Reflections on the purpose of media (2): Defining our role beyond watchdog status


By AMI CEO Eric Chinje

Media action in Africa, we surmised in an earlier piece, had come to reflect the school of thought that ascribed to journalists the very juridical role of watchdog.  They are society’s moral police, the eyes and ears of citizens, the voice of the voiceless, and the divulger of misdeeds in the corridors of state power.  And in that, the media professionals are a power unto themselves: the Fourth Estate.

It is on the basis of this that professionals in public media in Africa were, for a long time, denied the recognition some of them most certainly deserved.  Many were referred to, derogatorily, as “His Masters Voice” – an epithet that referred to the dog on the gramophone record labels of the last century.  As the echo chambers of those with political power, public media journalists were no “watchdogs”; they did not speak for the people! But this, of course, begs the question: when does media – public or private – speak for the people?

The African Media Initiative (AMI) is inviting media professionals on the continent to weigh in on the question and on what exactly should be the role of media in 21st century Africa ( What should define the approach to journalism and media action in Africa today?  Is the need to go beyond the watchdog role compelling enough to force a rethink of the philosophical basis on which media operates on this or any other developing continent?

Africa today is in the throes of climactic, political, economic and socio-religious change, with outcomes that could be as promising as they could be devastating.  Across the continent, droughts and floods compete in equal measure; waves of migrants face the prospect of delivery as much as of death on the high seas; insecurity from merchants of terror equally challenge our concept of nation and of communal living as do instability from the terror of power.

Citizens everywhere try to make sense of it all.  The state of the world comes to them in heavy, daily doses on television, radio, newspapers, and on social media.  Does it suffice to simply deliver the news or should media be part of helping them figure things out?  Should the esteemed men and women of the press just relay the complex realities on the continent today and decry what is being done by the first three power estates to address matters?  Or should they seek to go beyond their watchdog role?

As watchdog, media professionals have an obligation to hold governments to account. Do that, they are told, for the voiceless majority! The better they are at it, the more likely they are to win that next journalism award. Thanks in part to this fact, the relationship between government and journalists has come down to one of mutual suspicion and, whenever possible, each has sought to exercise their power to hold sway over the other: coercion by the one or blackmail by the other.

As one ponders the state of the continent today, does it not become necessary to question the nature of the relationship between the two forces that can do the most to transform society for the better?  Before rushing to an answer, it may be helpful to reflect on the lessons one can draw from more developed economies.  When I look at the west and other developed societies, I see the media as curators of information that citizens need to generate the actions and ideas that inform the  policies governments have to develop.  They all are part of a knowledge continuum.  Our reflections on this will be the subject of the next in the series on the purpose of media in 21st century Africa.