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TheJournalofModernAfricanStudies/Volume30/Issue02/June1992,pp331340 DOI:10.1017/S0022278X00010740,Publishedonline:11November2008

Linktothisarticle: abstract_S0022278X00010740 Howtocitethisarticle: RobertMartin(1992).BuildingIndependentMassMediainAfrica.TheJournal ofModernAfricanStudies,30,pp331340doi:10.1017/S0022278X00010740 RequestPermissions:Clickhere


The Journal of Modem African Studies, 30, 2 (1992), pp. 331-340

Building Independent Mass Media in Africa by Robert Martin, Professor of Law and Journalism, The University of Western Ontario, London, and Secretary- Treasurer, The Commonwealth Associationfor Education in Journalism and Communication The 1980s were a terrible time for Africa. The decade began auspiciously enough - Nigeria had returned to civilian rule, the Tanzania People's Defence Force had sent Idi Amin packing, and the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe was about to win independence. But this promising beginning was quickly transformed and Africa sunk into its 'lost decade'. 1 What's the Problem? External and internal conditions reinforced each other, trapping the continent in a spiral of disaster. The prices of imported manufactured goods and oil soared, and the value of exported primary commodities fell; drought ravaged vast areas; environmental degradation and desertification proceeded apace; food production declined; population growth accelerated; famine became widespread; civil wars and strife, directly incited by South Africa in several cases, ravaged many countries and caused the numbers of refugees to swell. The brain drain also took its toll, as many of Africa's best qualified and most gifted men and women, the bulk of them educated at great expense to their nations, emigrated to developed countries. Declining national revenues meant less money to spend on already limited public services, and the burden of debt being carried by African states became unsupportable as their economies deteriorated. Health-care facilities, stretched beyond the breakingpoint by famine and war, began to collapse in the face of AIDS. Corrupt and oppressive rulers further entrenched themselves, and to make the everyday lives of many Africans often worse, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.), mesmerised by the 'free market' rhetoric of the Reagan/Thatcher counter-revolution, forced African states to endure the cruelty of structural adjustment programmes (S.A.P.s). Reduced to their crudest terms, these demanded a substantial diminution in the role of the state, leaving basic economic realities to be determined by the market. Structural adjustments had the predictable effect of making already oppressive conditions worse. The African situation was described as 'an unrelenting economic crisis of tragic proportions' in September 1991 by the U.N. Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar.2 Some of the indicia of that crisis are staggering. Africa is the
Society for International Development, The Challenge of Africa in the gos. Report of the North-South Roundtable Consultation, Ottawa, Canada, June 1718, iggi (New York, 1991), p. 5. 2 Javier Perez de Cuellar, Economic Crisis in Africa. Report of the U.N. Secretary-General Prepared for the Session of the Ad-Hoc Committee of the Whole of the U.N. General Assembly, 3-13 September iggi (New York, 1991), foreword.
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only continent where the annual rate of population growth increased throughout the 1980s, while concurrently food production per capita fell to the point where one-third of all the estimated 590 million inhabitants depend on imported food. Average daily caloric intakes are lower than in 1965. Africa's total debt burden today stands at more than 100 per cent of what it was in 1980. The average annual expenditure on health is U.S.$3.50 per person, the lowest of any continent. Given these realities, it is not surprising that Africa has the world's highest infant mortality rate. 3 The awful reality is that Africa is becoming marginalised. This is most evident in its declining share in world trade, amounting in 1990 to a mere 3 per cent.4 Through the 1980s, to put the matter as bluntly as possible, Africa came to matter less and less to the rest of the world. With the liquidation of the Cold War, Africa's strategic and political importance is likely to decline further. The global economy is becoming more integrated and more interdependent, and most of Africa is simply being left out of the process. The problem is not, as underdevelopment-dependency theorists once argued, that the continent is being exploited ;5 it is that Africa is being neglected. Few can have put the matter more clearly and succinctly than Joan Robinson: ' the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all'. 6 There have certainly been attempts both to understand and to reverse the African crisis. Internationally, the most important step was undoubtedly the establishment in 1986 of the U.N. Programme of Action for African Economic Recovery and Development. This was to remain in effect for five years, and African governments committed themselves to economic reform. For its part, the international community was to provide increased assistance, and to address Africa's declining terms of trade and the whole question of indebtedness. But while a number of states made significant reforms, not enough concrete support from the outside world was forthcoming. Debt and commodity issues were not dealt with satisfactorily, and net resource flows to Africa actually declined. Many regimes were forced to accept S.A.P.s as a condition of access to external financing. By the end of the U.N. Programme, Africa's income from exports had declined and its debt had grown.' It is painfully evident that a major, concerted effort by the world community to offer substantial assistance in addressing the continent's plight will not occur. Most African states, and most of their inhabitants, have long understood that they bear the primary responsibility for their own

See the press kit prepared by the Africa Recovery Unit, U.N. Department of Public Information, Africa: new compactfor co-operation (New York, 1991), and U.N. Economic Commission
for Africa, African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programmes for Socio-Economic Recovery and Transformation: a popular version (Addis A b a b a , 1991). 4 African Alternative Framework, p . 5.

For a powerful and compelling critique of underdevelopment-dependency theory, see Nigel

Harris, The End of the Third World: newly industrialising countries and the decline of an ideology

(Harmondsworth, 1986). 6 Joan Robinson, Economic Philosophy (Harmondsworth, 1964), p. 46. 7 Economic Crisis in Africa, pp. 2-3. According to ibid. p. 6, the U.N. Secretary-General saw structural adjustment programmes as a major factor in the failure of the U.N. initiative. Downloaded: 28 Apr 2013

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regeneration. Collectively, African leaders adopted in April 1980 the Lagos

Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa, ig8o-20OO, with the central

objective of alleviating poverty and improving standards of living, and thereafter at Arusha in February 1990 they proclaimed the African Charter for
Popular Participation in Development and Transformation:
The Charter calls for the emergence of a new era in Africa - an Africa in which democracy, accountability, economic justice and development for transformation become internalized and the empowerment of the people, initiative and enterprise and the democratization of the development process are the order of the day in every country.8

And in 1991, the African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programmes for Socio-Economic Recovery and Transformation was adopted. This was a formal

rejection by the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa of the strategy of S.A.P.s and called, instead, for the structural transformation of African economies. Meanwhile, many African states have not been idle. Measures have been adopted to improve economic performance and management, to institutionalise greater openness and democracy in government, to increase food production, to address and control environmental damage, to reduce population growth, and to enhance the developmental role of women. Some states, of course, have moved with greater alacrity than others. Despite, then, the trying conditions which exist, it would be profoundly misleading to see Africa as a continent of unrelieved misery, where helpless and hopeless people wait abjectly for well-intentioned foreigners to rescue them. There is an encouraging sense of rebirth and re-dedication, not least because of increasing evidence that Africans are prepared to confront and eventually overcome their desperate conditions.9
What Have Independent Mass Media Got to Do With the Problem?

Two questions must be addressed here. How can the mass media contribute to the process whereby Africans liberate themselves from their current predicament, and what do we mean by independent mass media? It is now almost conventional wisdom that if the process of regeneration in Africa is to succeed there must be more democracy and greatly enhanced popular participation. It is widely accepted that development from above the normal approach of the 1960s and 1970s-simply does not work. As claimed by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (O.E.C.D.) in 1990:
There is a vital connection, now more widely appreciated, between open, democratic and accountable political systems, individual rights and the effective and equitable operations of economic systems.10
8 U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, African Charter for Popular Participation in Development (Addis Ababa, 1990), pp. 1-2. 9 For a succinct review of the African situation and suggested responses, including literature discussing both, see Timothy M. Shaw, 'Reformism, Revisionism, and Radicalism in African Political Economy During the 1990s', in The Journal of Modem African Studies (Cambridge), 29, 2, June 1991, p. 191-212. 10 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Development Assistance Committee, Issues for the DAC High-Level Meeting (Paris, 19 September 1990), p. 7. Downloaded: 28 Apr 2013

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In expressing its own alternative to I.M.F./World Bank structural adjustment programmes, the Economic Commission for Africa noted:
The political environment is also a major cause of the African problems. Basic rights, individual freedoms and democratic participation are often lacking in African countries.11

And the E.C.A. went on to observe that one of the essential preconditions for achieving what it called ' a self-sustaining process of economic growth and development' was 'ensuring broad-based and democratic participation of the people in deciding on their needs and in producing them'. 12
i. The Role of the Mass Media

There are obviously different forms of democracy and many elements involved in the realisation of popular participation. None the less, there seems to be pretty-well universal agreement about the central importance of all forms of mass communication, notably public meetings, newspapers, journals, magazines, radio, and television. As affirmed by the U.N. Secretary-General in 1991, ' the media have an important role to play, both in education and in increasing popular participation in development ',13 and as recognised by the African Charter for Popular Participation in Development:
The national and regional media should make every effort to fight for and defend their freedom at all cost, and make special effort to champion the cause of popular participation and publicize activities and programmes thereof and generally provide access for the dissemination of information and education programmes on popular participation.14

The mass media thus have a dual role within Africa: to speak out freely and fearlessly about concrete conditions in their own and other states, and at the same time to be an instrument for informing and mobilising the people about their rights and obligations. But the African media also have responsibilities towards the outside world, because international news coverage, with a few noteworthy exceptions, has been and continues to be little short of abysmal. The world and Africa deserve better. As concluded by a 1991 conference of prominent Africans and others, which sought to come to grips with the difficulties facing the continent:
The media has a particularly pivotal role in shaping or reshaping - Africa's image. Within Africa itself, freedom of the press is essential for the development of a democratic and enquiring culture and for greater transparency in decision-making. A vibrant African press can, in turn, have an impact on the quality of reporting from Africa by the Northern media. Greater efforts also need to be expended by African governments, U.N. agencies, and development organisations to provide journalists, both African and foreign, with accurate and useful information, and for governments to give them greater freedom of movement and activity. This will enable the media to report on Africa's economic and social situation with greater understanding of the underlying issues, and hopefully with more sympathy for what Africans are seeking to achieve.15
11 13 14 15 12 African Alternative Framework, p. 3. Ibid. p. 10. Economic Crisis in Africa, p. 11. African Charter for Popular Participation in Development, p. 28. The Challenge of Africa in the gos, p p . 11-12. Downloaded: 28 Apr 2013

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2. Independent Mass Media


There is long-standing tradition in Africa, one which predates political independence, of the state denying the freedom of the mass media.16 Various forms of control are practised today. These range, in the case of newspapers, from direct state ownership (Tanzania), to state ownership through an intermediary (Zimbabwe), to harassment and intimidation directed at privately-owned publications (Kenya). Throughout Africa all internal broadcasting is exclusively state-owned. At the very least, independence requires that the mass media be free from state control and coercion. For newspapers, this means an end to direct or indirect state ownership. The case of broadcasting is considerably more problematic. It is clear in most African countries that a significant level of state funding is essential if good quality radio and television services are to be maintained. Since private broadcasting following the North American model is not desirable, for reasons to be set out later, the ideal approach would appear to depend on the creation of a public corporation whose operational independence from the government of the day is guaranteed. But an end to state ownership and control will not be enough. A legal system which ensures that journalists will be able to do their work free from government interference is essential, as well as safeguards against financial pressures which would have the effect of compromising the independence of the mass media. The latter ought to be protected from manipulation by the economically powerful, whether they be African or foreign. There is a real danger that newspapers and other publications may be free from state control only to be swallowed up by international interests. This problem is particularly acute with broadcasting, especially television, because the costs of production are such that many African networks have already allowed themselves to become dumping grounds for old, and often inferior, western programmes. In a sense, the concern here is with being clear about what independence does not mean. It must not mean independence from the society of which the African mass media are an integral feature. They are a means by which the people come to understand their own predicament and how they are to overcome it. The mass media are a channel through which the people speak to each other. But they must also be critical, prepared to identify failures and shortcomings. There is a subtle and difficult balance to be struck here. The primary responsibility for achieving this rests with African journalists.
What Can Be Done to Build Independent Mass Media ?

There have been many attempts to address the situation of the mass media in Africa and in other parts of the Third World. Undoubtedly the best known of these was the 1980 Unesco document officially titled Many Voices, One World,
18 Two interesting legal decisions which illustrate this are Wallace-Johnson v. R. [1940] A.C. 231 J.C.P.C.) and D.P.P. v. Obi [1961], All Nigeria Law Reports 186 (F.S.G.). Although the first case is from the pre-independence Gold Coast and the second is from post-independence Nigeria, what is striking about them is the similarity of the statements which led to criminal prosecutions for sedition.


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but known more popularly as the MacBride report.17 This led, to put it mildly, to considerable controversy, not least because the report centred itself squarely in both East-West and North-South disputes over the meaning of freedom of expression, and, therefore, the proper role for the mass media, nationally and internationally. While the MacBride report was eventually submerged under Cold War divisions, it would be unfortunate if it were totally forgotten, because it had many useful things to say, particularly about the way large media corporations dominate the international flow of news and information. However, the more contemporary process of addressing the issues involved in building independent mass media in Africa has only just begun.
1. The iggi Windhoek Seminar

The Department of Public Information of the United Nations and the Office of Public Information of Unesco jointly organised a seminar in Windhoek, from 29 April to 3 May 1991, aimed at promoting an independent and pluralistic press in Africa.18 While this gathering dealt exclusively with newspapers, it did raise a number of issues which are generally relevant to the media in Africa. As Paul Ansah of the University of Ghana put it in one of the background papers, there is a 'new wind of change' blowing through Africa.19 This wind is, as we have seen, causing serious and difficult questions to be raised about free expression generally, and the freedom of the press in particular. It was a wise decision to hold the seminar in Namibia, because what happens in the latest-independent country will have significant ramifications both in Southern Africa and throughout Africa as a whole. The basic structure of the programme, however, could have been improved. When Alain Modoux, Director of Unesco's Office of Public Information, introduced the first working session, he suggested that the seminar should have three objectives: to examine the problems involved in the development of an independent and pluralistic press in Africa, to identify solutions, and to list concrete actions to be followed. But much of the discussion was abstract, mainly because there were too many plenary sessions and too few smaller meetings or workshops. As a result, the seminar was long on statements of commitment to the ideal of a free press in Africa, and painfully short on the formulation of what actual steps should be taken in order to achieve that goal. A great deal of time was devoted to 'witnessing' because a variety of journalists understandably wished to describe incidents of official harassment or intimidation. For example, Kenneth Best, a Liberian exile, presented a moving account of the lengths to which the authorities in Monrovia had been prepared to go in their attempts to silence him. The seminar formally appealed to the U.N. Secretary-General to intervene on behalf of Gitobu Imanyara, the
17 Unesco, Many Voices, One World: towards a new, more just and more efficient world information and communication order. Report by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems (Paris,

1980). 18 The author attended the Windhoek seminar as the representative of the Canadian International Development Agency. 19 Paul A. V. Ansah, ' The Legal and Political Framework for a Free and Pluralistic Press in Africa', Windhoek, 1991, p. 31. Downloaded: 28 Apr 2013

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editor of The Nairobi Law Monthly, who was to have taken part in the seminar, but had been imprisoned by the Kenyan Government. A number of speakers affirmed that the emergence of a free press is an essential feature of the general process of democratisation which is occurring in Africa, and is also crucial to economic and social development. While it was conceded that newspapers had been forced to operate under exceedingly trying conditions, their work was, none the less, open to criticism. Francis Kasoma of the University of Zambia referred to the ' pathetic performance of the African mass media', 20 and several others spoke of self-censorship. Many disparaging remarks were made about the all-too-common style of journalism known as 'the Minister said'. Another significant and recurring theme was that the training ofjournalists was inadequate. Given the importance of both basic and specialised training, there was a need (i) for more African written and oriented teaching materials, (ii) for more efforts to be made to recruit women as students, (iii) for more emphasis on professional ethics, and (iv) for more attention to be paid to the rural areas, as well as environmental issues. It was agreed that some of those responsible for providing training were, themselves, insufficiently qualified or experienced in journalism, and a call was made for a Unesco-funded survey of existing training institutions, that would look at, amongst other things, curricula, admissions standards, and qualifications offered. There should be greater co-ordination of training throughout Africa, involving, at least, the sharing of information about national, regional, and international opportunities. There was considerable discussion of the need to create a cadre of welltrained newspaper and media managers, as well as for much expanded training in the use and maintenance of modern newsroom and production facilities. The technological backwardness of African newspapers was acknowledged^ and various proposals for addressing this were advanced, including the creation and circulation of a newsletter to provide information on relevant developments. The idea of providing preferential rates for journalists, news agencies, and publications using national and international telecommunications facilities was canvassed. It was also recognised that a number of legal questions were relevant to the emergence of an independent and pluralistic press. There was a general sense that any guarantee of freedom of expression in a constitution was likely to be of little value in and of itself, and that in Africa a wide range of issues will have to be considered in developing a practical system of media laws to promote the freedom of the press. Obviously there are serious problems about legislation which requires the licensing of newspapers or which gives executive authorities broad discretion to detain persons without trial. It would also be necessary to look carefully at less obviously related matters, such as import controls and licensing (which can be used to prevent newspapers securing newsprint and spare parts), and the way in which government advertising is allocated, as well as tax laws, especially as they relate to newspapers. Legislation should
20 Francis Kasoma, 'Technical Cooperation for Communication Development in Africa', Windhoek, 1991, p. 9. Downloaded: 28 Apr 2013

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guarantee the right of journalists to form national unions, which ought, in turn, be free to affiliate themselves with regional and -international organisations. And there was, of course, much discussion of financial issues. How can newspapers generate sufficient revenue from advertising in underdeveloped economies not geared towards mass consumption? Or, as a participant from Benin asked:' How can we sell advertisements in a country where there are no shops?' These concerns led to an examination of ways of expanding readership beyond a small urban elite, given the problems of distributing newspapers outside the main towns and cities, not least because of unreliable transportation and lack of spare parts. The difficulties and costs of purchasing newsprint and up-to-date technology were raised again and again, and they led inevitably, as in any discussion of the economies of most African states, to the fundamental question of the scarcity of foreign exchange and governmental priorities for its allocation. While the will to create an independent and pluralistic press in Africa might exist, there were real questions about whether there was enough money to do so. There was general agreement that if Africa is to succeed in this endeavour, substantial external assistance by overseas governments and international organisations will be necessary, especially by helping (i) to create new schools and departments of journalism and communications; (ii) to expand practical training; (iii) to finance press feasibility studies; (iv) to help local banks by guaranteeing loans to newspapers; and (v) to assist in the formulation of legal structures and rules to permit the establishment of an independent press. The final plenary session adopted the official seminar report, as well as the Declaration of Windhoek. This expressed a strong and unequivocal commitment to a free and independent press in Africa, set out a number of proposals, some more specific than others, for action, and stated in forceful terms an abhorrence of censorship, and of the harassment and intimidation of journalists. In particular, the Declaration called upon the General Assembly of the United Nations to declare all forms of censorship to be violations of human rights. The seminar was important, notably because as many as 60 African journalists, along with other interested persons, collectively expressed their desire to see an 'independent and pluralistic press' in Africa, and attempted to begin the work of achieving that goal. There was a general sense that this did not involve the unthinking replication of the same sort of press as exists in developed countries. The notion of a 'free' press could not be embraced in Africa without critical scrutiny. It would have to be adjusted to the realities and needs of the continent.
2. Possible Follow-up Action

The kind of projects which might be adopted to further the development of an independent and pluralistic press in Africa can be grouped under three headings of concern which emerged at Windhoek. Downloaded: 28 Apr 2013

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1i) Training (a) Twinning of newspapers. This would occur within the assumption that two-way relationships were being created, with both benefits and responsibilities for the newspapers in a developed country and those in Africa.21 The specific details would vary from one arrangement to another, but might include (i) the training of reporters, editors, technical staff, and managers, with possibilities for exchanges of personnel; (ii) the transfer of no longer used, but serviceable, equipment, especially computers, to African newspapers; (iii) the supply of newsprint - for example, recycled paper; and (iv) the opportunity for sharing both news stories and information on technological advances. One great benefit of twinning is that it could be a means of getting newspapers in, for example, North America and Europe directly involved in development work in Africa, as well as making use of the skills and experience of some of their retired staff. (b) Management training. This would embrace a range of financial, planning, administrative, legal, and technical matters. Here is a field to which little attention has so far been devoted, but where opportunities exist for co-operative training ventures between university schools of business and journalism in Africa and in developed countries, as well as research into media management. (c) Database project. If training is to be made more effective, there is a need for complete, systematic, and widely-available information about the existing institutions, facilities, equipment, and instructors involved, in Africa and elsewhere, in training journalists. Hence the significance of the database project of the Commonwealth Association for Education in Journalism and Communication. The first phase, financed by the Commonwealth of Learning, is now complete namely, a detailed inventory of journalism/communications training institutions and staff and this will be followed up by a descriptive inventory of Commonwealth mass media. (2) Technology Entering some newsrooms in Africa is like visiting a museum. Reporters are pounding typewriters, copy is being readied for linotype operators, and few if any word-processors or computers are to be seen. By way of contrast, throughout developed countries - in government departments, large corporations, universities, publishing firms - a lot of perfectly serviceable equipment is not being used. For example, computers with 286 micro-processors have been replaced by the next generation (386 and 486), as have dot-matrix by laser printers. A project of immediate practical value would involve finding suitable computers which are now gathering dust in storerooms, repairing them where necessary, collecting and classifying them, and shipping them, complete with the necessary software, to African newspapers and schools of journalism. Such a scheme would also necessarily involve training in the use and maintenance of the equipment.

Issues for the DAC High-Level Meeting, p. 6, specifically recommended twinning.

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(3) Law The seminar demonstrated a clear need for research and study in the field of media law, very broadly defined. This would involve, first, preparing detailed descriptive inventories of the way that existing legislation affects newspapers and broadcasters in different African states. The second, and more important stage, would see the development of normative principles for African media law, followed by the creation of codes which expressed the legal rights and obligations of journalists.
3. Likely Development Assistance

Unesco is currently moving ahead with devising a number of helpful projects, including the use of modern production technology, and the development of newspaper management structures, as well as the continuing concerns about law, both as it relates to journalists and freedom of the press, and as it affects customs and taxation matters, and training. The proceedings of the Windhoek seminar were redolent with expectations that substantial amounts of external finance would be available to support the initiatives necessary to build independent mass media. Unesco is contemplating devoting around U.S.$8 million, and various aid agencies in developed countries are considering related projects. It would, however, be a profound error for African governments or journalists to assume that the bulk of the very considerable costs involved will be met from external sources. If the experience of the 1980s teaches anything, it is that the wealthier nations of the world cannot be relied upon to rescue the continent. The primary responsibility for building independent mass media in Africa rests with Africans.

' Democracy' has become an exceedingly fashionable word in recent years. Many who had previously advocated non-democratic approaches to development have now jumped on the bandwagon.22 And a genuine popular movement in favour of democracy is beginning to make itself felt. We can safely assume that Kenneth Kaunda is only its first major casualty. Still, a degree of detachment from the current enthusiasm may be useful. To begin with, we should remind ourselves that there are several possible variants of democracy,23 although much of the current discussion appears to assume that the 'liberal' variety is the only possibility. Further, no one should imagine that the introduction of democracy, in whatever form, is going to lead inevitably to development. The experience of many countries demonstrates that it is possible for this political system to co-exist with poverty and backwardness. Analytically, one must guard against the enthusiasm for democracy obscuring a back-door re-birth of long-discredited theories about modernisation. The simple point is not to become mesmerised by democracy. To conclude where I began, the concrete concern is to address and overcome Africa's crisis. That goal must never be lost sight of.


See, as an example, several of the essays in Review of African Political Economy (Sheffield), 50, 23 See C. B. Macpherson, The Real World of Democracy (London, 1966).
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