A liberal pluralist approach to understanding African media structures and their content
Understanding African media structures and their content can be very complex especially taking into consideration the fact that the continent has embraced democracy. This is mainly so because the media in Africa has mainly two extremes functions. On the one hand the media play a “watchdog” role and on the other it play public relation service to the government.
Given these two extremes of media structures it is evident that not any media approach can help one to understand media structures within such a context. However it is also a fact that given the democratization of the African continent, the media must inform citizens on matters of public policy by presenting and debating alternatives. Hence the liberal pluralist approach appears to be the best approach in understanding African media structures because it looks into the media as a ‘watchdog’ that may uncover and publicize political corruption, other abuses of power, and inept policies.
However it is also crucial that the problems of the media in Africa, such as the crisis of power, the crisis of ownership and the crisis of resources are acknowledged. It is pivotal that a liberal pluralist approach that is only interested in ending state ownership and control of the media without considering alternatives be avoided. By and large what is important is that a liberal pluralist approach reminds journalists and state leaders that they are accountable to the nation.
Understanding media structures from an African perspective is tantamount to recognizing political developments over the last decade of the 20th century throughout the African continent. Historically most if not all countries in the African continent used to be colonies of western and European countries. However the last years of the 20th century, most African countries witnessed a rise in the democratization of their governments. This resulted in the phasing out of one party states and dictatorship. Most if not all countries started calling for free and elected democratic governments throughout the African continent. It is imperative to mention from the onset that the media are among the forces that have shaped and continued to define the establishment of democracy in Africa.
It is also crucial to point out that in spite of the significant role of the media in the development and consolidation of democratic governance in Africa, there have been several influences where states misused or completely did not respect the role of the media in society. As a result it become difficult if not impossible to assess and understand how media influences politics of the day. It therefore becomes critical to evaluate the importance of media structures in the wake of African democracies. The theoretical approach that can make this evaluation resourceful is the liberal pluralist because of its “watchdog” focus and interest in upholding and protecting individual freedom in the face of government indoctrination.
As a result of the above discussion this essay will endeavour to find out why a liberal pluralist approach to media appear the most insightful theory to understanding African media structures and their content. To achieve this goal this essay will first try to assess the role of the media in the democratization of Africa. In the same token the essay will also rewind a little bit by looking at the rationale behind the liberal pluralist approach. But it will be unfair to discuss African media structures without putting the entire media structures challenges into context. Hence the essay will try to discuss everything from the perspective of the three major crises of the media in Africa as identified by Paul A. V. Ansah (Ronning, 1994:02-11).
Media and African democracy
The demise of one party regimes and development of multi party systems and democracy in Africa resulted in a demand for more democratic structures (Ronning, 1994: 02). There are many theories and definitions of democracy and the process of democratization. With the emphasis on the role of the media in democracy, Winseck in Fourie and Oosthuisen (2003) characterized democracy as the historical process of eliminating totalitarianism in the state, civil society and in economic practices. It is clear that through the media and access to information and the formation of a strong public opinion about the values of democracy, the media play a crucial role in the democratic process (2003:417). Fourie and Oosthuisen argue that apart from the adoption of democratic, political and legal frameworks, democracy also means and involves the processes that allow the procedures of achieving the democratic goals of society to be opened up to citizen participation through [the media] (ibid).
It is also critical at this stage to point out that to live in a democracy and to live democratically, means that the adoption of rules and laws of a society are shaped through the media that are open to all. Fourie contends that it is not enough to say that [a country] have a democratic constitution, a democratically elected government, democratically institutions and so forth, what is further needed is to continuously debate all those issues in the interest of the public and in the interest of the well-being of society through the means of the media (2003:419).
Hence the demand for freedom of expression and the need for independent and critical media become imperative in Africa (Ronning, 1994:02). It will be an understatement if not a mistake to take it for granted that the media have a democratic role to play in Africa as a result of the dawn of democracy in the continent. A liberal pluralist approach which looks at whether the media fulfill the role of promoting a free exchange of ideas and opinions of informing the citizens in such a way that they are able to form opinions in a climate of independence must be taken if one is to understand the media structures.
It is crucial to acknowledge that in most African countries the state used to control the media in all respects. Hence the role of the media in this continent is still mainly dominated by public service ideology. Thus the problematic role of the market in relation to the media has been underplayed, and consequently too little attention has been paid to a discussion of the media in relation to citizen’s rights (Ronning, 1994: 03).
As a result of this development there are two main variations on the role of the media in an African context. The two are clearly defined by Ronning (1994) who see on the one hand, African critiques of the existing media who felt that strong state control only can be met by introducing market forces, and on the other hand government who see their influence of the media threatened and fear that they will loose control over the flow of information have had a tendency to regard all forms of independent media be they commercial or alternatively as mouthpieces for a political opposition.
Considering some African governments’ perspectives on the role of the media it is very significant that one takes a liberal pluralist approach because it endeavours to closely observe and monitor the government activities. This is also important taking into task that the new democracies in most African countries need to be nurtured and preserved. To this effect McNair (1995) argues that the [media] should be free from government control and government influence, and there must be a free market for ideas and information. In other words, liberal pluralist approach shed some light on the exact relationship between the state and the media focusing on the implication of that relationship to rights of individuals. Hence the media becomes the ‘watchdog’ or “the fourth estate through which the governing elites could be pressurized and reminded of their dependency on majority opinion” (Bennet, 1982:40-41).
It is crucial at this stage to point the root or the origin of most if not all of Africa’s two main conflicting views and perspectives about the role of the media in society. One of the reasons that most African countries are wary of the media is the legacy left by their former colonizers. Most of the media structures during colonialism was used not in the interest and advantage of African countries. Hence the new regimes today feel that the media must play a developmental role. It is a general norm that most if not all African states “advocate the positive use of the media to promote national development, autonomy and cultural identity” (Fourie, 2003:247). But this kind of theory is very much open to manipulation and abuse and can end up being used to the disadvantage of the media and democracy at large.
Development theory is open to abuse and manipulation because certain liberties of the media should be made subordinate to the achievement of national development and economic development (Fourie, 2003:274). Some of the factors that makes development theory open to manipulation and abuse as discussed by McQuail in Fourie (2003) are that the state should be able to restrict the media if economic interests and development needs of the society are at stake, and that to protect development objectives, the state has the right to intervene by restricting and censoring the media. Hence in the latter factor state subsidies and direct control are therefore justifiable. Obviously these kinds of thinking pose several major problems for the media structure to operate as required in a democratic manner. To understand why the watchdog role of the media is relevant and necessary one also need to acknowledge the challenges the media face in the African continent. The problems were clearly captured by Paul A. V. Ansah who “pinpointed three major crises of the media in Africa; namely the crisis of power, the crisis of ownership and the crisis of resources” (Ronning, 1994: 3-19).
The crisis of power
According to Ronning (1994) the crisis of power has two sides. One is related to weakness of the African states and the other is related to weakness of the media themselves. Ronning argues that weak states are particularly suspicious of the media as this are seen as tools of sowing of dissident and as a result the states tried to control the media with the help of a “variety of techniques ranging from outright censorship and oppression to more subtle means which often combine ownership with a system of economic awards to those in the media who tow the line, and reprisals against those who do not” (1994: 04).
This perspective is also shared by Tetty (2001) who argues that a lot of governments in the African continent continue to impose judicial and extra judicial barriers on journalists and media houses in a manner which defeats the professed goals of democratic governance and the purpose behind constitutional provisions of a free press and freedom of expression. However the new democratic media are very sharp and resilient in reporting any incident of authoritarian abuse visited on pro-democracy activities. Hence the media have been very active in exposing activities within the state that would otherwise have been unknown to the citizenry (Tettey, 2001: 10).
Tetty argues that it is through this kind of information that the populace is able to measure the pronouncements of politicians against their deeds, and hence make informed judgements about the political future of those individuals. In this regard the media can be seen to play a development role because the likelihood of exposure is also instrumental in, at least making government officials more circumspect in their activities. Moreover the media also impose a certain measure of accountability on the part of government officials that they did not have to worry about in the past (Tetty, 2001:10).
In these processes of democratization, the media play a central role by mediating between views and opinions. Ronning contends that this way of using the media contrasts with the manner often “employed in societies with weak states, where the media are linked directly to the state apparatus, and where they are often used for promoting various forms of personality cults of the head of state and other prominent politicians (1994: 04).
Ronning also argues that the weakness of the African media in all aspects make itself vulnerable to be used in such undemocratic ways by the state. Obviously the fact that the media reach a small proportion of the population can be an advantage to the media. In other words government can let the media to broadcast or report unnoticed and unchecked if they know that they only reach a small number of audience. But that same advantage can be turned upside down by the state depending on the influence of target audience of the media. For instance, if the media target intellectuals the state can monitor its content.
On the other hand the major disadvantage is that the state is the major news source. As a result the media have to rely on the state for the supply of news content. Hence if a news media is viewed in a negative light the supply of news comes with hidden strings attached. It is from this background that Tetty contends that in most African democracies, “the parameters of freedom of expression and of the press continue to be determined by how well the contents of the particular print or electronic medium portray power brokers in a positive or, at least neutral light (2001:12).
Practically this means that in the case where the state wishes are not fulfilled the media will be victimized. The state can starve the media concerned of news and advertising revenue by not placing government advertisements. Tetty argues that these acts of state intimidation continues to be the case even though there are legal provisions for dealing with cases of unsubstantiated or libelous reporting (2001:12). He maintains that it is ironic that several years after independence, a lot of African countries continue to retain colonial laws, which were used to intimidate anti-colonial activists, including some of the current leaders of these countries. Tetty contends, “These anachronistic laws have stayed on the books because they now serve the political purpose of the post-colonial ruling elite. They have been employed under the guise of the rule of law and state security to undermine press freedom and freedom expression, as well as to intimidate journalists” (2001:15).
Moreover the professional media organizations are also weak in terms of underdeveloped infrastructures and distribution systems. In most cases journalist received poor training that result often in them becoming extended public relations officers for government officials. These facts have a negative impact on how journalists report their news. In many instances they will just go with what the government officials give them because they do not have enough resources to do further research and investigations of their own. Ronning contends that in such trying circumstances the media has little ability to present their case in times of crises as there are few parallel media outlets, and they cannot count on support from other media in the country, which would be the case in societies with a fully developed media structure (1994:04).
As indicated earlier in this essay, weakness in terms of financial viability makes most of the private media not to be really independent. As a result they tend to push particular, not always objective, political agendas as more powerful partners dominate them. Tetty argues that in a free democratic society, the media’s credibility tends to be called into question, when they present themselves as “disinterested surveyors of the political scene but when in reality their views and claims are tainted by narrow ethnic or political trappings, quite at variance with the interest of the nation which they tout as their motivational and call to service” (2001:22). Tetty further contends that in the worst scenarios the manner in which some of these media present their views has stretched the bounds of adversarial politics to the point where animosity appears to define the relationship between the state and journalists (ibid.).
According to Tetty (2001) such circumstances led the citizen to begin to wonder whether the media are engaged in a campaign of vilification that would open up political opportunities for them when the current regime is replaced. It is obviously clear that once the citizen start to have such a negative perception about the media its credibility is at stake. It is also clear that much of the public is alienated by the extreme negativity which characterizes some of the contents from the media as acknowledged by The independent, a private Ghanaian newspaper (Tetty, 2001:22).
Crisis of media ownership
In the middle of who and how the media must report is the crisis of media ownership. According to Ronning (1994) the African crisis of ownership has three aspects. One is that the media in Africa to a large degree, in some way or other, are owned or economically controlled by the state. The result of this arrangement is much often that the media will be the mouthpiece of the government.
The second is that international conglomerates often partly control the independent media with corporate interests in the national and regional economies. It is mainly from this side where the media try to play the “watchdog” role over the government. But in the worst case is when the media take a pure pessimistic negative stance.
The last aspect of media ownership is concerned with the so-called alternative media. Alternative media are often owned by small trusts, which again are controlled by a small group of allies and friends or are totally dependent on one person’s dedication (Ronning, 1994:04). Ronning contends that alternative media are faced both with being economically weak due both to low penetration in that they cater for special interests, have little access to advertising and lack proper distribution system (ibid.).
Practically, in South Africa we have the Mail & Guardian, which is a good example of this kind of ownership. Originally this newspaper, which had some foreign backing, catered for sophisticated readers that were mainly composed of intellectuals and academics. Hence the newspaper used to have great support of advertising revenue that comes from tertiary institutions. As such it used to play a very independent and active “watchdog” role over the government activities. However after the newspaper experienced financial problems and eventually bought by Trevor Ncube the paper has to change its content drastically for it to survive the government relations. As a result the aggressive and investigative approach towards the government that the newspaper used to take has been softened in favour of advertisement revenues from the government.
According to Ronning (1994) solutions to the crises of power and ownership have in a number of instances been sought through the establishment of various organs which represent a form of compromise between direct state control or ownership and private ownership such as press councils and media trusts. Ronning argues that the Zimbabwe Mass media Trust which controls among others, the majority of shares in the country’s largest newspaper group, the national news agency, the regional newspaper project and the country’s largest chain of bookstores is one of the most elaborate structures of this nature (1994: 04).
Last year (April 2003), the South African government successfully launched a media structure to this effect through the Presidential Press Corps. In summary “the Presidential Press Corps was born out of engagements between the South African National Editors’ Forum and the government during 2001. It [was] recognized that while, as in any democracy, there is a necessary tension between the government and the media, this need not be characterized by animosity as all sides are working towards the same goal of building a vibrant democracy that faces up to the challenge of reversing poverty and underdevelopment. It [was] agreed that the country’s most senior political writers should form into a corps which would, in a systematic way, be able to access information and gain a greater understanding of the work of government”(http//www.gcis.gov.za)
Ronning warns that structures such as this point to dangers inherent in a situation where “the dividing line between government interests and [journalists] independence are unclear and often carry with them a large degree of self-censorship” (1994:05). This fact can be cleary understood if one looks into the Code of Conduct of the Presidential Press Corps (PPC) especially conducts ‘b’ and ‘d’: –
a. Normal adherence to journalistic principles and ethics
b. Observance of on/off record, embargo agreements
c. Protocol in briefing room (cell phone interruption, rowdiness, etc)
d. Broadly accepted protocols and standards of behaviour in relation to state functions. (Source: http//www.gcis.gov.za)
To make matters worse, in addition to the above, government reserves the right to adopt its own sanctions against any PPC member who is deemed by his/her peers to have violated the Code of Conduct.
The crisis of resources
According to Ronning (1994) the crisis of resources pertains to all levels of the media. It includes the experience and education of media personnel in Africa. It is a general and accepted fact that most of Africa’s media personnel levels of experience and education are generally low by international standards. Ronning argues that poor levels of experience and education are more problematic when it comes to electronic media. This is ironic considering the fact that radio is the most used and viable medium in Africa. The shortage of material resources is obviously one of the major disadvantages, which hamper the development of the media and also make the media vulnerable to political and economic pressure. For instance economical and technological disadvantages prevent most African countries to have as many community radio and television stations as they would like.
It is a fact that African politics and government structures can be very difficult to understand especially after the continent embraced democracy. The same can be said when it comes to understanding media structures and their content. This is mainly so because the essay has showed that the media in a democratic Africa has mainly two extremes functions. On the one hand the media play a “watchdog” role and on the other it play public relations service to the government.
Given these two extremes of media structures it is evident that not any media approach can help one to understand media structures within such a context. However it is also a fact that given the democratization of the Africa continent, the media must inform citizens on matters of public policy by presenting and debating alternatives. Hence the liberal pluralist approach appears to be the best approach in understanding African media structures because it looks into the media as a ‘watchdog’ that may uncover and publicise political corruption, other abuses of power, and inept policies.
However it is also crucial that the problems of the media in Africa, such as the crisis of power, the crisis of ownership and the crisis of resources are acknowledged. A liberal pluralist approach that is only interested in ending state ownership and control of the media without considering alternatives will not shed valuable light. This has been experienced when certain media were freed from state control only to be swallowed by international interests. Hence Africa media becomes the dumping zones for old and often inferior western content. By and large what is important is that a liberal pluralist approach reminds journalists and state leaders that they are accountable to the nation.