Saturday, November 27, 2010

Africa: The Media a Double-Edged Sword

Source: Institute for Security of Studies (ISS)

The Media a Double-Edged Sword
Abeba Amene, Community Outreach-Mifugo Project, ISS Nairobi

The media is clearly one of the most powerful tools of the modern age. It has the potential to escalate a conflict situation, but also to prevent and manage conflict - perhaps one of its most under-utilised attributes. While a vast amount of literature exists on the nexus between a vibrant media and a society’s democratisation efforts, its role in instigating or managing conflict has not been extensively analysed.

Schools of journalism reiterate that the fundamental calling of the media is to report the truth. Indeed, the stated objective of a newspaper like Kenya’s Daily Nation is ‘serving the truth.’ Clearly this quest for the truth - to inform and educate citizens who in turn should make informed decisions - is a noble vocation.

In reality however, the media does not exist in a vacuum and often the media-owners in Africa serve the specific interests of the dominant political and business elites. In some instances, this determines whether the specific media covers events or not.

In spite of its developmental value, a story on drilling of boreholes in arid regions to support the pastoralists’ livelihood system will hardly get any coverage. Stories on environmental issues recently made headline news in Kenya, not because of the key issue of degradation but because the political elites were at opposite ends on how to address the problem. There are some examples of media in Africa that if an evaluation was to be conducted, one would be forgiven for mistaking such ‘houses’ for being the ruling elites’ press office publications.

Significantly, media’s prowess, especially within conflict reporting, lies in the context of its wide reach and broad readership. The media, particularly television and the internet, has the power to bring events into individuals’ living rooms. Through this rapid and wide coverage, the media has the capacity to swiftly internationalise local or regional conflicts.

Examples abound about the role of the media in conflict situations. The role played by the electronic media in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide is well documented. It is widely acknowledged that a segment of the radio in that country promoted hate speech and served as a mobilising tool for the genocide. Continents apart, the media consumers might attest to the fact that the Gulf War broke out on television. The Kenyan government is convinced to some extent that the local media, especially vernacular FM stations, might have played a major role in escalating the country’s 2007 post election violence.

It appears that the vernacular stations are divisive by their very nature as they relay information in one particular language. They cannot therefore serve a broader societal objective if they lock out listeners who do not understand the language of transmission. In 2005, protests broke out in Ethiopia’s capital after the elections. Mobilisation amongst voters was believed to have been largely through the use of mobile phone text messaging. A ban on texting was enforced by the government to help quell the violence and lasted for over two years.

One of the most enduring pictures from CNN’s coverage of Kenya’s post election crisis was of people sharpening their weapons ready for any eventuality. These pictures were replayed over and over, heightening already existing ethnic tensions. The television coverage of the July 2010 Kampala bomb blasts was graphic, disturbing and exposed underlying ethical concerns as to whether images of the dead should be televised. Images of sprawled bodies were replayed across the Uganda’s electronic and print media fuelling outrage against the attackers.

The media’s use of opinion polls to set a certain agenda or champion some belief is also problematic. Prior to Kenya’s post election crisis, different media houses projected the opposition would win the presidential elections and propagated the belief that any outcome contrary to this would be a rigged election. Opinion polls prior to Tanzania’s recent presidential elections had different results depending on who conducted the polls.

Media coverage of South Sudan’s referendum almost depict that Sudan is headed for a split and any outcome that is not for secession of the South might not be acceptable. The question here is not on the validity of these opinion polls but on the fact that the readership can become intolerant to any different outcome than that being perpetuated by the polls.

Drawing from Africa’s experience, the media appears to be a double-edged sword: it could be used to deteriorate religious, ethnic and socio-economic divisions, or it could be used to promote visions of common societal purpose and destiny. This latter role needs to be enhanced by the nascent media in Africa. For the media to do this, the challenges it faces in conflict or security reporting should be addressed. Challenges of editorial capacity, lack of journalistic values or ethics needs to be improved.

While freedom of the press is a great ideal, this freedom should reflect a deep sense of responsibility. Any attempt to regulate the media is almost always denounced as a move to silence. However in instances where the media is seen to actively promote conflict and mayhem, then surely policies or rules that promote basic minimum standards should be introduced and strictly enforced?