Marking a milestone for African media

East Africa’s powerful media house, The Nation Group, celebrated its 50th birthday last week with a major media conference.

Adding continental aspects to the event were two influential bodies that partnered with it:

  • The Africa Media Initiative, a body that is gaining momentum in its quest to become a facility for attracting major funding into the continent’s media sector.
  • Highway Africa, which operates the world’s largest annual gathering of African journalists, and which launched its “Reporting Development News Agency” (rDNA) at the conference.

The gathering drew a host of African politicians as speakers, including Kenya’s top leadership, the Rwandan president and the former leaders of Mozambique and Tanzania.

I was also a speaker at the conference, talking about Africa’s international image. Though I wasn’t on the same panels as the politically powerful, I shared the stage with a certain member of rock band U2.

That in turn led one conference delegate to tweet: “@guyberger is seated at the right hand of Bono! #heavenonearth #AfMediaConf”.

Still, attendees couldn’t have mistaken the popstar as the man who really counted, given that the Kenyan information minister had earlier introduced his country’s leader Mwai Kibaki as not only “President” but also “Commander of the Armed Forces”.

As expected, the politicians lectured the conference on the need for media to be more “responsible”. But even so, they were a million miles away from the threatening tactics of the beleaguered ANC Youth League.

The meaning of “responsible journalism” can be debated within a context of media freedom and fragile social cohesion, but the starting point always needs to be media freedom.

Despite their if’s and but’s, the dignitaries at the Kenya conference went along with what was, in effect, a major celebration of media freedom. That’s progress, albeit still only symbolic.

Tellingly, The Nation Group itself has walked a delicate path through varying despotisms in Kenya’s past. To not only survive, but also thrive, has also been a huge political challenge.

For instance, the company had to pursue negotiations for more than 10 years in order to be allowed to enter the broadcasting business.

And in neighbouring Uganda, where the group owns The Monitor newspaper (that competes with government paper New Vision), it’s not always guaranteed how much leeway there is for press freedom.

Highlighting the challenges was conference speaker David Dadge of the International Press Institute. He pointed out an inverse correlation between the press freedom ranking of different African countries, and the number of years their presidents had held onto power.

The Nation company founder, Aga Khan, said the firm’s survival had depended on both good journalism and on convincing governments that there was a difference between being independent, and being oppositional.

However, several voices in the conference’s Twitter stream complained that The Nation group had not always been sufficiently independent. And a study by Connie Kisuke, whose research I supervised, has shown the flagship paper to be weak on reflecting the voices of women and ordinary Kenyans.

Yet notwithstanding these criticisms, the 50th birthday event succeeded in getting political bigwigs — their reservations aside — to pay lip-service to press freedom. That makes it just a little bit harder for old habits of press control to be revived.

The dividends of this are of benefit not just to media houses like The Nation, but also to African societies at large, and to the international image of Africa.

This point was underlined, indirectly, by remarks from the floor by Richard Dowden, director of the UK’s Royal African Society.

A former Africa Editor of The Economist, he disclaimed personal responsibility for his publication’s infamous cover of Africa as “the hopeless continent”. Although he had personally witnessed terrible things in Africa, said Dowden, there had never been despair and hopelessness.

What the continent needed, Dowden proposed, were media images of hope arising from normal life in Africa, which could then balance out the bad stories. No one, he said, thought the USA was in chaos just because of the New Orleans floods. There had been a prior stock of different stories there, to offset that impression.

The Kenyan conference itself provided a visible manifestation of Dowden’s thesis. It played a part in the gradual consolidation of press freedom as a norm in Africa. That’s certainly a story worth telling.

  • This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, The views expressed in it are those of the author.
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