War, Corruption, Xenophobia: All Playing Themselves Out Under the Media's Watchful Eye

By Glenn Ashton · 5 Jun 2008

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Picture: thisismoney.co.uk
Picture: thisismoney.co.uk

At Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Governance, a study group is arguing that the media in Africa doesn’t foster good governance, contending that Africa's Fourth Estate doesn't function.

The global nature of the problem raises some questions about why the Kennedy School of Governance has chosen to make an example of Africa.

After all, the American media practically signed, sealed and delivered the public consensus needed for President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. It has also taken five years for the American media to acknowledge that the war was based on a lie, but in making this acknowledgement today, they also completely avoid any question about holding their President accountable for his misdeeds.

Banal references to 'the lie' are commonplace in the American media who toss the fact about like an afterthought of no consequence. This is the same media who appear to be completely oblivious to the role they played in helping President Bush steal the American presidency away from Al Gore back in the year 2000. Vincent Bugliosi is among the first to raise the issue of the prosecution of President Bush for murder for the war in Iraq, which has left 100 000 Iraqi men, women and children dead.

The media are not neutral - far from it. In fact, the term Fourth Estate refers to "the press, both in its explicit capacity of advocacy and in its implicit ability to frame political issues". The term was first coined by Edmund Burke, who as far back as the 1700’s, pointing up to the press gallery in the House of Commons, noted the significance of the press as important interpreters, framing and disseminating matters of national interest for public debate.

We've come a long way since the 1700's and the growth of information technology has certainly increased the media’s influence a hundred times over, to say the least. More recently, a contemporary columnist has noted that far from being the proverbial fly on the wall, the media have become 'the wall'. As the gatekeepers of information in our 21st century information society, with increasing media monopolies controlling print, television and radio, the media have become the chief architects of public consciousness.

It's not just what the media chooses to focus on, but also how it chooses to frame issues, which have important consequences for the public's response.

An Idasa report of the local media's coverage of immigrants in South Africa goes as far as accusing our media of contributing to the public discontent, which led to the recent xenophobic attacks, summing up reporting as anti-immigration and non-analytical.

The how and why of spectacular events are often tossed aside like minor details by an event driven media. Discourse analysis has been reduced to the superficial 'he said - she said' method of journalism, which is further not substantiated by deeper fact checking and contextual analysis.

Indeed, the media in Africa and much of the world see themselves as little more than businesses constantly aiming for higher shareholder profits. To this end, they seek to produce relevant content for a buying market, which has become their special interest group. There is no incentive to report for the greater public interest.

I've just returned from a week in Kenya where I talked to news editors trying to clarify the extent of the Kenyan media's news coverage of women's issues. After all, women wear the face of poverty in Africa

The parallels between Kenya and South Africa are significant. Almost 60 percent of Kenyans live in poverty, while the middle and upper classes live remarkably comfortable lives. Nairobi has 24-hour shopping malls. It even has a Woolworths, though South Africans are to be warned that it is three times pricier than our own.

Drawing another parallel to the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Kenya has just emerged from a period of post-election violence, which saw rival ethnic groups engaged in violent conflict in the country's slums. Similar to South Africa, it was a case of the poor challenging an unresponsive government, saying that they're tired of the appalling conditions under which they live, but unfortunately venting their frustrations on their nearest targets - poor member's of the other ethnic group that were closest at hand.

Fifty percent of Nairobi's inhabitants live in slums with no access to proper housing, water and sanitation. Nor are slum residents in any significant way integrated into the country's formal economy. Internally displaced, landless women make up a significant proportion of the slum population.

However, not unlike our own media, the Kenyan government has been lauded by its media for fiscal prudence in pursuing single-digit inflation as a fundamental tenet of its economic policy framework. What this produced for Kenya was 475 000 jobs last year, 90 percent of which were in the informal sector.

We all know that these are not jobs that in any way improve the quality of lives of the people who get them. Informal workers have no health insurance, no minimum wage, no retirement savings - the list of negatives associated with these jobs is just too long to elaborate on here.

However, the casualisation of labour in a globalising world economy is simply not something that the Kenyan or South African media for that matter, are interested in interrogating. Their analysis of economic and socio-political developments can at best, be described as schizophrenic. On the one hand governments are praised for their macro economic strategies that subsidise the rich and penalise the poor, while on the other, they are lambasted for not delivering services to the poor.

That there can be such disconnect in the media's understanding of our economic development priorities and their relationship to our social development responsibilities is a spectacle to behold.

It has been a source of utter wonder and amazement to me to observe that the South African media are now baying for President Mbeki's blood.

Where were the media critiques ten years ago when Mbeki's administration put the nail in the coffin of the RDP? Why didn't they call for his resignation back then?

Why is our media still celebrating that meaningless money-pit we commonly refer to as 2010?

Eddie Cottle of the Campaign for Decent Work and Beyond 2010 notes that at $4,1bn - the soccer world cup has thus far cost South Africa more than it has any other host country; and that the cost of hosting such events are always phenomenally higher for developing countries. In 1994, the USA spent less than $30m and in 1998 France spent less than $500m on the same event.

He argues further, "the amount of public money being spent in preparation for the world cup in South Africa is equivalent to the amount that the state spent on housing delivery over a ten-year period". Perhaps if our country's leaders had chosen the social development route over the grandstanding route, those hostel-dwelling Zulus may not have taken up arms against innocent and hapless foreigners in the first place.

And yet, our media's analysis of the social cost of 2010 is still wanting. Whether it's the arms deal, the Gautrain or 2010, it's the sensationalist politicking and financial wheeling and dealing behind these events that captures our media's imagination. The issue of social accountability and of downstream impact on broader society hardly registers a blip on their radars.

Peter Kareithi et al observe that economics journalism in Africa is plagued by poor capacity and argue that it should be about more than just business reporting. Yet in Kenya, the trays of economics editors are full of poorly written junk mail from public relations companies, much which gets printed because the companies provide good advertising revenue. With regard to the South African media, it is argued that the "the press continues to write about business in post-apartheid South Africa, in the same way that it did in the apartheid era".

Its business as usual in South Africa, Kenya and all over the African continent for that matter. Indeed when I raised the concern about the lack of coverage of women’s development in the Kenyan media with Joseph Odindo, managing editor of The Nation, my question was promptly dismissed with the perfunctory - we are a business; we need to meet our bottom line; we need to write for many audiences; we’re pulled in many different directions; we can't satisfy everybody; we need to give people news that they are interested in; people are interested in politics, they don't want to read about poverty.

In the first place, Odindo’s reference to media neutrality is a complete farce and in the second place, to plead news neutrality in the context of gross social injustice is completely inappropriate and unacceptable.

We know that the media writes for a paying audience and that the issues of that particular audience must resonate in what the media writes about. So in Africa, the media resonates the concerns of the moneyed classes because what we have on this continent is a small and selfish moneyed elite with buying power, floating above a sea of poverty that has absolutely no financial clout.

It may not be entirely fair, but it's also easy to see why the Harvard study group is singling out the African continent for its malfunctioning Fourth Estate. The answer lies in the ease with which the African media's crude operating and biased reporting can be discerned. With such a narrow elite representing its market, the vast majority of Africans simply don't have their needs served by the media.

And so it comes as a breath of fresh air to hear that at the recently held Fifth Asian Media Summit, which took place from 27 to 28 May 2008 in Kuala Lampur, poverty and development were high on the agenda. Media analyst, Danny Schechter reports, it was clear at this event that the "media plays a vital role in promoting education, relief assistance, support for initiatives to promote reconciliation, ease inter-group tensions, facilitate health and play a crucial developmental role".

How refreshing - and uncommon - to hear of a media proactively seeking to serve humanity instead of shareholders.

The corporate media model is unfitting for the needs of marginalised citizens of this world - who also happen to be the majority. The alternative American media have already started addressing the problem by proposing different financial models to encourage public interest journalism that will re-build the credibility of the media as the champions of broader society.

One proposed model that will no doubt meet with resistance from media owners is that media shareholders' annual return on investments, which in America's case is targeted at 20 percent, be reduced to five percent. Also being introduced is the idea of the cross-subsidisation of public interest journalism by other news departments.

Another solution gaining ground is foundation-funded investigative journalism. Propublica is a newly established non-profit newsroom boasting 26 journalists that will soon be publishing public interest journalism. I look forward to their transformative and 'important stories with moral force'.

The African media still have a long way to go to catch up. Our media have yet to acknowledge that a problem exists. I am constantly disappointed by how our media simply turns a blind eye to the most pressing issue on this continent; we live on a continent suffering from underdevelopment - where are the development editors?

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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