This was the question offered for the participants of the public debate held on November 6 at Eshetu Chole Hall of the Addis Ababa University-Faculty of Business and Economics Campus that opened the 6th AMLF 2013 African Media Leaders Forum organized in Addis Ababa.
Gathered to take part in this debate organized by the African Media Initiative (AMI) in collaboration with the School of Journalism and Communication of the Addis Ababa University and the Organization of Social Science and Research in Southern and Eastern Africa (OSSREA) were students from the university, media leaders and practitioners as well as inspired people whose life has been attached to journalism or who want to attach their lives to journalism, or those who have continued attachment with journalists (public relations and marketing and promotion practitioners), among others.
The public debate moderated by Professor Paschal Mihyo (ED OSSREA) discussed from the contribution of African media to the continent, its responsibilities, challenges, bottlenecks, and where it stands as far as international competition is concerned.
African Media’s Contributions
The African media has contributed a lot in transforming the continent at several junctures, according to most of those who spoke at the debate. “We did it during the struggle for independence. The media was very tough. We did it in the 70s in the struggle for human rights; we did it in the 80s in the struggle for democracy,” said Robert Kabushenga, CEO of Vision Group in Uganda.
Teguest Yilma, Deputy Editor in Chief of the oldest English weekly Capital newspaper, also affirms that the contribution of the media for the continent is massive. There is no doubt that media has become an important factor in determining the course of international affairs and the future of nations, just as economic prosperity, military strength, natural resources, and national will, she said. “So, we must admit that media in various African countries have played their part in the positive changes recorded in Africa,” Teguest said. “In Ethiopia, for instance, the issue of migration to Middle Eastern countries and the poor treatment of our citizens were brought forward through investigative reporting on several media, exposing the atrocious abuses. This led the Government to temporarily ban the travel of unskilled laborers to Middle Eastern countries, as well as taking measures on the local agents facilitating the voyage.”
There’s no doubt that the African media therefore are capable of transforming the continent, according to the attendants of the debate.
For Robert this is not even a topic of debate, he said. “Are African media capable of transforming the continent? Yes. That is not a debate,” he said. “We have the capacity. We have the capability. We have highly educated people, and the infrastructure. We know we can do it. The real question for the debate is “should we? And should we be obliged to?”
Abdissa Zeray (PhD), Dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at Addis Ababa University (AAU), said that conditions currently are far better compared to the colonial era of African media to play an important role in transforming the continent in the years to come.
African Media’s Responsibilities
Robert argued that the African media should be obliged of transforming the continent. “The audience that we serve is looking to us for leadership,” he said.
He believes that the newsrooms are the only hope left for articulating a direction for this continent. And if we fail them, they will look for leadership in power.
So he urged that it is time for the media to sit down and set their own agenda editorially: what do they want out of this continent. “Now is the time for us to sit down in the world that is contesting for resources, in the world that requires its intellectual resources to articulate vision in the future, in a continent that badly needs to engage its population in a fore looking process,” he said. “There’s the only place where that can happen-that is in the media houses in Africa. If we let ourselves follow other people’s agendas, we will have betrayed the spirit of Africa for ever and we should never ever comeback to Addis Ababa, the home of African liberation to talk about things.”
African Media’s Challenges
Discussions of several challenges and bottlenecks of the media also dominated the debate. For Abdissa (PhD), the hybrid democracy found in many African countries has its own negative impact in respect to the freedom of expression and the freedom of media as well. Abdissa said that even though the democratic way has already been introduced to the African continent, still transitions in many African democracies were not complete. “So they manifest an authoritarian kind of behavior coupled with democratic elements,” he said. The other challenge according to Abdissa is that there is uneasiness on the part of many of the African leaders to liberalize radio and television in many parts of Africa still today. Furthermore, he said that the draconian laws resulting from worries of terrorism and other national security reasons in one way or another infringes the freedom of expression and the operation of the media.
Teguest also said that “African media has failed to a great extent to execute its task in keeping governments honest and transparent, helping business thrive, and promoting public-private dialogues that it takes to develop shared agendas for transformation.”
The print media, which is generally seen as the haven for independent, critical, investigative reporting, has been under attack from ruling parties, who mostly view it as the opposition media, Teguest argued. “Media diversity remains limited, owing to inadequate legislative and policy interventions; and the print media remains highly expensive to run,” she added. She reminded attendees that defamation laws are actively used against journalists across Africa and investigative reporters in Africa get death threats, and many have been killed while others have been savagely beaten, and detained after publishing shocking stories incriminating government officials and corrupt business people.
Robert, who strongly believes that the media is a constant struggle, adds to the challenges of the media in executing its role for the transformation of the continent. “We debate here and assume the biggest enemy of freedom of expression is the government. You don’t know how many threats appeared from non-state actors who are equally powerful,” he said. “We comment about bad leadership as if it’s only in the political arena. There’s a bad leadership right here sitting in front of me. You [media leaders] oppress journalists, you pay them poorly; you go and collect money from CSOs in the name of aid,” he said.
Other media’s perspectives towards the continent
Robert feels and fears that the African media are not even reacting to other international media’s -namely CCTV (from China), al-Jazeera (from Qatar), and BBC (from the UK)- growing interest in the continent. “They are not coming here because they want to contribute to the growth and development of African media or support freedom of expression,” he said. “They are coming to serve a foreign policy agenda of their countries because this is where opportunity is for the next decades,” he said.
However, Abdissa responded saying, “Yes they have their own national interests. We shouldn’t be resentful of the fact that these media institutions are coming. What we need to do rather is develop our capacity and go to London, NY and Beijing.” “We are living in a global environment and therefore, we need to develop our capabilities to fit in a global world and we are not going to expect that those media are coming to do a Good Samaritan job,” he said.