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Media in Africa: Winning in a brave new world

Saturday July 17 2010

By LINUS GITAHI

"Africa is on the verge of take off", says a newspaper in South Africa after successfully hosting the World Cup.

"When will Africa wake up from its slumber?”….goes another one in Nigeria. Both these stories elicit thousands of reactions from readers, not just in the respective countries but in the world.

The media landscape has changed dramatically in  the last few years; not just in terms of the way news is consumed, but even more profoundly, who contributes to the news. Increasingly, it is the citizen journalist who is calling the shots. 

The first pictures I saw of the July 11 terrorist bombings in Kampala, Uganda were from a young university student.

In this brave new world, how does media in Africa distinguish itself and remain the Fourth Estate that it really should be?  

Here are my 10 canons of having a good vibrant media in Africa.

1)  Self regulation. It is important that media in every country has a strong self regulation mechanism. Debate rages from country to country about whether this regulation should be statutory or simply an internal agreement among the media.

Having been involved in battles with government over this matter for the last 3 years, I have come to the conclusion that the answer lies somewhere in between.

It is important to have the force of law for errant members but the decision makers on what is an “errant” should lie primarily with the media itself.

That is where we settled in Kenya, where we  have a Media Council and a Complaints Commission that is run completely independent of government, but whose decisions have the force of a High Court. Leaving it completely to gentleman’s agreement seems, in my experience, a stretch too far.

2) It is important that content regulation be under one roof. While the media landscape is itself changing and platforms evolving, it is about the good old content - whether it is online, TV or print, its content! Creating different regulatory agencies can be avoided if all stuff is under one roof. Imagine a situation where there is a complaint on a story in a media house which has appeared in both print and TV and one has to defend it in different places with different agencies!

3) Self regulation has also got to be seen to be independent. Media must be courageous enough to bring into their self regulation body, other stake holders. e.g an umbrella religious body. These serve in many senses to provide perspectives that the media might miss out, particularly when dealing with complaints. In the same vein, having a nominee from a lawyer’s body also helps to bring in a legal perspective to the deliberations.

4) Media must play its role of positively influencing society and help to instill proper values amongst the citizenry. The reality is that media shapes many things in a society and as a stakeholder in a country, must seek to drive the right values. This includes what we show on television, say on radio, and write in our newspapers. If media  does not do a good job of this(While remaining steadfast in its watch dog role),then its very likely that a country or a society could be driven to disintegrate, or at least not pull together with a great sense of patriotism which is necessary to make progress.

5)  Media in Africa must do more to celebrate good deeds, good performance etc. Media has a role, while showing what is, to be hope creators. As we call every one to account, we must proportionately honour those who have walked the straight and narrow and achieved in whatever field. This is an area that western media do a lot better,  while African media often jump into the western created band wagon of showing a hopeless continent! I must say I was impressed by CNN last year. When America plunged into the worst financial crises in recent history, CNN after only 3 weeks started running a series called “Road to Recovery”…at that time there was no recovery in sight and even today its debatable. But they helped to create hope and urged Americans on. Can we expect that in Africa?

6)  Media in Africa must embrace citizen journalism. Time has come when media talking down to the citizens is no longer tenable. Media must do whatever it takes to promote a two way conversation with the citizens. If we do not do this, the conversations will continue elsewhere and we shall be ignored!

7)  Media must do its bit to be a catalyst of development. We must devote enough time and space to this. It’s our patriotic duty. We must learn to distinguish between the country (Which we all hopefully love regardless of which one we find ourselves in) and the government of the day. Many times, the screw ups of the government of the day make media paint the country in such gloomy ways that  outsiders simply think its hell on Earth. I recently bought a t-shirt in New York with the caption….”I love my country, it’s this Government that I fear”.

8) Media in Africa must cooperate on the basis of what they have in common. We must find a way of sharing news among ourselves in order to create the right economies of scale and reduce costs. Why should we not pick news from our reputable newspaper colleagues in Nigeria and not rely on a download from New York. We must as much as possible strive to tell our story ourselves !

9)  Media personnel. Journalists must be well trained. Period. Certainly at Nation Media Group, we have a media lab that trains university graduates over a period of 9 months to hone their skills before releasing them to the various platforms….but we need and we shall do more. This is one area every media house must invest in heavily if we want our story to be told properly. It is key if media has to play its rightful role in the development of this continent.

10) Media must remain fiercely independent of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary if they have to perform their sacred role in the societies that they operate in. Indeed, the more independent the media the more democratic a country is likely to be and, in most cases, the more progressive the country is likely to be.

•THE AUTHOR is the Chief Executive Officer of Nation Media Group.