Can African journalists construct citizen-centric communications?

The world’s biggest annual get-together of African journalists takes place in Grahamstown next week — at the 12th edition of the Highway Africa conference run by Rhodes University’s journalism school.

About 700 participants from more than 40 African countries are expected to take part in three days of talks, workshops and skills training. It’s a kind of “edu-tourism” made possible by the support of players such as the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the Department of Communications, MTN, Absa, Telkom, the Media Development and Diversity Agency and a host of foundations.

Adding to the buzz will be a dozen parallel events — including meetings by three different editors’ associations (covering the country, the region and the continent), by a grouping of small-scale publishers, and by bloggers who have their own “Digital Citizen Indaba”.

The conference will also see the launch of the African chapter of the Global Forum for Media Development, an alliance of more than 400 NGOs in 97 countries that lobby for press freedom, monitor media coverage, provide journalistic training and so on.

Citizen Journalism, Journalism for Citizens is the overall theme of the gathering. It refers in part to the growing possibilities for ordinary people to contribute to journalism via the mainstream media or through their own media such as blogs. Much of the conference is turned over to training both media and citizen journalists to do a better job — and how to relate to each other.

The other side of the equation is the extent to which journalism, from whatever source, contributes to democracy — and so the extent to which all journalists are also citizens. Much media content around Africa calls itself journalism, but is really a far cry from promoting citizens’ rights. It shamelessly promotes the rights of political rulers at the expense of broader human rights. And too often, audiences are treated as dumb markets to sell adverts into — as consumers, not citizens.

High on the Highway Africa agenda will be debates on how to deepen the democratisation role of the media, and how to democratise journalism itself through amateur contributions.

Much citizen media output, like much mainstream media output, has little public-interest relevance, and so the focus of proceedings will be on journalism as a distinct kind of content.

The conference will also wrestle with how journalism responds to people who are not citizens — such as foreigners who are subjects (even objects) sans rights within the African state in which they end up living.

Can such people be “citizens of the media” even if governments don’t recognise them politically? And can journalism, by them or by others (including professional journalists), help break down xenophobia and ensure their acceptance as at least equal “social citizens”?

Beneath all these deliberations, some interesting networking will be going on. Over the years, participants in Highway Africa have evolved into a community of sorts. Connections have grown between journalists across the continent, and even across English and French-speaking divides.

A research project during this year’s conference will map these linkages, with a view to identifying the frequency and directions of communication flows that arise from Highway Africa.

Going further, the research will dig into the value of connections started or strengthened at the conference. Using a theory called “social capital”, it will look at the relationship between “what you know” and “who you know” among the journalists in attendance.

Regular surveys of attendees already show they get a huge amount of value out of the event — contacts, knowledge and skills (and not forgetting fun). The research “trick” this year will be to assess how these benefits are reinvested — and if this adds value to the network as a whole.

That means investigating what the participating journalists put in, as well as get out. For example, it means looking at whether South African delegates hang out with each other at Highway Africa, or whether they get to know others at the event.

The research will follow what groups of participants talk about during tea breaks, and track the kinds of bilateral partnerships that are struck to mutual advantage — thereby contributing to the ongoing sustainability of the network.

It befits the status of Highway Africa that there is a deeper understanding of what the initiative means. There’s no doubt about the importance of African journalists assembling and discoursing en masse; what it all adds up to is worth serious study.

By understanding better how social relationships among journalists produce momentum, Highway Africa in future will be better able to carry forward communication in the interests of developing citizenship in Africa.

Disclosure: Guy Berger is the head of the Rhodes University school of journalism and media studies where Highway Africa is based

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