the only, or even the most important route to effect political change.
Perhaps one of the most important effects of the rise of independent media is that politicians no longer have exclusive rights of appearance on the front page or lead story. Where once the lead story on Television, Radio and the national newspaper was reserved for the president for life, it is now possible, even commonplace for the winner of Big Brother or a successful executive like Dangote or Motsepe to be the lead story. And the editor won’t get a call from State House.
One of the roles that the media can play is to move the conversation around government from one where loyalty is the issue to one where competence is the measure. If media consistently question the qualifications, talent and achievement of those in cabinet and other technocratic positions, it can have a positive impact on governance. What it can mean, especially in some of our societies which remain deeply divided, is that people end up discussing the capabilities of cabinet ministers instead of their tribal affiliations.
Sometimes I worry that African media spends too much time reporting the stories of the big man and woman in politics rather than telling the stories of the common people. African media fails dismally in my view in telling the stories of the everyday struggles and triumphs of the ordinary people. We fail to tell the story of the common persons struggle against shortages of clean portable water, energy, and access to markets. We fail to highlight the acute problems of crumbling and sometimes none existent health and education infrastructure. This to me raises serious questions about our relevance. Only by painting the rich tapestry of the common persons everyday battles against the odds can we hope to have real impact on African politics. Let us tell the story of the common person and thus make their issues center and front of African politics.
I cannot express strongly enough my belief that there is NO ONE common environment of media freedom and politics in Africa. The situation differs from country to country, and any attempt to create the impression that there’s an ‘African experience’ reinforces the myth so beloved by western commentators of Africa as if it were a country. As we speak there are countries like Egypt, Ethiopia and Swaziland in which journalists and bloggers are locked up in jail for acts of journalism.
I must take this opportunity to speak against the use of the terms “opposition media” and opposition newspapers by some the western journalists to describe those holding African governments to account. Have you ever had of an opposition radio station or newspaper in the western world? And then some of us reproduce these terms to describe each other. What a shame!!
In my own country of Zimbabwe considerable resources, time and energy have been invested in suppressing and criminalizing the work of the media. But there are also countries like SA where journalists can not only insult a sitting president, they actually do. And insulting our presidents is a good thing. Why should it be a crime to insult our leaders? The day African media is able to mock, caricature, insult and make fun of politicians; especially presidents will mark the dawn of maturity of both our media and politicians.
The important thing is that media have to use all the resources at their disposal to provide the public unfettered access to information. It is also important for media not to abuse their power. We only need reflect on how in the Rwandan tragedy of 1994, some radio personalities used the airwaves to fan genocidal violence.
One of the stories emanating from Uganda that has attracted global attention has been that of the Anti-Gay legislation. While I think it would be incorrect for me or for anyone to tell Ugandans how to tell their own stories I must share my strong views on this.
The African prejudice against gays and lesbians shocks me. This from a race that for centuries was enslaved colonized and discriminated against because they were considered less than human. Did we gain our political freedom so as to assume the role of oppressors of minorities amongst us? I don’t buy the claim that the majority don’t like gays and lesbians and thus we must pander to their prejudice. Or that gays and lesbians are an aberration in African culture.
This convenient use of culture as a weapon of oppression must not be condoned. Remember there was a time in some of our cultures when giving birth to twins was frowned upon or where being left handed attracted punishment. Culture is dynamic and not static and I fear our knee jack reaction to those of different sexual preferences sends us back to the primitive age. The media’s role in this sorry saga should be to educate and provide leadership to our homophobic and prejudiced political leaders and not to be cheer leaders.
Media’s role is to ensure inclusive policies, institutions and politics in Africa. And to always be aware that it is not always the case that the majority are right. I live in a country where the death penalty would be law if the public had their way.
And I sense that some among us have become culture police telling our mothers, sisters and daughters how long their skirts should be. As if our ancestors didn’t do great things across mother Africa’s hills and valleys skimpily dressed in animal hide.
Of course Uganda, like Zimbabwe, has a president who’s been at State House for several generations, and as we know this creates its own complications. It is not healthy for any leader to stay in power indefinitely as this invariably subverts the independence of institutions. In this regard the media must continue to push the envelope for checks and balances in our constitutions, political accountability and against the big man syndrome. None of our politicians are superhuman and they certainly have no monopoly of wisdom.
Perhaps I should also add that it would be incorrect to equate ‘politics’ with government, as some tend to do, especially when describing media freedom in Africa. There are many players in politics, including business, as well as other powerful civil society groupings that profoundly affect media freedom. By way of a first example, perhaps the South African scene will make this abundantly clear. Three years ago, in 2011, a South African court ruled that a song sung by Julius Malema that had the words “Kill the Boer, kill the farmer,” was hate speech and a violation of the constitution.
What was interesting about this incident was that a fringe group called Afriforum launched the court action, claiming that the song was more than speech, but it actually represented a real threat against them. While this was a victory for those who took Mr Malema to court, I think freedom of expression suffered from this ruling. I was surprised that so few who treasured freedom of expression had no difficulty accepting what was in effect a judicial limitation on freedom of expression.
It may well be that because they found the song offensive, they were able to reconcile themselves with this limitation on free speech. But courts don’t work in a vacuum and the limitations placed on Mr Malema can always be used to muzzle someone else who says what another group or individual find to be UNSAVOURY.
I have not chosen this example because I sympathize with Mr Malema but because it highlights an important point, that ‘freedom of expression must be protected even for those whose views we disagree with or even find repugnant. It is important for those of us who cherish both media freedom and freedom of expression to fiercely protect the rights of ALL TO FREELY EXPRESS THEIR VIEWS. As Noam Chomsky puts it so elegantly, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
Business, which often likes to position itself as independent and apolitical, is of course busy behind the scenes funding and supporting politicians. But business has always been highly political. Moreover the issue of corruption places business at the centre of Africa’s greatest scourge. As it has been said countless times, corruption mostly happens at the interface between the public sector and business. As media professionals we have to ensure that we insist on private sector accountability in the same way that we do for government and the public sector. I do think that there’s an unfortunate tendency of giving the private sector a free pass, and in my view this compromises our reputation as media professionals.
Our role in unearthing corruption in the private and public sector is tainted and compromised for as long as “brown envelop” or cheque book journalism is still a factor within our midst. This is why we at the Africa Media Initiative (AMI) have been driving the focus on leadership and ethics in our profession. Nobody will take us seriously for as long as there is a perception that some among us are paid by politicians and business man to write certain stories. We need to work hard to rescue our integrity and reputation.
Sometimes when you read dispatches from Western Foreign correspondents who work in Africa, you can be tempted to think that in their own countries there’s unfettered freedom of expression. These words should dispel that illusion: “It should be noted that the U.S. is a highly ideological society in which dissenting opinion is effectively marginalized as compared with other industrial democracies” These are the words of Noam Chomsky, who has dedicated a huge chunk of his career railing against empire.
But it is not only Western journalists that regularly get it wrong. The case of Joyce Banda in Malawi points to the fact that sometimes the media can be charmed by a leader who is nevertheless deeply unpopular amongst voters. It was fascinating to me to see how so many senior African journalists were taken aback by President Banda’s failure to be re-elected in the recent Malawi elections. The lesson from the Banda experience is that journalists have to guard against a powerful PR machinery and base their reporting from outside the bubble of power.
Lastly let me say that if the internet has in many ways made it easier for the media to operate with greater freedom, it also has unfortunately added barriers to meaningful journalism. There is no polite way to put this. There’s a lot of junk on the internet. Catchy headlines are often used to bait readers who don’t find the story promised. Clickbait is real and there is a justifiable backlash against it.
For my generation who grew up with state broadcasters and official newspapers, it has been exciting to be involved in pushing back against state monopoly on media. What my generation has achieved is significant. But I have no doubt that it is nothing compared to what the present generation is going to achieve. Be brave, organized and use your networks to build an infrastructure of independent, credible media voices that strengthen freedom of expression for all and not just your colleagues.