Our common interest lies in helping media in Africa to develop

A free and independent media provides a crucial platform for the voices of the marginalised, say Stephen King and Julia Moffett

The Commission for Africa report, Our Common Interest, recommends
that investment in free and independent media can make a critical
contribution to the creation of mature democracies and informed
economies in Africa. G8 leaders, who gathered last week, needed to make
support for the development of Africa’s media a tangible outcome of
increased aid.

As the report states: “One thing that has emerged from our
considerations on issues of governance and capacity is the importance
of good information and communication: the lifeblood of transparent,
informed and open societies, able to debate, decide and implement
successful reforms, measure their impact and hold their governments to
account.”

The media plays a fundamental role in providing a
platform for the voices of the marginalised. Its role in encouraging
participation in debate ensures that policy decisions are informed by
all parts of society. The media’s role in providing critical
information to poor communities on issues such as HIV/Aids, maternal
child health, or effective agricultural practices, is invaluable.

As
an organisation producing media programmes for African audiences in
local languages, the BBC World Service Trust well knows the power and
reach of media to benefit target audiences.

In Somalia, an estimated 85 per cent of the population listens to the BBC World Service alone.

But
the case for media as a key cornerstone of Africa’s development is only
made stronger by the intense focus on good governance as a development
priority. Kofi Annan recently said: “It is perhaps the single most
important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development”.

Good
governance is an overarching theme in the Commission’s report and an
increasing priority for donors who control the aid purse-strings.

African
leaders are being looked to more and more as the variable in African
countries’ persistent poverty or unrealised development. Free and
independent media have a critical role to play in the development of
African countries as a result. Their importance as watchdog,
investigator and enabler of greater transparency cannot be undervalued.
And, as developed country governments direct more aid into the hands of
African governments to spend as they wish, the media’s role as a
supporting mechanism for accountability has never been more important.

Unlike
so much development activity, there are tangible results which show the
media’s impact. Lower corruption exists in countries with more free and
independent media. Studies in India have shown that government
responsiveness on issues such as food aid or crop relief following
devastating floods was highest in areas with the greatest newspaper
penetration.

Historic transparent elections took place in Ghana
in 2000, largely credited to the presence of private radio stations
broadcasting for the first time from polling places across the country.

Conversely, heavy state dominance of media has been shown to correlate negatively with trends in good governance.

Moving
media development up the priority list for investment in Africa also
provides a chance for all sectors – both in Africa and the North – to
do their part.

The state of free and independent media in Africa
is too often characterised by inadequate professional standards, poor
quality programmes, state ownership and strict editorial controls.

The
annual survey of press freedom by Freedom House found that 50 per cent
of countries in sub-Saharan Africa are “not free”. The crackdown on the
media in Ethiopia is the latest reminder. African governments can lead
the way by transforming state broadcasters into public service
broadcasters and follow countries that have abolished their Ministries
of “Information”. These governments should move beyond the rhetoric and
begin to implement the appropriate legal and regulatory structures
needed for a pluralistic media. They can put media freedom and
independence higher up their policy agenda, starting by including it as
a measurement in the African Peer Review Mechanism at the core of the
New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

Developed country
governments, or the donors, play an equally important role. The
Commission for Africa report says: “Donors have tended to see support
for the media as an ‘add-on’ to other development programmes… we urge
donors to increase substantially their funding to African independent
media institutions and those governments promoting free media.” The
right time for this is now.

Civil society and broadcasters can
substantially increase programmes to train journalists and to lift
ethical and professional standards. Multinational and local companies
in Africa would do well to see support for media development as a
powerful investment in creating the informed and transparent economies
that they need to do business.

The case is strong for greater
attention to media development in Africa and the players needed to make
it happen are ready to deliver. Why not make sure any extra aid is
invested in areas that are proven to have impact, support trends in
good governance and the empowerment of African governments, and
encourage greater accountability and transparency throughout their
media?

Stephen King is director, and Julia Moffett director of strategy, for the World Service Trust, the BBC’s international charity

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