Reflections on the Purpose of Media in Africa


By AMI CEO Eric Chinje

I studied the tools of media and their social impacts in the 1980s in America, retaining two important facts above all others: “media constitute the fourth estate and should hold the other estates accountable” and, from Canadian communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan (yes, the same guy who coined the phrase, “the global village”), this: “the medium is the message”.  The first fashioned my understanding of the role of media and the second underscored the importance of the medium and, therefore, of the role I came to play as a journalist.  Over three decades since those theoretical underpinnings of my approach to media, I have increasingly questioned much of the relevance of my learnings to the complex reality of the continent in which I have applied much of that theory: Africa.

My thoughts on media in Africa have veered away from the inquisitional approach of holding others to account as the primordial duty of men and women of the press.  I like this very western concept but I have opted to see in these transformational instruments of communication a higher purpose: that of generating and moderating intelligent and meaningful conversations within the global village. Most especially the African village!

I came to the inevitable conclusion that the purpose of media in Africa and of the professionals who run them needs a re-think.  I am now convinced there must be a shift in thought.  Media in Africa  have to embrace the urgency of the moment: the deepening demands of a continent in crisis; one that is adrift in the vast and open seas of policy.  Media content should address the loosening threads of social cohesion that increasingly threaten every nation and state, exposing citizens everywhere to the more cruel side of existence; it must speak to the incomprehensible inability to unite a continent in need of an African union!  That is where media in the 21st century should be:  bringing citizens into the policy debate, putting forth the arguments for harmonious co-existence within national boundaries, and making the necessary case for continental unity.

Media in Africa, compared to those in other regions, is believed to make the least contribution to necessary national and regional economic, social and political debates.  It is hard, in any country on the continent, to capture the essence or direction of social thought or the true concerns of citizens through the media.  I have spent time in some of the richest and most diverse media markets in Africa and come out with nary a sense of what constitutes the pressing issues facing the community.  What then, I ask, is the purpose of media?

The African Media Initiative (AMI) has been focusing on that question and carrying out surveys and studies to elucidate an emerging position on the matter.  One report clearly identified the true “piper who calls the tune” – western donors who provide the most funds for media development. African public institutions or the Foundations of its growing number of billionaires contribute little or nothing to this critical sector. Another study brought out the very low level of development coverage by African media, possibly a direct consequence of this.  AMI has taken up the challenge of trying to find ways to reverse the trend!

I will continue my reflections on the of “The Purpose of Media in Africa” in the next edition of the AMI Newsletter.  We invite your thoughts on the subject.