Press "Enter" to skip to content

The politics of media development

The term “media development” might remind many people in South Africa of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA). Well, the term has become a buzzword in international media financing.

My aim here is to draw upon a talk I gave in 2007 at the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership/Konrad-Adenuer-Stiftung conference for media executives held in Cape Town. By so doing, I seek to indicate the key “media development” initiatives that have unfolded since the report of the Commission for Africa was issued in March 2005. More importantly, I wish to specify the “politics” associated with the concept of media development.

Although the concept of media development is certainly not new, it has attracted much attention in the past couple of years, resulting in the formation of such entities as the African Media Development Initiative (AMDI), the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) and so forth. The AMDI has since merged with the Strengthening African Media (Stream) consultative process to create an African Media Initiative (AMI).

The AMI is in its inchoate stages, with the express brief of consolidating the AMDI and Stream media-development recommendations into a bankable technical report that can be used to lobby governments, donors and the private sector to support the growth of media institutions across Africa. At the centre of these initiatives are: the BBC World Service Trust (AMDI); the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Stream) and Internews (GFMD).

Unesco is also involved in developing indices to measure media development, but I did not focus on it during my Cape Town talk, nor will I do so here.

As I have already suggested, the concept of media development is not new in Africa. The very existence in South Africa of the MDDA clearly demonstrates the fact. But it is evident that the meanings attached to the concept are not fixed. In some instances, the term is used to connote the intellectual and spiritual growth of the media, as when the World Association for Christian Communication calls its journal Media Development; in other cases, it is used to refer to the economic-infrastructural development of the media, as when donors pour huge sums of money into purchasing new computer technology for media houses, especially during election times.

Increasingly, the concept is being interpreted to indicate much more than the above. It is being viewed as the totality of all support mechanisms for the growth of media institutions into vibrant agents of social and political change in democratic and undemocratic polities.

The recent resurgence of interest in media development is generally associated with the report of the Commission for Africa. The commission was set up in 2004 by the then British prime minister Tony Blair. But it would be a mistake to stop there; the media and communications landscape in Africa has been undergoing major changes, signalling the need and presenting opportunities for a concerted initiative to take advantage of such changes in favour of strengthening media institutions.

At least within the specific context of Africa, it would not be far-fetched to argue that the beginnings of an international support mechanism for the media are traceable to Windhoek, Namibia. In 1991, Unesco called for a gathering of media practitioners and press-freedom organisations in Namibia on May 3. This conference culminated in the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press. The declaration set the background for the proclamation by the UN General Assembly of May 3 as “World Press Freedom Day”. The declaration repudiated state ownership of media institutions and justified the doctrine of media liberalisation and privatisation.

Beyond the Windhoek declaration, there is clear evidence of more engagement with the discourse of media development in various African documents generated since Windhoek. For example, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, in article 9, echoes the rights in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has elaborated this in its Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa.

The declaration is important because it elaborates in considerable detail what is meant by freedom of expression. This includes a number of other points of particular relevance for the development of broadcasting services in Africa, such as (i) the need to encourage the development of private broadcasting; (ii) the need to transform state or government broadcasters into genuine public broadcasters; and (iii) the need for independent broadcasting regulatory bodies. These points are, in turn, reinforced by the African Charter on Broadcasting, adopted in 2001 on the 10th anniversary of the Windhoek declaration.

But this does not mean that the concept of media development is not unproblematic. The initiatives listed above are faced with the challenge to define it in very specific terms, but what they emphasise might belie their contextual-institutional discursive inclinations. Indeed, the Stream consultative process attempted a definition. As suggested, this has become a discursive matter, reflecting the institutional and membership frameworks of such initiatives.

For example, on the one hand, the AMDI sees media development as aimed at mobilising “a range of African and international stakeholders to significantly boost support for the development of the state, public- and private-sector media”. On the other hand, the GFMD seems to emphasise the aspect of “independent” media. For example, the inaugural conference held in 2005 by the GFMD in Amman threw up points of disagreement about whether “media development” should concern itself with “development of the media” or “development communications”. A significant number of participants felt that the media should not consider it their job to be social advocates and take up the agenda of development and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Even the term “independent” media is not fully unpacked, but, in the GFMD Amman conference report, there are allusions to privately owned commercial media as constituting independent media. For some, this emphasis on commercial media seemed to accentuate the American model of highly corporatised media. For others, this was enough cause to generate a rumour that the American government was interested in “democratising” the Middle East in ways that resembled the highly commercialised American media system. Under this line of reasoning, through hosting the conference in Amman, Jordan, the US government was hoping to send its anti-terror, pro-liberal democracy message throughout the Middle East.

The rumour went so far as to suggest that the CIA funded Internews to help organise the conference. A blogger quoted me as having pointed out this rumour in my talk during the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership/Konrad-Adenuer-Stiftung conference in Cape Town, without taking into account the full context of my talk.

This attribution is misleading. Firstly, I know of no instance in which the CIA has financed Internews. Secondly, I do not believe that Internews has ever been, or will ever be, funded by the CIA. Thirdly, the involvement of Internews in the GFMD is facilitatory, with decision-making determined by the GFMD international board of directors. The rumour that I hinted at must thus be treated as such — a rumour with no basis in fact whatsoever, but indicative of the general contested ideo-political framework within which the concept of media development is implicated.

While there may be no universally accepted definition of media development, there are universal principles that have emerged over time. Indeed, the international composition of the GFMD is helping in charting new directions towards elaborating such universal principles. The work by Unesco is also beginning to evolve indices for measuring media development. No doubt, these will be subjected to critique.

For its part, the Stream consultative process seems to have adopted a more hybrid approach, echoed by the AMDI study report’s call for a “holistic approach to strengthening the sector” and drawing on the discourses of several international and continental documents, not least the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, the African Charter on Broadcasting and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa.

The declaration of principles seems clear about what should be the content of media development, as already explained above.

The African Charter on Broadcasting extends this, and declares that “the legal framework for broadcasting should include a clear statement of the principles underpinning broadcast regulation, including promoting respect for freedom of expression, diversity, and the free flow of information and ideas, as well as a three-tier system for broadcasting: public service, commercial and community”.

For its part, the Windhoek declaration outlines the key components of media development as consisting, among other things, in the identification of economic barriers to the establishment of news media outlets — including restrictive import duties, tariffs and quotas for such things as newsprint, printing equipment, and typesetting and word processing machinery, and taxes on the sale of newspapers — as a prelude to their removal and the training of journalists and managers and the availability of professional training institutions and courses.

It outlines the need for removing legal barriers to the recognition and effective operation of trade unions or association of journalists, editors and publishers as well as developing and maintaining a register of available funding from development and other agencies, the conditions attached to the release of such funds, and the methods of applying for them. It also acknowledges the importance of analysing the state of press freedom, country by country, in Africa.

It would seem, from the above, that media development is clearly much more than the economic and infrastructural growth of media institutions; it also embraces such human-developmental factors as freedom, gender equity, democracy, ethics and so forth. The media types emphasised include public, commercial and community media. Added to this are the newer forms of electronic media, all of which are valued in terms of their actual and/or potential contribution to expanding the boundaries of democratic expression, accountability, participation et cetera.