Excellencies, all protocols observed;
Our profession on the continent suffers from a public trust deficit which we must attend to without further delay. And this is because of a combination of reasons. I will deal with the two most important namely;
We largely write for ourselves. We are distant and disconnected from the people. Our language is not theirs and the issues that we deal with are remote from their day today problems. And the herd mentality means we all rush to the same peripheral issues which hardly touch the lives of the ordinary people on the continent.
Our challenge is to tell the business and financial story in a manner that will be easy to digest by both the investor and the Africa consumer. We identify and create opportunities for investors when we surface the basic day to day problems that the African consumer faces. Business makes money by addressing day to day human challenges.
The second issue is much graver. For society to take us seriously we must first take ourselves seriously. This means we must deal with the professional, ethical and leadership shortcomings in our midst. Politicians, business and the public don’t hold us in very high regard. Most of this is largely because of the way we conduct ourselves, the perception that we don’t read and research properly before we write and that brown-envelop-journalism is still a factor on the continent.
I realize that there is a huge difference between perception and reality. But life has also taught me that perception is the reality that we must deal with. And in our case the perception and the reality is that we are not very different from Sepp Blatters FIFA.
We live at a time when there has never been greater transparency, when companies and organizations are no longer able to resist public scrutiny, no matter how powerful they are. This new kind of transparency has been made possible thanks in large part to a new set of tools. These new tools, and new technologies which on the face of it are stunningly simple because they are mostly powered by social sharing, have created an unprecedented level of instant sharing of information that should be cherished by every journalist.
If you sift through some of the naturally frivolous exchanges that are part of social media, you begin to grasp that many companies and organizations are being held to account via these platforms.
What’s more exciting is that it is no longer left just to journalists to ask the tough questions. There has been a democratization of scrutiny and it’s truly fascinating to watch an ordinary citizen take on a big institution and receive answers. The power of the RT and the hashtag on Twitter are the worst nightmare of an organization that wishes to hide something.
But there’s obviously something else at play and that is the availability of powerful analytical tools at the hands of journalists. The big data moment has arrived for any journalist that takes the time to master many of the tools that IBM, Google and others provide for free. It is my hope that this generation of journalists will harness the combined power of all these tools to strengthen the continent’s media capacity.
Armed with this kind of data and tools for accurate analysis, we will be the journalists at the forefront of delivering a new level of transparency in developmental news. This is a vital pre-requisite for sustainable economic development. Without it our economies will always perform far below their potential.
And given the rate of global innovation, we need to invest in journalists that can hold their own in a world in which capital, rather than politics increasingly shapes the global agenda. The African Media Initiative is focused on setting the standard and also the tone for in-depth analysis and coverage of business and economic growth. As we have seen over the past three years of Africa Rising, it is not possible to trumpet Africa’s economic renaissance if the citizens remain uninformed about developmental matters.
Perhaps the real opportunity for us as professionals is that just as in the 60s when Africa was democratizing quickly, right now there’s a similar advance in economic terms. The continent has some of the world’s fastest economies and it can no longer be left to the foreign media to send in their journalists to give both the world and Africans an in-depth sense of how our economies are shaping up. We need our own journalists, familiar with the markets and the societies and the languages to bring to readers and the markets high quality business and financial reporting. Whether it is the private investor or the Ratings Agency, there is a need for access to independent, accurate financial news.
Most of you will know by now that I am passionate about Africa. My friend and colleague Charles Onyango-Obbo who is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa the other day was saying if our passion for Africa could be listed on the stock exchange we would make a lot of money.
I am done with complaining about how international media covers Africa. Instead I believe that the time for Africans to tell their own stories has arrived. We have beautiful stories to tell. And these are stories of how Africans live and not how they die. And we must also tell the stories of our struggles and failures.
For us to be able to tell these stories we must be credible, informed and trusted by the public, politicians and business. Our weaknesses have been used to rubbish and compromise us for a long time. It is time to grow a crop of media leaders and journalists who are reputable, credible and independent minded. And when it comes to financial and business journalism we have the uphill task of being much more informed than the corporate sector that we write about and to write in a manner that is easy to understand by the majority. This is not an easy task.
I believe that society expects us to lead. And lead from the front. We can only do this if we are well read, informed and ethical. While society is absorbed by the here and now our task is to take a long term view of problems our societies face. We are expected to take unpopular but principled positions on contemporary issues. We are not running for political office or in the business of popularity stakes and so we should be able to afford this.
I love that digital tools have made the work of despots and dictators that much harder. Gone are the days when all a despot facing rebellion from his citizens had to do was take the radio and TV off air. Now Social media, independent websites, YouTube and other tools will carry the story. Uncensored. And this is the worst nightmare of those who rely on brute force to stay in power. The US Godfather of Hip-Hop, Gil Scott-Heron famously said that the revolution would not be televised, but were he alive today he would have said that ‘the revolution will be tweeted’
Lastly let me say that if the internet has in many ways made it easier for the media to operate with greater freedom, it also has unfortunately added barriers to meaningful journalism. There is no polite way to put this. There’s a lot of junk on the internet. Catchy headlines are often used to bait readers who don’t find the story promised. Clickbait is real and there is a justifiable backlash against it.
For my generation who grew up with state broadcasters and official newspapers, it has been exciting to be involved in pushing back against state monopoly on media. What my generation has achieved is significant. But I have no doubt that it is nothing compared to what the present generation is going to achieve. Be brave, organized and use your networks to build an infrastructure of independent, credible media voices that strengthen freedom of expression for all and not just your colleagues.