The Jordan Times
©Project Syndicate, 2005.
Daily Times
6 July 2005
Jerusalem Post
5 July 2005

VIEW: Closing Africa’s journalism deficit —Prince Karim Aga Khan

Too often, those who set the media agenda view it primarily as a business agenda. Too often, the measure of media success is simply financial profit. This often makes for manipulative media that distort and mislead in the pursuit of readers and ratings

In the last quarter-century, the state of both governance and the media in Africa have shown encouraging progress. Not only has Africa moved beyond the worst legacies of colonialism, but it has also transcended the rigid constraints of the Cold War. Old dogmas have given way to a new pragmatism — a new freedom to innovate, experiment and find African answers to African challenges.

Africa has learned a lot about democracy in these years, both its fragility and its potential. Governments are increasingly expected to change peacefully, to cooperate regionally, to attract the capable, and to punish the corrupt. And the progress reaches beyond governments. As the Economic Commission for Africa concluded in its recent report: “Civil society and the media have increased their voice and power in the last decade of democratic reforms.”

But there is still a long way to go in many areas, particularly the media.

Respect for press freedom grows out of a respect for pluralism as a cornerstone of peace and progress. Pluralism implies a readiness to listen to many voices — whether we agree with them or not — and a willingness to embrace a rich diversity of cultures.

When our diversity divides us, the results can be tragic, as we have seen in Rwanda, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Sudan. But when we welcome diversity — and the debate and dissent that goes with it — we sow the seeds of stability and progress.

But there is a second important media-related question today concerning the adequacy of journalistic knowledge in an increasingly complicated world. Africa’s leaders appear to have serious misgivings about the depth of that knowledge, and genuine doubts about the breadth of understanding that many journalists bring to difficult issues. Clearly, deeper and broader knowledge will be crucial to the future of African journalism.

The revolution in bioengineering, for example, promises to transform rural societies just as the old industrial engineering once reshaped urban landscapes. Genetic research will transform approaches to personal and public-health problems, including scourges like AIDS and malaria.

Meanwhile, the physical sciences offer new ways to think about the impact of climate change on Africa’s food and water supply. New information technologies will transform education throughout Africa, including remote rural areas, even as they re-energise non-industrial economies.

But there is a shortage of journalists who know enough about these subjects to inform African audiences.

To improve matters, we need to increase dialogue and communication among journalists and those they write about: politicians, civil servants, business people, and religious leaders — in short, the voices of civil society.

On the media side, this ought to mean more rigorous research at the start of the reporting and writing process. Cultivating knowledge is as important as cultivating sources.

But sources can also do more to help. Off-the-record background briefings, for example, are regular and routine in the West, but are relatively rare in Africa. Some journalists have difficulty getting responses even to direct requests. The habit of sharing information is one that Africa needs to hone.

In an ideal world, journalists would be educated in the nuances of the beats they cover. Scientific sophistication, economic acumen, political subtlety, and legal and medical expertise — all these skills should be present in our newsrooms as matter of course.

There are understandable reasons why this ideal has still not been realised. Above all, journalism is not regarded as a noble profession, because too many young Africans, for too long, saw the journalist as a mere propagandist. Moreover, journalism was often dangerous. Between 1985 and 1995, 108 journalists were killed in Africa; the risk, while diminishing, is still real. Finally, most African journalists are paid substantially less than those who enter other professions.

Media owners and managers are also at fault for poor quality. Too often, those who set the media agenda view it primarily as a business agenda. Too often, the measure of media success is simply financial profit. This often makes for manipulative media that distort and mislead in the pursuit of readers and ratings. Journalism is subordinated to entertainment, and the duty to inform yields to the need to please.

Responsible and relevant reporting is not the priority in that business model. Instead, the power of the press is used to turn traditional value systems on their heads — to make the irrelevant seem essential and the trivial titillating.

The damage that can be done by such distorted journalism is especially severe in Africa, offending African value systems, distracting African energies, and disserving African development. Manipulative journalism is not merely a nuisance here; it can be downright destructive.

Working in partnership with governments, the private sector, and the institutions of civil society, African media can become a source of relevant information, competent comment and insight, and constructive and cooperative socially responsibility, even as it remains free, independent, and commercially successful. —DT-PS

His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the world’s Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims