Dangers of a body that watches the watchdogs

When the European Union and the African Union decided recently to create a “Pan-African Media Watch project” to start in 2010, a number of eyebrows were understandably raised.

The proposed Media Watch—or “Observatory”—has its origins in a conference in Burkina Faso last September. That event was presided over by that country’s president, Blaise Compaoré—a man best known for murdering his predecessor Thomas Sankara.

He is also a leader who is widely criticised for the fact that the killers of Burkinabe journalist Norbert Zongo in 1978 have yet to be brought to book.

None of this record seems to bother either the EU or the AU. Convening the September 2008 meeting to discuss African media, under Compaoré‘s patronage, were the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Louis Michel, and the Chair of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping.

According to the conference report, the Burkinabe president told the assembled delegates that private media in Africa had made a key contribution to democratic debate ... and added a predictable “but”. There were, opined Compaoré, also “dangerous practices” from this sector such as “disformation, libellous or insufficiently documented reports, amateurism and corruption”.

It is in this vein that the meeting took forward a theme of putting the “responsibilities” of African media on a par with its rights. Such a “balance” is way out of kilter with what’s needed when suppression of rights is the dominant African reality—with even democracies like Botswana and Kenya passing retrogressive media laws recently.

But while participants at the Burkina meeting debated a wide range of subjects, the EU-AU Commission sponsors constructed the event as a mandate to pursue the specific objective of what they call a “Pan-African Media Watch”.

A consultative paper by the EU-AU describes the proposed new body as a way to benefit development. There is no reference to “democracy” in the same breath.

The purpose of the Media Watch is set out as being to mediate conflicts between media and government. This would be on the basis of a pan-African “media charter” that will lay down “the rights and responsibilities of the media”.

The institution, asserts the consultative paper, “must be recognised and respected by all the parties and ensure responsibility, quality, professionalism and ethical principles at continental level ...”

As an example of these principles, there is reference to the International Federation of Journalists, but there is silence about the landmark Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa (2002).

The consultative document also raises the scary prospect of an enforceable “mediation clause” whereby “both states and the media will agree to refer disputes to the president of the Media Watch before taking legal action”.

This coercive notion infringes upon many existing national arrangements. It further undermines the prospects for African regional courts, or the African Court of Human Rights, to make precedent-setting rulings against media persecution.

The EU-AU document envisages the Media Watch as initially being “an independent advisory board of the African Union”. It argues that this will give the institution “a fair degree of recognition and legitimacy among the member states”.

With these governmentalist leanings, who would actually control the Media Watch? The answer proposed by the EU-AU is to have half the board appointed by themselves. The other half would come out of a general assembly of African media stakeholders (including, presumably, government-controlled media).

Chairing this governing body would be a president who would also “direct the association”, and this official would be appointed by the EU and AU.

This stacking of power in strong favour of state authorities undermines the claims in the consultation document that the initiation could help guarantee the right to know and the right of expression.

The problems for most African journalists are not the absence of a continental Media Watch body. They are the lack of pressure on problematic governments, and the constraints on access to capital and media business expertise.

The envisioned new body is no substitute for addressing such system-related issues. It could even exacerbate their damage. Three scenarios exist:

  • At best, the Media Watch will provide only case-specific interventions (which the consultation document ominously says will be partly based on “compromise”)
  • At worst, it will be a Big Brother acting against the press;
  • A third possibility is for it to become a huge waste of resources that could have instead gone directly to independent media.

Faced with these three options, what ought African independent journalists to do?

My advice is this: we should avoid being watched by a pan-African Observatory, and we should instead continue doing what we have always have done, which is to watch out for ourselves.

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