In Africa, a continent where journalists are often caught between the battle lines, there is a lot of legislative ground to cover for the people to be provided with credible news and information. according to participants at the first Global Media Forum underway here.
By Anaclet Rwegayura
They said African populations in areas of conflict as well as those under dictatorial regimes count on the media to provide them with the right information.
Fulfilling this task, however, has not been an easy experience for many in today’s media-saturated world.
Every party to a conflict, for instance, regards the media as part of its arsenal.
Mediators, human rights activists and peace keepers finding their resources constrained want the media on their side, just like victims of conflict in their struggle for basic needs of survival, justice and freedom of expression.
Emerging from the ashes of war, many African countries are trying to build foundations for a free, democratic and promising future.
The bottom line is that good journalism is the only effective machinery to turn such situations around.
But good journalism needs good journalists. That is, however, one side of the coin.
Budding African journalists need training and re-training to gain the necessary tacks for the mission they are embarking on.
Journalists and their audience as well need to be equipped. Still with a high illiterate population, unreliable electricity supply in most of the countries, and limited Internet access, radio remains the top medium for public information throughout the continent.
On account of historical reasons, radio broadcasts in Africa have been dominated by governments, and only in recent years have private broadcasts come on the scene, even though they remain under the grip of interest groups and individuals with commercial and political objectives.
In some countries, authorities, going by the old adage that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’, set rules that bind public radio stations to tow the line of the party in power.
Balancing information is an essential element of news reporting, but experience on the scales in Africa shows that it is often difficult to hold on to that vital part.
At this three-day gathering of media people, including representatives of development agencies as well as cultural and human rights activists, are discussing the role of the media in conflict prevention and peace-building.
The world, from East to West, North to South, has for too long been torn apart and ravaged by conflict.
Despite the desire for peace that exists in every hot spot, the power of local and international media to contribute to conflict prevention is often recognised too late.
During the political turmoils in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, DR Congo, Rwanda and, recently, Kenya, some politicians were reportedly using the media to foment hate and incite violence among the people by sending out messages in local vernaculars.
‘Go and cut the grass’ and ‘Go kill hyenas’ are some of the harmless ethnic proverbs in Kenya that carry a hidden meaning.
When used as rallying cries at a time of public tension, these sayings could mean encouraging people to rape and kill others presumed to have turned enemies at that time.
“Hate comes from ignorance and lack of exposure,” said Rose Kimotho, managing director of Kameme 101.1 FM radio station in Kenya, who emphasised that the best way to prevent conflict and engage people in development of their societies is the use of vernacular-based community radio stations.
“We need sanctions against hate media, but we also need to give a voice to the people,” said Father Apollinaire Muholongu Malumalu, a Catholic priest from DRC who is also president of the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) of his country.
Discussion about state muzzling the media quickly brings to the mind the southern African country of Zimbabwe, where several private newspapers and radio broadcasters have been shut down, leaving the government in control of almost 90 percent of what is published for the people’s eyes and ears.
“We really cannot talk of independent media in Zimbabwe at present because of the draconian rule of President Robert Mugabe,” said Itai Mushegwe, former political reporter of ‘The Zimbabwe Independent’.
“Zimbabwe now is like a landmine. People depend on foreign media to tell them what’s happening in their country.
“Zimbabweans voted (April 2008) for change, but because of the iron claw that the government has on the media, the people’s voice was overturned by those illegally hold on to power.
“Government expenditure is increasingly becoming state secret, undermining the rule of law and justice,” Mushegwe charged, and appealed to the international community to raise its voice against what is happening in the country.
Truly, Zimbabwe is turning into an explosive situation, and with the local media gagged by the authorities, their international counterparts have the duty to tell the powers that be that freedom of the press in every country is a fundamental value of all nations.
There is no media without agenda, but for African media, conflict prevention and peace building should be the top agenda for all, be they politically, commercially or entertainment inclined.
Without peace, there will be no Africa as a continent on whose people can stand out with their heads high.
This three-day Forum is hosted by Deutsche Well with support of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office and several international development cooperation agencies, including the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ).