The vital role of a robust independent media in any healthy democracy is undeniable, and when the press fails to live up to its public responsibility, the social and political ramifications can be grave. While the last two decades have seen an explosion of civil society groups on the African continent, strong independent media has been slower to proliferate. Journalists are constrained by limited access to training and resources, and many outlets remain controlled by national governments. The latter tendency promotes polarized coverage, and in some cases, African governments routinely employ repressive measures to suppress dissenting coverage.
Yet the state of the media on the African continent is hardly homogenous. While Zimbabwe (149), Equatorial Guinea (153) and Eritrea (last at 169) fall at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ 2007 Press Freedom Index, Maritius (25), Namibia (25), Ghana (29), Cape Verde (43) and South Africa (45) all rank above the United States (48).
What about the presentation of Africa by international (predominately Western) media? The lives of the 900 million people in Africa are underreported outside the region on the whole, and when Western media does pick up a story, it is almost always about a dire problem, with little mention of successes or solutions. Emphasizing negative over positive events is of course a common critique of all media, yet this tendency is particularly true for Africa, exacerbated by the fact that many foreign correspondents still often have low knowledge of Africa’s history and/or different cultures. Those that do have solid expertise are tasked to cover a wider range of countries and topics than the comparably bigger staffs of many new outlets’ Middle Eastern Bureaus.
By locals or international reporters, covering the continent isn’t easy, but when done effectively, it can make a huge impact in the lives of Africans. Independent journalism has long been a global force for social justice, and new web and mobile phone based technologies have the potential to empower both professional journalists and the emerging sector of citizen-generated media. Over the summer, Just Africa will look at how different African governments, civil society, the international community and African media interact with one another, and the implications of these processes for political and social justice.