Threats to editorial independence in Africa today

Threats to editorial independence in Africa

Herman Wasserman

Talk to course participants on Essentials of Broadcast Management Management, Sol Plaatje Institute for Broadcast Management, Grahamstown, 25 April 2013

I was asked to reflect on the topic of ‘Threats to editorial independence in Africa’. Knowing that you are all media practitioners, I have to avoid the immediate danger that you will view this as a perspective from an academic ensconced in an ivory tower, and therefore disregard my comments as irrelevant. But, sometimes viewing things from a distance can bring some clarity.

On the other hand, journalism and the academy have in common the commitment to dialogue, discovery and criticism, so I hope that my remarks tonight can be the start of ongoing discussion and exchange of opinion.

I would like to break down the title of my talk into three questions:

First, what do we mean by ‘independence’?

Secondly, what makes Africa  different as a context where we ask this question?

And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, what are the threats facing editorial independence?

So let us start with ‘independence’.  The notion that journalists should not be beholden to outside interests is an established one in journalism ethics. Consider for instance the section on ‘Independence and conflicts of interest’ in the South African Press Council’s code. It states:

3.1 The press shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non- professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided,as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press’s independence and professionalism.

3.2 Journalists shall not accept a bribe, gift or any other benefit where this is intended or likely to influence coverage.

3.3 The press shall indicate clearly when an outside organisation has contributed to the cost of newsgathering.

3.4 Editorial material shall be kept clearly distinct from advertising.

The Broadcasting Complaints Commission, in an earlier version of their code, took over the formulation of the BBC’s code of conduct that required journalists to report the news ‘with due impartiality’. The ‘due’ suggests that complete impartiality and independence is never really possible.

These stipulations in media ethical codes indicate that society expects of its journalists to speak on behalf of the public interest, not their own interests  – be these financial, political or personal – or the interests of some other party. We do not want journalists to write praise songs for companies in which they own shares, or have a relationship with a politician they report about, etc. (This is the basis for the – in all likelihood spurious – accusation of the minister of Communications against the Sunday Times’ Mzilikazi waAfrika that his reporting was influenced by supposed business interests in China).

Independence as an ethical value is closely linked to the liberal view of journalism in a democracy – the expectation is that journalism brings an independent perspective on political and social affairs and provides a disinterested check and balance on power – the so-called Fourth Estate.

Why is this so important? Because the assumption is that we can trust an independent media, as they have nothing to hide – they have our interests at heart. Not their own interests, not that of politicians, big business or their family or friends. Ours.

From this perspective, independent self-regulation by the media, or co-regulation between the media and representatives of the public (the current system for press regulation in South Africa), is seen as preferable to statutory regulation that would compromise the media’s independence.

But, as with all ethical concepts, there exists differences of opinion about how widely this concept should apply, and what exactly it means. In the first instance, many media are big businesses themselves, and most certainly also have their own interests to think of. We can however expect of media to be responsible for not letting their own interests stand in the way of the public’s interests. But of course the media sometimes lets us down – the recent phone-hacking scandal in the UK is an illustration of how the media’s own commercial interests can even lead it to harm ordinary people.

It is not always easy to decide what ‘independence’ means in practical journalistic situations. Does independence mean, for instance, that journalists should never have any political views? That they should never be involved in any community organization? That they should not take a position on matters?

I would argue that a journalist without an opinion is not a good journalist. Journalists with no view on the matters that they report on, not only produce boring journalism, but also have a limited chance of effecting social change.  The mantra of ‘objectivity’ should not mean never taking a stance, or never becoming emotionally involved. It would be immoral and inhuman to report on a massacre without allowing yourself an emotional response, or reporting on a or a genocide by balancing both sides as equal.

But the kind of independence we need to insist upon from journalists in Africa is the kind that ensures that news is reported in the interest of the public – not the interests of politicians, big business, or even the media themselves.  Independence is however not the same as an editorial authoritarianism that refuses to answer to anyone outside the newsroom – journalists and editors remain responsible to the public (which, by the way, is a much broader concept than the ‘audience’ or the ‘market’ – but I’ll return to that point later).

So when we talk about ‘independence’, it is important that we ask: ‘independence from whom’? We should also be clear about what independence is not:

Independence does not mean arrogance – not listening to criticism or corrections from others.

Independences does not mean that journalism is a value-free exercise or that journalists do not have to justify their actions – the claims that ‘we are just holding up a mirror to society’ or ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ are mostly poor excuses to avoid self-reflection by journalists.

Independence does also not mean aloofness – journalists should remain rooed in communities, should remain committed to the public interest, even if that concept is difficult to define especially in a fragmented and unequal society such as South Africa. When journalists start thinking of themselves as an elite at a remove from the everyday lives of ordinary people, journalism is in trouble.

To come to our second question – what makes Africa different as a context for independent journalism?

While the notion of independence is one that can be found in journalistic codes around the world, there are some specific conditions in African countries that gives the question of independence added dimensions.

For one, an independent media as a watchdog of democracy is not an idea appreciated in many African countries. We know that journalists around the continent are still being harassed, imprisoned and even killed for daring to have an independent voice.  Even in those African countries where freedom of the press is constitutionally protected, reality does not always meet the ideal. Several countries have insult laws in place that prohibit criticism of the president; and even in countries that do not have such formal laws in place, prevailing cultural attitudes of respect towards elders are often used in an attempt to muzzle media criticism of political leaders.  But we should also guard against essentialising and homogenizing ‘Africa’ Some countries like Ghana, self-regulation of the media is better developed than in others. Different countries in Africa are also in different stages of the developmental trajectory – in some, democracy is reasonably well established, others are still in transition to democracy, and in others democracy is yet to arrive.  So it is impossible to talk about media independence ‘in Africa’ in general terms  – we have to acknowledge the specifics of the situation in various countries.

The media in African countries also operate against the historical background of colonialism and post-colonialism, that firstly created rifts in society between elites and the rest of the population, which are still mirrored in the media landscapes in many African countries today; and secondly often created expectations that the media should support the post-colonial developmental state, rather than act as its adversary.  These inheritances make it difficult for the media to be truly independent – there is the danger that it would continue to view the world from the perspective of a narrow, elite section of society instead of giving voice to the masses; and is often branded as unpatriotic or disloyal when they criticize the government.

The colonial legacy of divide-and-rule can also still be felt in Africa. In certain African countries, journalists’ ethnic loyalties also come into tension with their stated aim of remaining professional and independent.  A recent PhD study here at Rhodes by Jacinta Maweu demonstrated how ethnic loyalties impact on the ethical decision-making of journalists working for the Nation Group in Kenya. She found that ethnicity often acts as a type of ‘filter’ that determines what gets published or not.

Apart from the inherited legacy of colonialism, Africa is also located within new global networks of power, in which it is often on the margins of a globalized economy (even while The Economist is celebrating ‘Africa Rising’, it is rising from a very low baseline). Compared to North America and Europe, Africans are still by and large on the underside of the global digital divide, even when there is spectacular growth in some areas of digital media and especially mobile telephones. Asymmetries in access to the media are amplified internally, with disparities between media-rich and media-poor. What does this have to do with media independence?  This – that if the media in highly unequal societies is dependent on the support of a specific section of that society, usually the commercially lucrative one that advertisers are interested in, it makes it difficult for them to cover stories that might not be of direct interest to their primary market.

Or, media can be run in an unsustainable manner that makes them over-dependent on government or donor funding, which again undermines their independence to make independent choices.

This of course is basic commercial logic – but it prompts us to ask the question again about what we mean by an independent media – independent from whom? And, perhaps more importantly, dependent on whom?

This brings us to the third and last part of our question that completes the topic that this talk was meant to be about: what are the threats facing editorial independence in Africa today?

That there are political threats to media freedom and editorial independence around the continent is well-known, but it is worth restating. The Protection of State Information Bill debated in the South African parliament today shows that these threats continue to develop even in countries that pride themselves for their protection of media freedom.

But we should see the threats to media independence more widely than just in the political sphere.

Social and material conditions in many African countries make it difficult for the media to act as independently as they might want to. Journalists are often not well-paid, which means that they succumb to pressures of ‘brown envelope journalism’, where they accept gifts or bribes from sources to supplement their income. This is a clear and widespread example of how economic independence is equally as important as political independence.

Commercial interests can also threaten editorial independence in other ways. The notion of media independence is held up as an ethical principle because it enables the media to act as a check on power on behalf of the public – to afflict the comfortable in the public interest. But when media become so beholden to their specific interest groups, when they confuse serving the public interest with serving up what interests their market, then commercial pressures can become a real threat to independence in the true sense of the word.

In African countries these commercial pressures are exacerbated by the internal inequalities within countries, the demarcation of markets in ethnic terms, and the fierce competition with global media formats that are increasingly available to African audiences.

This is therefore an appeal to you as media managers, to consider how the structures and processes that you put in place in your newsrooms can support or undermine editorial independence in the wider, fuller sense of the word.

So to conclude – to contribute to robust, dynamic African media that can contribute to social change, we need to see editorial independence not only as an individual matter, but a systemic one, one which asks not only for commitment by individual journalists, but requires a holistic response from journalists, editors and media managers alike. This is the challenge I will leave you with tonight.


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