THE AFRICAN MEDIA AND THE NEW WORLD


General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida

Being an address at the World Congress Institute and 52th General Assembly of the International Press, Nairobi, Kenya, 20th – 24th May, 2005.

It is an honour to be invited to chair this session of the IPI World Congress and General Assembly. Over the years, the International Press Institute has become one of the most prestigious and influential organisations providing, among its numerous other functions, a unique forum for a robust exchange of ideas among statesmen, journalists, business leaders and all those who mould and control the flow of information and ideas in the world.

It is auspicious that this year’s conference is taking place on African soil. It is even more remarkable that Kenya was chosen as the venue for this year’s conference. I want to join the organisers and other dignitaries here present to express our appreciation first to President Mwai Kibaki for the warmth of his hospitality and fraternal good wishes and to the government and people of Kenya for their kind generosity and the excellent facilities made available for this conference. I am sure most conference participants will return to their respective countries with pleasant memories of this most hospitable country which has become the African tourism destination of choice.

Kenya’s political history testifies to the resilience of Africa’s inherent democratic spirit and heritage. In many ways, it also foreshadows the hope that democracy has a bright future in Africa. From a heroic anti-colonial struggle to political independence, Kenya has had a strong tradition of multiparty democracy and political stability which, in spite of its understandable shortcomings, ought to be a source of pride to Africans. The last general elections in this country easily provide a ready benchmark for measuring the state and prospects of democracy in Africa. Here, a coalition of opposition parties was able to wrest power from a long ruling party without a threat to the continued existence and stability of the country. This was an election in which the Kenyan media played a most vital role, demonstrating the inevitable linkage between freedom of the media and the cause of freedom and democracy.

Today, Africa perhaps more than the Arab world and Central Asia is making great strides in democracy. In places where previously history had compelled nations to live under undemocratic rule, voices of freedom are being heard and heeded. Where the organs of mass information used to be muffled by the jackboot of authoritarian rule, there is a flowering of media establishments with a diversity of voices and perspectives.

It ought to be admitted that in the period between the mid-1960s and the mid-80s, most of Africa came under one form of dictatorship or the other. These were in the form of either outright military rule or one man single party dictatorships. Historically, dictatorship and press freedom do not travel comfortably in the same wagon. Therefore cases of infringement on the rights of the media and the outright suppression of freedom of expression were rampant. Without justifying some of the worst excesses of this period, we need to understand that that was a phase in the evolution of modern African societies. It can in fact be argued that in the battle against dictatorship and authoritarian rule, the African media and the societies they serve honed their democratic instincts. It is perhaps the experience of loss or lack of freedom in those days that has quickened the resolve of most African societies that never again will the frontiers of freedom be limited by the desires and designs of any one man or clique in power.

African history has moved forward. Dictatorship has gone out o fashion not only because it runs counter to the spirit of freedom but more because history has shown that the human spirit is best actualised in a free state. Democracy and market economics are now the norm not because they are a vogue but because history has shown that development, progress and happiness for the greatest majority are better served by freedom. Of course there remain isolated pocket of resistance to the wave of democratic renaissance in Africa.

In accordance with the new spirit of freedom, there has been corresponding increase in the number of independent media outlet: Thus, while in the 1980s it was only Botswana, the Gambia and Mauritius that had media that could be described as free and independent, today, majority of African countries are democracies of one form or the other and now have a growing number of private and reasonably independent media. The number is still growing while the frontiers of media freedom continue to expand.

FLOWERING OF AFRICA’S INDEPENDENT MEDIA

The upsurge in private media ownership has come with a corresponding decline in government ownership and control of mass media in a good number of African countries. Private newspapers have recently overwhelmed previously government controlled ones in terms of both audience appeal and technical quality. In nearly every African country, there is now any number of private electronic and print media outlets. Radio and television houses have increased exponentially in the continent, up to a hundred-fold by most informed estimates. From a little more than 10 independent radio stations in 1985, there are now over 1000 such stations in Africa. And still rising. Even though television is still largely dominated by the state in Africa, the number of independent stations has continued to rise since the late 1980s.

In Nigeria, for instance, we liberalised media ownership by licensing private television and radio stations in the late 1980s. The result is that today, there are over 100 newspapers and magazines circulating in the country and over 30 private radio stations. There are over a dozen private television stations, some of them hooked onto digital satellite networks that enable them to reach beyond the frontiers of the country to speak to the continent and the rest of the world. These co-exist with over 40 government owned television stations and an equal number of radio stations. The same trend is taking hold in many other African countries.

Implicit in the statistical rise in the number of independent media outlets is a higher degree of choice for the audience and the freedom to explore diverse expressive possibilities by media practitioners.

AFRICAN MEDIA AND OUR NEW DEMOCRACIES

Increased press freedom naturally confronts Africa’s emerging democracies with familiar challenges in the age long problematic relationship between the media and governments. While democracy would seem to go naturally with freedom of the media, in reality, specific governments usually define their relationship with the media. This is why press freedom still comes under threat even in the most advanced democracies of the world. Constitutional guarantees of press freedom and the existence of laws governing free expression provide the best guarantees against abuse by both side, but do not on themselves end the suspicious relationship between power and the world.

Where a government’s perception of the national interest and national security run counter to the media’s responsibility to inform credibly, there is an inevitable conflict. In the recent past, we all were witnesses to the war of nerves between the BBC and the British government over that network’s handling of classified information concerning the issue of weapons of mass destruction in the Iraq war. Similarly, although the United States government allowed journalists to be ’embedded’ with the advancing forces in the Iraq war, there were moments when the judgment of individual commanders in the theatre of conflict had to override and limit the freedom granted the media to report the progress of the war for a worldwide live audience.

The media in the pursuit of its cardinal objectives of information, education and entertainment often finds itself running counter to the wishes of the government in power. Sometimes, journalists are at a loss as to why the free discharge of their professional duties should elicit unfriendly responses from governments. The truth is that more often than not, while the ends of a free press and those of democratic governments may be identical, their means differ.

The politician pursues national interest and the common good from the vantage position of power and the exclusive custody of classified information on national security. On the other hand, the media have a professional responsibility to seek access to all manner of information and use same to inform the public. Ordinarily, this responsibility is one which ought to carry the concomitant obligation of discretion so as not to jeopardise national security or compromise the national interest. There is also a simultaneous imperative to guard national security while guaranteeing democratic freedom of access to inform and be informed. But we find that journalists sometimes abdicate this much needed discretion to the embarrassment of the politician.

The corollary is also true. Politicians, irked by the audacity and irreverence of journalists in certain situations, resort to measures which end up violating the fundamental imperative of freedom of expression.

In Africa today, freedom and democracy are imperatives. But they are imperatives that invoke and provoke other urgent challenges. For us, freedom would be meaningless if it does not include freedom from the worst afflictions that plague our societies. We must quickly rescue our societies from extremes of poverty, disease, hunger and ignorance. We need to snatch our youth from the fangs of stifling unemployment. We need to retrieve our infrastructures from decay. We need to reinvigorate our commerce and industry with the power of new ideas because the world which for a long time ignored Africa cannot reclaim its humanity while Africa is lost in the dark forests of past ages.

In order to reconnect with the rest of humanity, Africa must quickly modernise its politics, societies and economies. We must move from societies chained to ancient superstitions to those driven by the power of ideas and the embrace of knowledge and technology. Nowhere else in the world do we find these challenges demanding such urgent attention as in Africa.

Therefore, the African embrace with democracy is in fact a dual mandate. Freely elected African leaders of today are being handed a ‘dual mandate’ by both their individual national societies and the international community. They have a mandate to uphold and expand the frontiers of democracy. At the same time, they are challenged to overcome the myriad developmental problems that confront Africa often with limited resources and saddled with literally unpayable debts.

UNITING TO ROUSE THE WORLD

I believe that these imperatives ought to unite African politicians and the African media. But in saying so, I will be the first to admit that the African media needs a more conducive environment to contribute more robustly to the flowering of democracy in the continent. Regrettably, some African countries still have in their statute books colonial legislations that hinder media freedom. Only recently, Zimbabwe came up with a law that not only restricts the access of certain categories of foreign journalists to the country but also constrains the activities of the local media. This situation deserves a second look by the authorities in that country.

Freedom of access to information, no matter how uncomfortable that information may be, is an imperative if democracy is to survive. But such access, when it is granted by law, must be seen as a sacred trust. From recent experience, Journalists are not yet immune to the hazards which political upheaval could produce. As the Iraq war has shown, journalists like soldiers come into the line of fire and pay the supreme sacrifice when good governance and diplomacy fail. Therefore, African media owners and practitioners must treat the freedom of expression which democracy confers with utmost caution and sense of responsibility. The nation state in Africa is still a fragile entity and an unsettled geographical expression. To that extent, the peace which democracy needs to thrive must be guarded jealously. When peace is sacrificed, order vanishes and with it law and the freedom which it ought to protect.

The divergence between the media and the political leadership in Africa needs not be so deep except in one area: the interpretation of what constitutes good governance. The embrace of democracy imposes obligations on both the media and the political leadership to come to terms with the practical problems of governance. For political leaders, the challenge is one of good governance predicated on the rule of law, integrity of the judiciary, respect for human rights, and the pursuit of responsible governance ruled by accountability, transparency and due process. Journalists the world over agree on these but are often impatient with the way in which politicians sometimes define and relate to these imperatives. The best traditions of liberal democracy are founded on these principles. Incidentally, there is little or no provision in classical democracy for a learning process. Yet the truth however remains that democracy is a dynamic process, not a finished product. Its imperatives are constantly evolving as human societies evolve. It therefore comes as a package with an inbuilt unwritten manual component.

But quite often, the judgments which African media practitioners make on our political leadership are predicated on a certain classical and universal conception of democracy. Ideal democracy does not exist anywhere that I know of. But once the fundamental principles of freedom and basic rights are satisfied, we can only talk of ‘appropriate democracy’ as that form of democracy adopted by a given society which best suits its history and culture and conduces to the achievement of peaceful development and happiness for the greatest majority of its citizens.

This is not to excuse some of the more flagrant abuses of press freedom and human rights that have been committed in the name of democratic governments on the continent. It is only to caution the media that in a learning process, which most of Africa is passing through, there is a need for government and media to strive to reach accommodations based on mutual respect and understanding. In spite of the growth of democracy on the continent, we must recognise that there are still very sensitive matters such as national security, the national interest, the need to protect the rights of vulnerable individuals and groups and the necessity to respect the privacy of individuals within limits set by law.

In this regard, it would run counter to the spirit of democracy for African media practitioners to expect to be granted immunity from the laws that govern the rest of society. Similarly, Africa’s democratically elected leaders cannot hide under the umbrella of ’emerging democracies’ and a ‘learning process’ to indulge in violations of both the rights of their peoples or ride roughshod on the tenets of good governance and administrative best practices. Here then lies the historic challenge for the African media. The media must stand as protectors of both the people and the government, protecting the people from the onslaught of bad foreign ideas and the rampage of unwholesome foreign cultures. The media stands as vanguards at the gateway of freedom, safeguarding the people from the vestiges of bad governance while protecting the government both from itself and from that kind of rabid political opposition that has destabilised many African nation states and plunged some of them into unnecessary civil strife.

CARRYING AFRICA’S MESSAGE TO THE WORLD

Previously, the rhetoric on African media was dominated by the North-South divide in the world economic and information order. There was then a clamour for a new information order to redress the unequal economic and cultural relationship between the rich industrialised nations of the northern hemisphere and the poorer nations of the south mostly in Africa and Latin America. Then as now, the challenge for Africa was that of being heard. But the ideological context was different. There was an overriding polarity between what used to be the West and the former East bloc. That world has since vanished. A new world has arisen from the ashes of the old one. East and West have become more of directions on a compass rather than an ideological or systemic divide. Advances in information technology have given birth to a more unified world. The global village is becoming a huge cosmopolitan city. But it is a city with different districts some of which, regrettably, remain villages in the dark. I agree that Africa is now part of the global village and the emerging cosmopolitan global city. But most of the continent remains a dark and dangerous precinct, locked in a mortal conflict with some of the worst calamities that afflict humanity: HIV/AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, senseless wars, hunger and avoidable ignorance.

The rest of the world recognise this fact and have in recent times begun to be embarrassed by the blight of Africa’s under development. Prime Minister Tony Blair should please take a bow!  In fairness too, Africa’s political leadership under the aegis of the African Union (AU) has been roused by the condition of the continent. In this regard, the NEPAD initiative must be seen as a bold statement of serious intent. It is the intent to reject misrule and over dependency on foreign aid. It is a determination to police ourselves from internal misrule and the ridicule of a world that has been conditioned to seeing Africa in derogatory light. It is also, most importantly, a new determination to rely on Africa’s immense internal energies to confront the challenges and problems that hold our peoples hostage to underdevelopment. This assertion of self-confidence is a proactive reaffirmation of pride in our heritage, trust in capabilities and confidence in the dignity of our race.

But Africa lacks the financial and technological means to retrieve our peoples from the fangs of some of these fearsome afflictions as quickly as the situation demands. External indebtedness remains a burden. As the years progress, these debts become more doubtful and virtually impossible to pay. Africa’s debt burden, has stopped being an economic issue. It is now a moral imperative and a depressing blight on the face of our world. To me, the question is quite simply this: How can so many poor people owe so much to so few nations and institutions from the richest countries? I believe that in the face of the challenges and questions which define today’s African reality, the African media is in a unique position to carry the continent’s message. But what constitutes Africa’s message?

Our message is distinct and clear. Our continent is the last frontier of human development. We need understanding. We need assistance. We deserve greater respect and compassion. Our earth holds some of the world’s most precious untapped resources. Our people are resilient, proud and resourceful. In spite of Africa’s numerous travails, hope is boldly written on the faces every man, woman and child in whose veins African blood flows. Therefore, today’s Africa is not only about lavish television footage on famine, refugees with floating ribs or naked tribes in primordial pagan rites and macabre dances. It is true that these embarrassing images persist as part of today’s reality. But the African reality includes modern cities with millions clutching cell phones, industrialists deploying modern techniques to produce the goods that our peoples desperately need, new residential neighbourhoods brimming with digital satellite television dishes as well as research centres asking questions and exploring the many possibilities which science and technology hold for our problems. Information flow from Africa to the rest of the global village is regrettably still scant and disorderly. Ideally our voice to the world must bear the distinct marks of a continent in desperate need to be heard and helped. I am glad that some other parts of the world have fashioned their own distinct information perspectives in the new world. Only recently, the Arab world launched two major television networks al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. In a very short time, these networks have stamped the authority of their perspective on the world.

They combine high professionalism and quality presentation with a distinctly Arab perspective which has compelled major Western networks to become more sensitive to Arab cultures and prospective on world events. These networks are continuations of the pioneering work which publications like al-Harani started. Africa needs the equivalents of the al-Jazeeras and al-Arabiyas.

There is uniqueness in the African perspective. It is a uniqueness furnished by the wealth of our cultures, the unspoilt innocence of our country life, the richness of our environment, the diversity of our ecosystem and the proud heritage and dignity of our peoples.

The economic potentials of Africa’s vast natural resources contain opportunities which investors in the developed world hardly know of. In short, there is exciting news in the African perspective. It is the news of men and women engaged in the struggle to escape from poverty. Of course we must acknowledge that there is also disturbing news ever so often from Africa. Such things as the carnage in Darfur, the lingering strife in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the sorry state of Somalia, the occasional terrorist incursions into parts of Africa or the piracy in Nigeria’s oil rich Niger Delta region can be quite unsettling. But in today’s world, Africa no longer holds a monopoly of bad news.

The bombs that go off ever so often on the streets of Iraq, Palestine and Israel, the tsunami disaster that recently ravaged parts of Asia, the periodic outbreak of hitherto unknown viruses all indicate the vulnerability of our common humanity to disasters both natural and man-made. They also indicate a need for increased co-operation and intense multilateral action. In a world now ruled by the imperatives of power and the pervasive culture of the powerful, there is an even more urgent challenge for the African media. It is the task of protecting African societies from cultural annihilation. It is true that in a world that has become unified by advances in communication and modern travel, cultures can hardly retain their identity. This danger is made even more potent because the onslaught of alien culture is delivered by sophisticated technology and packaged in irresistible idiom and convenient doses. These cultures and influences are now omnipresent in our lives. They are in our living rooms, they follow us to bed, wake us up and cling to us at work or play. It is not even in Africa’s interest to be isolated from the best elements of the emerging global culture. But I believe Africa can embrace modernisation and be part of the global village while retaining the vital aspects of those things that make us distinctly African. Japan, China, and India have admirably achieved this feat. The African media in presenting the African perspective on the critical issues that define today’s world should seek to project and protect the best parts of Africa’s rich cultural heritage. Once again, I thank you for your kind invitation while I wish us fruitful deliberations.