During the last weekend of August some of the foremost media researchers and experts of East Africa will meet in Kigali to front the challenges faced by the changing media environment. In an interview the president of East African Communications Association, Dr. Monica Chibita, calls it a democratic necessity.
What are the main challenges for media businesses in East Africa right now?
– The main challenges for the media business today include commercialization and its adverse effects on diversity and the pressures on editorial independence from government and big business.
– The pressure from government sometimes comes in form of unfriendly regulation as well as extra-judicial threats. The media are also under pressure to keep up with rapid technological changes. The capacities that the new media give to ordinary people may also be seen as a threat to the very existence of the “traditional media” and to the notion of journalism.
Are the stakeholders doing enough to support free independent media in East Africa?
– Some key stakeholders include government, regulators, media owners, civil society and the public.
– Government: across the region, constitutions now recognize the right to freedom of speech, expression and the media as well as access to information. There are specific media laws in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. However, there are still several vague provisions and claw-back clauses that are invoked at moments of political tension.
– Organs of the state such as the police also occasionally come down hard on the media where the media are perceived to be a threat to the interests of the government of the day, or a perceived threat to public order or national security or the public interest – however these are defined.
– Perhaps the best thing government could do is to allow the media to operate freely while holding them accountable to being responsible. Perhaps it is time to give the media more space to regulate themselves through professional associations.
– Regulators: the perception in much of the region is that regulators are more likely to focus on their punitive roles than their enabling role.
– Media owners: media owners could do more to promote the overall development of the sector by for instance supporting the professional enhancement of their staff and speaking on their behalf when government agencies victimize them unfairly. The broad perception is that the commercialization of the media compels media owners to pursue profit at any cost.
– Civil society: there are many media development and media advocacy organizations that keep government accountable on media freedom. Perhaps they could do more to hold the media accountable to basic professional codes of conduct as well. They could also do more to help the media to strengthen their self-regulation structures. The latter also goes for professional media associations.
– The public: the public in East Africa is a rather amorphous entity to imagine. However, one may say that the public has not done very well in standing with the media to foster a free and independent media environment. This is often due to a deficit in media literacy.
New technology and the increased access to information mean both challenges, but also opportunities. What are the positive aspects of the digital era for media?
– The positive aspects of the digital media are a mixed package. While the new media technologies like the mobile phone and the computer seem to increase opportunities for representation and participation for “ordinary” citizens (social networks, digital activism, mobile money transfer and trade opportunities, education opportunities, culture etc.), there are still serious concerns about access for the majority. Many cannot afford these technologies. Some areas are not well served by the Internet. Much of the Internet is in English, which excludes many. Both hardware and software are costly.
What role does EACA play in this changing media landscape?
– EACA is an association of trainers in communication in its broadest sense. This includes journalism and media studies. The network focuses on professional networking, curriculum and research. As a forum, EACA reflects on the state of the media and media training and through research and deliberation, seeks to propose solutions to local problems. The ultimate purpose of this is to contribute to a better understanding of the media in East Africa and the rapidly changing environments in which they operate.
– A strong EACA should therefore translate not only into a better understanding of the media industry among academics, but also into a stronger and more responsible and more relevant media – after all we train the practitioners – and ultimately a more democratic society.
What does the future media landscape look like?
– I am not a prophet, but all indications are that the new media technology opportunities will continue to empower both the media and the citizenry, albeit not uniformly. This, unfortunately, threatens to re-draw the battle-lines between journalism practice and those that perceive incisive journalism as a threat. In future, also, the very notion of what journalism is will need to be re-defined.