Sunday, May 31, 2009

Text-messages as a journalistic tool

Africa`s very limited internet access have forced reporters to make use of other technology, with text messaging being widely used to reach an audience. This new technology comes with a price, as poor journalistic practice spreads and journalists are targeted.

For all the obvious advantages of making use of this technology, there is a price to be paid - as Tom Rhodes writes in an article submitted at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CTJ).

In his article, Rhodes points to the Kenyan presidential election in 2007, where text messages from reporters witnessing the counts in precincts nationwide reported back to newsrooms in Nairobi that opposition candidate Raila Odinga was pulling away to a historic victory.

But when the official results were announced two days later, on December 29, 2007, the verdict was very different: Mwai Kibaki was the winner. International election monitors would later find fraud in the national vote counting, something Kenyans had sensed, thanks to the early poll reports from journalists using text messages to get the information out. Violence erupted as a result.

Text-message reporting in Kenya would later help circumvent government censorship and cast an important spotlight on the violence, even as many SMS users would spread hate and threats across the landscape, still according to mr Rhodes` article.

This new technology obviously isn`t solely a positive move forward:

"New information technology is a mixed bag of blessings," said Catherine Gicheru, editor of the daily Nairobi Star, according to Rhodes` article. "It definitely helped in the election coverage: You could be told in real time election results in far-off, remote constituencies. But the fact that anyone can send information to millions of people can also be dangerous, such as the mass hate messages sent by mobile phones."

Even though internet access is improving in Africa, the day when a majority of Africans can access the internet is still very much in the future, text messages and radio will still play a very significant tool in terms of reporting.

"The mobile phone in Africa represents the opportunity for ordinary people to have a voice, and it adds a level of transparency to issues that was simply not available to everyday Africans in the past," said Erik Hersman, a Kenya-based Web developer and technology blogger, according to Tom Rhodes` article.

Rhodes continues: "Cell phones have been used in reporting all over the world for many years, but in Africa they have particular importance. African journalists use texting to overcome significant obstacles--including poor or nonexistent land lines, roads, and computer access that would prevent them from interviewing people, collecting information, filing stories, or just passing along notes to colleagues".

"But the same technology that benefits journalists can undermine the profession. Text messaging can be used easily to threaten and intimidate reporters, as happened time and again after the Kenyan election. Because technology allows everyone to spread information easily and quickly, it has opened the door to unprofessional and unethical practices. The mere issemination of information and opinion is not in itself journalism".

- This problem is obviously not unique to Kenya.

According to another article at CPJ, dozens of text-message threats are made against journalists across the continent. Some of the worst cases have been reported in Somalia: "When the phone screen says 'private number,' I don't answer," said Mustapha Haji, a veteran Mogadishu journalist and director of Radio Simba. "It means someone is calling to say they will assassinate you."

- The lesson to be learned?

Bad journalistic practice due to new media technologies is a global issue and not a problem Africa struggles with by themselves. The fact that anybody can report on anything and instantly publish it on internet platforms is a major challenge to the global mainstream media. Accountability, transparency and other well-established western journalistic deeds are very much under threat.

Monday, May 18, 2009

- Africa need modernisation to feed it`s people

Economic mismanagement by African leaders poses a greater threat to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) than the current global financial crisis, according to the Vice President of The Hunger Project (THP).

In an interview with Daily Graphic, Dr. Tadesse said that with proper management of the economy and adherence to good governance and good democratic practices, Africa could produce enough food to feed its people and even export some to other parts of the world.

Dr. Tadesse is assured that in spite of the effects of the financial crunch, it us still possible for Africa to eradicate hunger and poverty, as well as achieve the other targets of the MDGs by their first and second time lines in 2015 and 2025 respectively.

"Africa has enormous natural resources such as oil, gold, cocoa and coffee. If African governments use these resources judiciously and they focus on more trade and less aid, and if the international community fulfill their promise to give financial support to Africa, it is possible to achieve the MDGs", he said.

Dr Tadesse pointed out that achieving the targets of the MDGs required African Governments to be committed to good governance, good journalism and democratic practices, political stability and respect for the will of the People.

Dr Tadesse said agriculture was crucial for Africa's development and stressed the need for African governments to promote the modernisation of agriculture, while projecting it as a lucrative sector and not just one meant for the less educated.

"Agriculture in Africa must be modernised; it must have its value. It's not only for people who are not educated," he emphasised.

It would seem like this is another cry towards modernisation development. Development through religious imitation of more "developed" societies, no matter cultural differences.

I`ve blogged about this earlier, outlining the historical context of the modernisation paradigm using a project in Ghana as example. A lot more about the modernisation paradigm in development theory could be read through Jan Servaes and his book Communication for Development: One World, Multiple Culures, where he scrutinises the different historical approaches to development theory.

A significant criticism of modernisation theory and the development of so-called Third World countries through the use of media technologies is that it threatens local culture established within a developing nation.

The criticism goes further, claiming Western models of journalism are imposed upon a developing country with the notion that “this is how development should be in the Third World and this is how it should be done.”, quoting Melkote & Steeves in their book Communication for Development in the Third World: Theory and Practice for Empowerment.

This impedes the survival of local culture and stops natural progression and development, forcing the country to move towards westernised ways of living which may be unsuitable for it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Does print journalism have a future in Africa?

- The poor broadband access in Africa is good news for the print newspaper industry, according to the print newspaper industry: (...)

The global economic meltdown and new media technology may be killing off traditional newspapers in the developed world, but rising literacy levels in the developing world mean they will not disappear any time soon, according to Print Media South Africa chair Prakash Desai.

Speaking at World Press Freedom Day in Grahamstown, South Africa, mr Desai said he was confident the growing popularity of online media would not sound the “death knell” of newspapers – especially in the developing world, according to Dispatch Online.

"The fact that online newspapers are still running at a loss leads me to believe that big changes will only happen in the distant future. Only three million people out of 48 million in South Africa have access to new technology, and there are billions of people around the world in a similar position", said mr Desai.

Speaking with other local and international media experts on the theme that “Print is Eternal”, mr Desai said the financial problems of many international newspapers have more to do with “bad debt” than media issues.

"Research over the past year reveales that newspapers that stopped their print versions to go solely online are now suffering more than those that embraced both versions. They had a 75% decrease in revenue and lost 50% of their readers", said the deputy director of Press Freedom and Development Programmes from World Association of Newspapers, mrs Mirjana Milosevic.

"The problem will only become really apparent in South Africa when more people can access the Internet. Media are blossoming in some parts and in a maelstrom in others, the industry varies greatly around the world. In some countries print is eternal, in others it is not. The challenge for newspapers is to hold communities together when people have access to 250 million websites”, said the “problem” would only become really apparent in South Africa “when more people can access the Internet”, said US media consultant Vin Crosby.

Louise Vale, general manager of Grocott’s Mail and the David Rabkin Project for Experiential Journalism, said producing a newspaper that was seen as the voice of the community ensured that “print is eternal”.

"Although high unemployment capped newspaper sales at 4000 per edition in the Grahamstown area, very limited access to the Internet in the broader community means this is no major threat to the newspaper’s survival – as long as they tackle relevant community issues. The smell and aura of printed news will always beat the buzz and interference of computers", said mrs Vale.

- Sure. Keep teling yourselves that.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ugandan journalists to receive governmental funding

The President of Uganda have said that he "believes in and supports freedom of the media, but that the freedom comes with the responsibility to tell the truth" as he is prepared to fund journalism, according to Daily Monitor.

Speaking to journalists at a dinner organised by the Uganda Journalists Association (UJA) to mark The World Press Freedom day, mr Museveni said that he “totally supports” media freedom and independence, but accused journalists of "not always getting it right" and not reporting on critical issues of development.

"To guarantee and safeguard that future, reporting should concentrate on issues such as a common market for Africa, political integration, infrastructure development and social transformation", mr Museveni said according to Daily Monitor.

- Play along, in other words. And it would seem that the majority does:

According to the article, UJA chairman Joshua Kyalimpa identified the “exodus” of trained journalists to more lucrative sectors and the invasion of "quacks" who bring the profession into disrepute, commercialisation of journalism at the expense of content and programming, as well as laws that stifle media freedom as the biggest challenges Ugandan media is facing.

More importantly, "mr Kyalimpa reminded the President of a Shs100 million pledge to the association, which Mr Museveni increased to Shs150million – at Mr Kyalimpa’s urging – and promised to honour soon", still according to the article in Daily Monitor.

This opened debate over the issue of the media’s financial independence and whether the association should ask for money from the government. The Monitor Publications’ Managing Editor, Mr Daniel Kalinaki, opposed the handout.

President Museveni defended the offer and said he was only honouring a request from the journalists. He added that it was "sacrilegious in African culture to reject an offer" and that "if journalists reject money from the government then they must also reject funding from any foreign groups or governments".

Miss Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist, comments on the meeting in her blog:

"How on earth can a media that wants handouts from the president at the same time expect to be treated fairly. How embarrassing can the Ugandan journalists in this organisation be? I have never been part of this association and most Journalist friends and I mean respectable journalists have never been involved in it. I don't understand who is behind this association and what the heck they need all that money for.

This is the problem of media in Africa that they become mouth pieces of government and NGO and anybody who can pay their poor -both ethically and financially-reporter. So what do they call that money from the president- a gift or bribe? If you happen to be a journalist that picks this money on 'our' behalf I wonder if you will ever have the audacity to put a tough question to the president when need arises. I now believe more than ever that the biggest threat to media freedom is not the state but the media itself on many occassions in this country."

- Very encouraging words from miss Kagumire this. With this sort of sentiment, I can see Ugandan media face a brighter and more independent future.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Freedom of the Press 2009

Global press freedom declined for a seventh straight year in 2008, with journalists subject to an increase in violence and punitive laws, according to Freedom House.

The US-based non-profit organisation, describing itself as “clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world”, published its findings in the report Freedom of the Press 2009 in time for the World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd - by doing so “identifying the greatest threats to independent media in 195 countries and territories”.

Unsurprisingly, as with the findings of other indexes on press freedom, the report points to “particularly worrisome trends in East Asia, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East and North Africa”.

Having said that, the report points towards a decline in press freedom worldwide and not only in the developing world, citing the financial crisis as the locomotive:

"The journalism profession today is up against the ropes and fighting to stay alive, as pressures from governments, other powerful actors and the global economic crisis take an enormous toll," said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director in a press release.

She continued: "The press is democracy's first defense and its vulnerability has enormous implications for democracy if journalists are not able to carry out their traditional watchdog role."

Freedom House also recently published a report on Freedom of the internet - a global assessment of internet and digital media - which further points towards this trend. The full report can be read in PDF-format here.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Guardian International Development Competition

- What part should international development organisations play in strengthening developing-country media outlets to hold power-holders to account?

The question is raised by The Guardian as they invite citizen journalists to write articles about the issue through the Guardian International Development Competition.

The competition is in partnership with a host of NGOs: Marie Stopes International, British Red Cross, African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), Farm Africa, Find Your Feet, International Childcare Trust, One World Action and Panos London.

The competition aims to explore a range of questions and dilemmas:

Media liberalisation has meant less state control and more media outlets, but these have been concentrated in cities, resulting in that the quality and diversity of what has been published or broadcast has not been improved. Rural reporting is still neglected.

The Guardian states: "A 'free' media is seen an essential component of accountability by exposing corruption and providing a space for issues to be debated and agendas developed. In some developing countries it may be the only vehicle that can take this role".

Further: "Along with liberalisation and cheaper technology, any individual or group can produce its own media output, as a website, blog or through citizen journalism".

Apart from the obvious advantages that comes with technology and liberalistation, you also come across some problems. Local radio stations in Kenya in early 2008 were both blamed for inciting violence and praised for calming tensions. Given the illiteracy rate, it would seem radio remains by far the most important medium in Africa.

Summing up:

- Can citizen journalism strengthen information flow about development between and within countries? Does it matter that the content has not been filtered by professional journalistic standards? Does it matter that it often makes no claims to being objective or authoritative?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Whistleblowers called for in Zimbabwe

- There is a lot of bad news coming out of Zimbabwe, and the state of the media in the country is widely criticised. But here is an interesting one:

A Zimbabwean newspaper have asked the public to submit incriminating documents that could unravel "wrongdoing to the economic well-being in Zimbabwe."

The Zimbabwe Times states: "We have created the forum as a facility for responsible and patriotic citizens to place such information in the public domain in the national interest. This forum is an avenue for civic engagement by Zimbabwean citizens in the rehabilitation of our battered nation’s economy through public accountability and transparency."

The statement goes on: "We hope to keep our elected officials accountable to us, the electorate they serve. Through the X-Files (the forum) we hope to create and maintain transparency, where there may be deliberate attempts to cover up the truth for illicit personal gain."

The newspaper insist that they consider qheque-book journalism (to pay sources for information) as a form of corruption, and state they won`t pay whistleblowers for any information: "Contributions shall be entirely voluntary and no payment shall be disbursed either for documents or for any tips for investigation into corruption." The uploaded files can be seen here.

- Zimbabwe obviously need more transparency in media and political processes, but I`m still not sure what to make of this.
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