The Purpose of Media (revised and expanded)

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by Eric Chinje

In earlier writings on the subject, I have pointed to the need to examine the relationship between three of the most important actors in any social construction: Citizens, government and media. The interplay between these three is important in understanding outcomes in society, both in the developed and developing countries. I have suggested we examine what operates in the more developed societies and see if corollaries exist from which Africa could draw some lessons.

The relationship between government and media should be seen in terms not only of people and policies, but of roles and responsibilities. Both are tied in a governance loop with citizens. Media curates the information that citizens need to generate the actions and ideas that inform the policies governments have to develop and implement. Their actions sit within a circular knowledge continuum (the loop) that has citizens playing the roles of encoder and decoder. In a perfect state, media would feed into the system, providing the information that citizens need to generate the actions and ideas that fuel the policy machine of government.

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Within the loop, media essentially informs the system. Information oils the social machine. It brings to citizens responses to questions about who, what, when, where, why and how – virtually all they need to know to fulfill their part of the social contract with other citizens and their government. Diversity in responses is a hallmark of media. There are persistent asymmetries in the quality and quantity of information available to consumers (governments, citizens) but this is probably what strengthens the system — by giving a range of perspectives that enrich the social dialogue.

I have been trying to figure out how the loop works in Africa. How does media play that critical role of information curator?

I decided first to look at what operates in western and other developed societies, especially in crisis situations. An example will suffice. Early in the summer of 2015, European society had to deal with two overriding issues that questioned the fundamentals of its communal existence: the Greek Question and immigration into Europe. The two issues became the staple of media and the overarching concerns of government.

Media provided the latest updates, debated the options, and kept the stories in the headlines as governments held interminable meetings on what to do about both issues. Citizens in Greece took to the streets when necessary to react to what was coming to them and voted in ways that informed government action. The governance loop was respected and functioned as it should.

African societies are, for the most part, in a permanent state of crisis. There are multiple reasons for this and they range from state fragility, terrorism threats, and external economic shocks to social discontent. A number of issues could just as easily provoke a crisis. In any given country on the continent, these could include food insecurity, youth unemployment, climate change effects, power shortages, or institutional weaknesses that result in a dysfunctional or ineffective state.

These developmental challenges have occasionally provoked what could be considered an existential crisis in one country or the other. Yet, a study by the African Media Initiative found out that coverage of these issues accounts for less than 85 percent of total media coverage on the continent. The gap remains extremely wide between media content and Africa’s development agenda, and the bulk of media fare is skewed towards sports, culture (celebrity gossip), a narrative of doom and gloom, and sensational politics.

It is with this in mind that I wondered: how well does media in Africa play its role within the governance loop? Does it contribute to that ultimate goal of enriching social conversations, empowering citizens and, ultimately, raising the quality of life on the continent?

Some will argue that these questions are irrelevant to what is essentially a business – the news business – that should have no other parameters than the need to survive in a highly competitive environment and to make a profit. I have had these debates with many top players in the industry and often came away wondering whether media was more a part of the problem, not the solution to Africa’s problems.

Proponents and Victims of an Irrelevant School of Thought

The debate on the role of media in developing societies focuses on the inconsistencies between an assimilated school of thought and what may be considered a new and contextualized approach to media.

The widely held paradigm supports the notion of media as “the fourth estate of the realm” – a power unto itself that exists to inform, educate, and entertain. More lately, that has been extended to include the notion of “holding governments to account”. The notion of a fourth estate that holds governments to account is a modernist addition that has come to define not only what media is, but also what the industry does or should do.

“Holding governments to account” must have entered the lexicon in the mid-eighties, coming straight out of the world of development economics as an important tool in the fight for better governance in the developing world. It is possible to draw a corollary between this and the delivery by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund of a new package of ideas that came to be known as the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP). An excellent idea, no doubt, it was eagerly adopted by an international community eager to obtain results in its development work and to justify the billions of dollars spent to achieve them. Every means was used to support this agenda, especially in Africa.

The focus of media diplomacy shifted at this time from introducing the west and the benefits of capitalism to the developing world to ensuring the success of a policy that, it was hoped, would ultimately open up new markets for western goods. To ensure this, Europe came up with the Economic Protection Zones (EPZ) program and the US with the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). International development agencies, including the African Development Bank, now had to tailor their lending policies to support this shift.

SAPs got governments out of “the business of doing business” even in essential, sectors such as electricity and water production and distribution. Expertise in those sectors, for the most part, lay in the west and it readily stepped in as governments moved out, however hesitatingly. With a pocketful of dollars – never enough to make any real difference – African governments were prodded into adopting the SAPs, with its cookie-cutter approach to implementation. That simply meant that every nation, irrespective of contextual differences, would adopt and implement the programs in exactly the same way.

The only communication around the SAPs took place in ministerial conference rooms across Africa where select government officials and experts from the development institutions huddled together to craft a hapless country’s future. The visitors, generally from Washington D.C., the home base of the powerful Bretton Woods institutions (IMF and the World Bank Group) essentially preached what came to be known as “the Washington Consensus” upon which the SAPs were designed. The African leaders were told that their economies were in a free fall and would have to go on life-support. They got the singular message that had to be delivered: Get the program going or lose the opportunity to obtain that fistful of dollars! They all did, with occasional but minimal resistance.

The SAPs quickly became very unpopular as massive job losses came in the wake of poorly prepared government attempts to implement the programs. Every government was told to reduce its monthly wage bill, sell off state enterprises – to get the state out of the business of doing business! – and significantly reduce the expensive investments in tertiary education. By the turn of the decade in 1990, it had become very clear that something had to give, if popular revolt against the programs and their generators was to be avoided.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the attendant collapse of bipolarity with the demise of the Soviet Union, moved the focus from the growing collapse of economies in Africa (and around the world, of course) to the political failures of the pre-1989 world order.

Long before the Arab Spring of 2011, the threat of a political tsunami triggered a series of National Conferences across Africa that had governments and citizens finally sitting down together to redefine more transparent systems of governance. That ultimately changed little in terms of outcomes, but it gave the proponents of the new economic order, based on the Washington Consensus, much-needed breathing room.

The World Bank and, to some extent, the IMF brought in communicators and media experts in an effort to ensure that the SAP controversy does not raise again its ugly head after the political dust settles. They joined other western organizations in developing media-support policies and, in the process, redefined the role of media in society. Apparently, for good reason! Media in Africa would now be encouraged to “hold governments to account”.

Training programs for journalists were organized on a fairly regular basis, especially on economic reporting. And something that could be construed as more sinister occurred to give direction to where journalism in Africa should go: New awards to recognize distinction in media were announced and the winners were invariably those individuals who stood up against government in their writings. Holding governments to account had become the new maxim in journalism! How does this compare to what every African journalism student learnt in school? To be continued…

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