SADC must be more open about region-building
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) needs to adopt a more genuinely democratic approach to spreading the word about its work and to win broader popular support for, and participation in, the regional integration project, said participants at a recent meeting convened by the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town.
The SADC website, in particular, is a crucial means for stakeholders to have access to correct and relevant information on the Community, yet the information on it is neither comprehensive nor always up-to-date. Although SADC meetings are held in all three working languages of the Community — English, French, and Portuguese — the website and the SADC secretariat newsletter are unavailable in Portuguese or French. Furthermore, available information about SADC, its nature, and its functions is often couched in inaccessible legalese or highly technical language.
In the absence of greater efforts to communicate the work and mission of the regional body more accurately and in clear, understandable terms, it is feared negative perceptions may mount of SADC as an organisation with an undemocratic lack of concern for its citizens and a wariness of sharing information to promote greater public accountability.
Equally important is the need for SADC to show the relevance of its initiatives, such as the beneficial impacts of one-stop border posts, key government officials, media experts, civil society activists, and academics from South Africa were told.
Promotion of SADC in this manner is a key task of the secretariat at the regional level and SADC national media coordinators at the country level, although they exercise this responsibility with varying degrees of commitment, the meeting, which was held to discuss ways of fostering popular participation in the regional body, was told.
In addition, the chair of the SADC national media coordinators — currently South Africa — changes with the rotation of the SADC chair, generating a relative lack of continuity that could be viewed as impeding the implementation of a coherent, multi-year communications strategy at the highest level within the organisation.
Positive initiatives include the publication of monthly SADC newsletters and the SADC Media Awards, covering print, radio, television, and photojournalism, with winners announced at the annual SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government. The South African government also distributes the Community’s publication, SADC Success Stories, to relevant stakeholders and at all events held by the regional body. There is an outstanding need, though, to foster a stronger understanding of the Community and its regional integration agenda among the media; and support the development of a regional network of journalists specialising in SADC.
Another key initiative is the provision of a television channel in each member state for the broadcast of SADC news, with a view to creating greater, popular intra-regional awareness of key socio-economic stories and issues among SADC countries.
Other creative promotional initiatives have also been taken. For example, in Zambia, a governance communications programme has been established, under which listener groups congregate around radios distributed by the government every Thursday, with someone taking notes and reporting back on the issues raised — a potential model of interest to other countries seeking to promote greater public awareness of the regional integration agenda.
Yet some SADC member states themselves can at times seek to impede public access to information and decision-making processes at the highest levels. Such fundamental disrespect for governance and transparency among some national governments makes it vital for civil society groups – including the media – to coordinate regionally in campaigns to promote freedom of information legislation and its implementation.
In response to the challenges identified in relation to raising SADC’s media profile and broadcasting more widely the socio-economic benefits of regional integration, civil society activists, media representatives, academics, and officials offered a range of recommendations.
They stressed the need for the SADC secretariat and SADC national media coordinators to communicate information about the regional organisation’s functions and operations, as well as the case for regional integration, in more accessible ways including through the use of local languages and popular formats such as community radio programmes.
They recommended that relevant, correct, and up-to-date information on SADC in all three working languages of the community — English, French and Portuguese — should be made available on a continuously updated website.
It was also advised that greater and sounder understanding of SADC and its regional integration agenda needs to be fostered in the media, for wider, more informed, and balanced reporting of the community’s initiatives by print, radio, television, and photo journalists. To that end, SADC must consider building on existing initiatives, such as its media awards, and scale-up the training of journalists, for example, through strengthening the capacity of regional and national training institutions for media practitioners to incorporate regional integration issues into their curricula; and through formats for journalists to share expertise and encourage networking, such as training workshops that made be held at the same time as the regional body’s annual summit of heads of state and government.