The Social is Political: Media, Protest and Change in Africa


Pic: Groundup

When voting is over, we don’t exist anymore. (…) We have been protesting for the past four years, asking, making the same pleas. Last year, just prior to the elections, both parties (…) came out to address us, and the most rosiest promises were made to us: that there’s going to be development (…) We are asking, what we must we do to benefit in the same way that other communities are benefitting. I am saying that even the president of this country does not know Ennerdale. Drugs is rife here. Our children are dying. You wake up and find a dead body of your son outside and you don’t know why. And when you later come to the knowledge of why your son was killed, you find out that he was killed for a bag of tik (metamphetamines). (….)How long are we supposed to plea? How long are they going to come here and take us for a ride? We don’t love doing what we’re doing (EWN, 2017)

These are the words of a resident of the neighbourhood Ennerdale, in South Africa’s richest province, Gauteng – one of at least six neighbourhoods that were protesting on the same day early this month against what in the first instance is articulated as a frustration with the lack of basic services, housing and employment. But, as is evident from the notes of despair and frustration in her voice, this is also about being seen and heard, about being recognized as a citizen.

The latest spate of protests in Gauteng province were just the latest manifestations of what has become a daily occurrence in South Africa for at least the last decade and a half. Figures vary and are often in dispute (Davis 2015), depending on whether media reports or different types of police incident records are consulted (Runciman, Maruping & Moloto 2016). The tens of thousands of incidents reported over at least the last decade and a half has led to South African being seen as ‘a country defined by its protests’, a ‘protest nation’ (Duncan 2016:1), with protesters labelled ‘insurgent citizens’ (Brown 2015) engaged in a ‘rebellion of the poor’ (Alexander 2010)

Not all of these protests are violent – the majority are orderly with no disruption, injury or damage to property, while others merely disrupt traffic or prevent access to buildings (Runciman et al. 2016). Many of them have however turned violent, and have been met with violent responses from the police, resulting in the deaths of protesters. Among these count the protest where Andries Tatane was killed by police following a community protest in Ficksburg in the Free State province in 2011, and the massacre of 36 miners at Marikana following a labour protest (Wasserman 2015).

For some observers, this is “literally what a revolution looks like” (Poplak 2017), but then again “these were disconnected communities, unlinked to the South Africa we’re told we live in, existing far from the flow of history, and outside the parsimonious loop of the formal economy. They were just another mini-front against which the government must wage war: 30 cops, 200 rounds of rubber bullets, 15 cop cars, a Nyala. Shift change. Repeat” (Poplak 2017).


Protesters use disruption of traffic, occupation of buildings and burning barricades to make their voices heard. A community leader participating in one of these protests articulated the frustration with the poor as they struggle to be heard by the authorities, or by the media: ‘We had to close the main road because it’s the only thing that gets the attention of the authorities’ (Haffejee, 2017). Similar strategies are regularly seen to be used elsewhere in Africa, whether during the ‘bread riots’ in Mozambique (BBC 2010), anti-government protests in Guinea (SAPA 2013) or struggles over land in Ethiopia’s Oromia region (Davison 2016). Damage to property, disruptions and highly visible demonstrations are often used by activists as communicative tools to get politicians or the mainstream media to notice them (Pointer, Bosch, Chuma & Wasserman 2016) As the poor are making use of the only means at their disposal to get the ear of those in positions of power, these protests are often inchoate and disconnected compared with the more orchestrated and targeted lobbying campaigns by elites. The result is that the public sphere, which is also served and supported by the mainstream media, has become bifurcated and mirrors the inequality of post-colonial African states and other places in the Global South (Heller 2009:137). This raises the first question with regard to the media’s role in conflicts: If the mainstream media is supposed to be a tool for deepening democracy and development in Africa as it is often claimed to be, why is it necessary for protesters to resort to burning and barricading? But it also raises more general questions about media in Africa: What does this say about the role of the mainstream media in the African public sphere? What are the implications of this relationship between media and protest for theoretical understandings of the media in African democracies? And, not the least, it raises questions for scholars: how do we research the role of media, both mainstream and social media, in African societies? What are the appropriate approaches to these questions, and how do we use them to build theory in media studies?

Not all protests in Africa are led by the poorest of the poor. Student protests like the #Rhodesmustfall and #Feesmustfall movements in South Africa and at various universities in Kenya in 2014-15 (Bosch 2017; Koross & Kosgei 2016), the #Zuma Must Fall campaign in South Africa that attracted mostly middle-class whites, the protests by lawyers, teachers and journalists in Anglophone Cameroon (Louw-Vaudran 2017) and the #This Flag movement in Zimbabwe had a large component of their support come from ‘the middle class which had hitherto tended to steer clear of street politics’ (Economist 2016).

Several of these can be typified as ‘hashtag protests’, where ‘hashtag publics’ were constituted around social media memes and catchphrases (Bosch 2016). Facebook and Twitter have been especially central to the student protests (Bosch 2017; Koross & Kosgei 2016). The participants in these protests therefore used media in other ways than those burning tyres in the hope of securing a photograph in a mainstream newspaper. For these ‘hashtag publics’ digital media has provided a way to form activist publics and to organise and mobilise protest action, both on- and offline. Given the inequalities in access to digital media in Africa, the potential for social media platforms to enhance protest action is higher among middle class and affluent publics than among the poor. Social movements aimed at attracting support from international audiences have also shown to be more likely to use the globalizing potential of digital technologies to greater effect (Wasserman 2007). Even without factoring in the inequalities of access, the potential for digital technologies to effect social change is a highly contested issue in media scholarship – a point we will return to later. Nevertheless, digital media have played an important role in many of these protests, especially those involving the youth, as a vehicle for mobilisation, organisation and group identity construction.

Protests of various kinds in Africa have therefore thus to a large extent become mediated events, albeit in different degrees and in different ways. Conflicts that erupt in violence tend to be covered in the mainstream media, while protests involving the youth, the middle class or global networks tend to rely more on digital technologies. The media do however not only provide support for protests by giving them wider exposure or amplifying mobilisation and organisation efforts. The media has also been criticised for impacting negatively on activist movements and limiting the possibilities of social change, by reporting on protests as ‘riot porn’ (Duncan 2016:147). The media’s preference for a ‘fourth estate’ or ‘watchdog’ role that monitors conflict rather than facilitate solutions to it, can also exacerbate tensions and conflicts, especially in transitional contexts where historical social polarisations remain in place. In post-colonial societies, a fierce defence of freedom of the media is often seen as important to avoid lapsing into the authoritarianism of the past. The risk of such an aggressive normative stance is that it can increase political polarization in contexts that are only starting to emerge from violent conflict and strengthen intolerance towards minorities or those that find themselves outside of the group represented by the media (Voltmer & Wasserman 2014:187). The antagonism between the media and government generated by overly aggressive watchdog journalism can also work in favour of authoritarian governments who could turn their supporters against the media, or invoke culturalist or nationalist values to dismiss criticism as un-African, as has happened in several African countries in the post-colonial era.

How then, given the increasingly mediated nature of protests in Africa as well as the contested nature of media coverage and the complex ways in which media are appropriated for mobilisation, should we understand the relationship between media, protest and social change in African societies?

I would like to make four broad points that might serve as guidelines for approaching this question and hopefully provide us with an entry point into more, and broader, questions about the media, society and change in Africa.

Questioning the media-democracy link

  1. Point number one is that the mainstream media coverage of protests prompts us to question the link between media, democracy and participation in African contexts. In many African countries, the mainstream print and broadcast media are either captured by the state or by elites. This means that protests are likely to be presented as threatening to the political or economic status quo. Duncan (2016:147) highlights five patterns of negative coverage of protests:
  • The use of news frames that emphasise criminality or theatrical elements
  • The reliance on official sources to give reports authority but steers the focus away from protesters that challenge that authority
  • Presenting public opinion in a way that marginalises protests as unrepresentative
  • De-legitimising the political validity of protests by portraying them as ‘irrational’ or ‘irrelevant’
  • Demonising protests as a threat to public safety, feeding into a moral panic about protest action


Findings from a recent content analysis (Wasserman, Chuma & Bosch forthcoming) of coverage of protests in mainstream South African media (the high-end paper Business Day, the weekly investigative paper Mail and Guardian, the pro-government New Age and the tabloid the Daily Sun) confirm the dominance of this ‘protest paradigm’. Most reports in this sample were action-oriented and focused on the violent nature of conflicts. The voices of protesters were largely absent or muted in this coverage and the language of emotion is usually not recognised as legitimate political expression. Overall, this led newspapers to view the state of democracy in the country as quite low. Tabloid media, with their orientation towards working-class and poor audiences (Wasserman 2010), had the highest number of reports on community protests of all these papers but were also the most negative about the state of democracy. If protests are considered legitimate expressions of democratic dissent, this problematic relationship between the mainstream media and protests prompts us to revisit the direct link between media, democratisation and civic participation that we often find in discourses about deliberative democracy in post-colonial African contexts.


The social is political, and contested

Perhaps because of the compromised nature of mainstream media reporting on protests, or because of the optimism attached to the advent of new technologies, much hope has been put in the possibility of digital media platforms, especially social media, to support social activism. For some, the relative ease of communication, accessibility, speed and reach of digital media, especially delivered via mobile phones, enables activists to mobilise supporters, spread information about their cause cheaply to a wide, potentially global audience and produce alternative news discourses. Not everyone shares this optimism however, and this brings us to the second point: The social is political, and contested.

Debates between cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists, or techno-utopians and techno-dystopians (Christensen 2011: 156) have become a feature of media studies in recent years. Those who celebrate the potential of social media to mobilize support for activism often take their cue from the Arab Spring protests. These have popularly been referred to as a ‘Twitter Revolution’ (Christensen 2011). Campaigns such as #BringbackourGirls, #Kony2012 and #FeesmustFall have provided further support to optimistic accounts of the hashtag as a central rallying point of global activism. As mentioned above, hashtags on Twitter, Facebook pages or Whatsapp groups can provide protesters with the means to mobilise, organise and construct group identities, also transnationally and among diasporic networks. Social media have also made it possible to enlist the participation of citizens in campaigns and in the co-production of alternative news discourses. The mobile phone has proved an invaluable tool in this regard. User-generated videos are spread not only online but also reach mainstream media agendas, as has been the case for instance in the 2013 murder of the Mozambican immigrant Mido Macia at the hands of South African police, that was shot on a mobile phone and sent to the tabloid Daily Sun. From there, it went viral and was picked up by mainstream media, leading to protests against the police and eventually to the conviction of eight police officers. Mobilisation via mobile phones does not have to be hi-tech either – sometimes a simple text message like the one sent to Maputo residents in the Mozambican ‘bread riots’ in 2010 simply read “enjoy the great day of the strike” and encourage recipients to “protest the increase in energy, water, mini-bus taxi and bread prices” (Jacobs & Duarte 2010).

Most recently, social media sites have played an important role in the South African student protests in 2015 and 2016. Twitter was the most used social media platform during the Fees Must Fall protests (much more than Facebook) and afforded young people an opportunity to participate in political discussions from which they otherwise often feel excluded (Bosch 2016). Twitter also allowed the protests to evolve into a wider ‘social drama’ that extended beyond the immediate group of users, and helped to set mainstream news agendas (Bosch 2016). The mainstream news often had to play catch-up with social media, as they were out of touch with the student movement and had to rely on Twitter to follow the action. The result was that online news reports often consisted of little more than a series of screengrabs from Twitter. Several hashtags were coined, such as #FeesMustFall, #PatriarchyMustFall, #UCTshutdown, #Asinamali (we don’t have money in Xhosa and Zulu) and served as mobilising tools and identity markers of an imagined community (Bosch 2016), to the extent that the University of Cape Town even anthropomorphised the hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall by including them as respondents in an interdict obtained against protesting students in 2015.

The potential of social media to support protest in such a way that it leads to meaningful social change has however also been called into question by techno-pessimists. These critics point to the weak ties that prevent sustainable organisation-bulding and low-risk participation that has little impact or may wither in the face of pressure. ‘Slacktivism’ by means of online clicks on a screen is seen as a poor substitute for real activism in the streets (Morozov 2009). Digital technologies can also be used by the opponents of social change, by employing them for surveillance, disinformation and repression (Christensen 2011:155). Facebook’s Free Basics campaign in Africa, which has been rejected in India, has been criticized for handing control over African’s social media use to a corporate entity. Moreover, it provides a tool for African governments partnering with Facebook to strengthen control and surveillance over online dissidents. Several African countries, like Gabon, Ethiopia, Chad, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa have in recent years shown that they are willing and capable of shutting down the Internet or blocking mobile signals to stifle unfavorable content (Nyabola 2016). Social media can, and are, often also used as a retrogressive tool to spread hate speech and racism or to oppose movements for change, as has also been particularly evident in South Africa where racist tweets have created several high-profile controversies in recent years. In African contexts specifically, the severe inequalities in access to digital and online media is often pointed out as a factor that should dampen enthusiasm over the revolutionary potential of social media, even though levels of access to the Internet via mobile phones keep improving at a phenomenal pace (see Willems & Mano 2017:1).

It would be a mistake, however, to perpetuate techno-optimism and techno-pessimism as two sides of a binary. Instead, the question is how online and offline action are both related to broader social and political dynamics, how the affordances of social media measure up against structural and historical determinants and, especially how social media becomes integrated in the daily lived experiences of Africans. This brings me to my third point.

Social media amplify rather than determine

Instead of debating whether social media do or do not facilitate protests, or whether tweets are or are not less powerful than toyi-toying, we should rather direct our focus to the society within which these protests and the concomitant media use are taking place. In other words, we should avoid a media-centric approach and rather adopt a social-centric approach. Social media amplify existing political forces and facilitate or amplify them rather than determine an outcome. Social media are also deeply embedded in power relations and social dynamics which may differ considerably not only between different political contexts on the continent, but also between different political actors, social movements and media users. One way in which social media may amplify existing power relations relates to the point already mentioned about access – unequal gender relations and income disparities may be mirrored by the differential levels of access and use of social media, both in terms of who gets to tweet, text and post as well as who gets to read and respond to those messages.

Instead of seeing social media as being inserted into African societies with the potential of determining social and political outcomes they should rather be seen as being embedded in those societies.

This embeddeness of social media in political and social histories means that these platforms are appropriated, adopted and adapted within cultural contexts where other forms of political expression pre-exist. For instance, social media may be used alongside a repertoire of communication methods which may include door-to-door visits, telephone calls, loudhailing or distribution of leaflets, or in combination with other informal, small-scale communications methods that have been referred to as ‘nanomedia’ (Pajnik and Downing, 2008). In African contests, these may include singing, marching, dancing (toyi-toying), displaying of placards, graffiti and conspicuous wearing of T-shirts and caps that provide additional symbolic resources for activists to draw on. Given the mainstream media’s frequent marginalisation of protests as discussed above, these informal, often highly visual expressions and performances are then in turn used to influence or impact on mainstream media agendas by attracting the attention of journalists (Dawson 2012; Bosch, Chuma & Wasserman forthcoming)

How social media are used in relation to other forms of nanomedia would depend on various factors, including the resources available, the intended audience and the kind of issue at stake. Depending on their agenda and constituencies, social movements may therefore decide to prioritise different kinds of communication, and combine traditional forms of communication with social media in different ways (Wasserman 2007). What is needed therefore is an understanding of the use of social media in protests, and the impact thereof on social change, that avoids technological determinism. Rather, the amplification of social histories and power relations through social media has to be understood from the vantage point of their users, adopting a perspective informed by the specific textures of their everyday lives. This brings me to my final point.

The challenges for research

An understanding of the relationship between media and protests in Africa that takes its point of departure in the everyday lives of media users and that sees social media as embedded in specifics of local contexts, raises several challenges for researchers.

  • In the first instance, research into media and protests in Africa has to avoid treating Africa as a monolith. To reiterate the point made right at the start, research should allow for differences within and across African movements, societies and countries even as it recognises the importance of comparative work across African contexts and between Africa and other parts of the Global South.
  • Focusing on Africa as the context of study should avoid repetition of the familiar approaches to African media studies that treat Africa as an exception or a case study to illustrate theories developed in the Global North, but allow for theory-building from the ground up. Nor should Africa be seen as an isolated area for study, but as a ‘set of vantage points onto the wider world’ (Willems & Mano 2017:5) which could shed light on other protest practices and mediations globally.
  • The dominant macro-analyses of social media in Africa, for instance connection rates, usage figures and costing, should be complemented by a much wider and deeper engagement with the social and cultural dimensions of adoption, appropriation and amplification taking place through social media in local contexts. The relationship between social media and mainstream media in terms of how protests are mediated needs careful exploration against the background of local power dynamics. The challenge here is not to succumb to the simplistic binaries of techno-utopianism vs techno-dystopianism, or -optimism vs -pessimism, which invariable pit limitations against affordances, but to see the mediation of protests as multi-facetted social phenomena that require sensitivity to context and complexity.
  • Instead of fetishizing technology in terms of its ‘impact’, or dismissing it as irrelevant compared to more established, direct forms of action, we need approaches to social media as forms of technology-in-relation, that is, technology as always already embedded in the everyday lives of people, and where technology mediates between actual people in actually existing historical and political realities. While on the one hand this assumes an understanding of African societies as not only defined by conflict, protest and violence, but also as ‘a place where people live their lives, critically engage with media and increasingly use digital media to participate in a virtual world’ (Willems & Mano 2017:7).
  • Most of all, understanding the link between media, protest and social change in Africa poses the challenge to researchers to suspend their assumptions about the relationship between media, politics and society, especially when these assumptions have either been based on theories developed in the Global North or based on overarching structural factors alone, and to engage in critical listening. A listening approach to media studies (Wasserman 2013) entails spending time immersed in specific localities, actively seeking out lesser-heard voices and hearing people rather than merely protesters, media users or even as citizens. The concept of listening is one that has already been developed in the areas of politics and citizenship (Bickford 1996) and applied to studies of the media in multicultural societies (Dreher 2009). In an earlier article (Ward & Wasserman 2015) we argued that the Internet can be used to facilitate an ethics of listening across global borders. The central point of such an approach is that the media is used in the first instance not as a platform to express voice, but a space for receptivity and openness to other voices, heard across the divides of difference. This would apply within nations and regions where ethnic or class differences often harden into opposing positions in the media. But this approach can also guide researchers in a global context to suspend their assumptions and certainties that are grounded on realities in the North, to listen and try and understand how media in African settings might require different theoretizations. Moreover, knowledge produced in this way in the South may then again also inform and illuminate practices and theories in the North, in a true dialectical fashion

Such an openness and receptivity is a challenge that, if taken up properly, will yield rich and nuanced understandings of the relationship between media, protest and social change in Africa and further afield.

(Keynote address: ICA Preconference, African Media in a Digital Age. Stanford University, May 2017)


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Marikana and faith in democracy-to-come



The Marikana massacre in 2012 has widely been seen as a low point for post-apartheid
democracy. The clash at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana between miners and police is seen by many as a failure of democratic debate and political communication in the country.
Although the consequences were tragic, the expression of anger and frustration
by the striking mineworkers could also be seen as an act of faith in a ‘democracy-
to-come’ where the gap between formal rights of citizens and the everyday
experience of the poor and marginalised was articulated. In this article  I critique
the media’s response to the massacre. In my view the media’s coverage of the massacre was rooted in a normative model of rational deliberation and a monitorial approach to the media’s democratic role. The media attempts to play the role of ‘watchdog’ over power but does not engage enough with the voices of the poor and the marginalised. My article argues that the media privileged the perspectives of those in authority rather than those who experience the democratic deficit in their everyday lives. The article draws
on theories of ‘emotion talk,’ ‘listening’ and ‘acts of citizenship’ to suggest an
alternative role for the media in the post-apartheid democracy, where the media would seek out the voices of those that remain on the margins of society, and take seriously the expression of anger and emotion by citizens who feel that they do not have formal platforms to demand bigger dividends from democracy.

The media as a vehicle for China’s soft power



The developing world will shape the future, led by China – but this will still take some time and will be a complicated process.  This is the opinion of Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. He spoke at the international conference “Communicating Soft Power: Contrasting Perspectives from India and China” held at Westminster University in London on 9 and 10 September.  The conference debated the concept of ‘soft power’ developed by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, and how the notion of ‘soft power’ can be used to describe the way China and India use the media to communicate their growing influence in geopolitics. In Nye’s conception, ‘soft power’ is the means through which countries exert influence in the global arena through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion or force.

Jacques questioned the usefulness of the concept of ‘soft power’, as it doesn’t explain how soft power is related to hard power like economic clout or military might. He however pointed out that the fact that China has taken 600 million people out of poverty is already a strong message to the rest of the world and raises prospects for other continents like Africa to emulate. However, China remains on the whole a poor country and is also largely unfamiliar to a world that has been shaped by British and American culture for the last 200 years. Because of the history of colonization and global hegemony exercised from the West – for instance through Hollywood film – the world is more familiar with Western culture, and knowledge of China is still ‘extraordinarily slim’ Jacques said. ‘The way we try and understand China is always through a Western prism, but we cannot make sense of China in that way. China comes through a different history of civilization. It has a civilizational history, not a nation-state background like most Western states.’

Dawood Azami from the BBC World Service in  London agreed that world power is shifting from one set of actors to another set of actors. In this shift, we will see a ‘battle of narratives’ being played out, as different stories are being told of the shifts in geopolitical power. The media’s role will be instrumental in these power contests. Azami pointed out that globally, access to new media technologies has increased in recent decades. This means that audiences can access information more easily, and big powers are already engaged in an information war. Azami cited Hilary Clinton, USA Secretary of State, who referred to the television channels Russia Today and CCTV when warning that the US should guard against ‘losing the information war’. The rise of Chinese media (including newspapers) is taking place at a time when Western media is shrinking. The challenge however for Chinese media is to establish credibility internationally and reach its intended audiences.  The BBC’s global credibility, according to Azami, is based on the fact that the channel can ‘bite the hand that feeds it’ – in other words, the BBC can freely criticize the government that funds it. This is not the case with CCTV, and therefore the channel lacks the same credibility among global audiences and the ability to use the media for ‘soft power’.

Agnes Chung-yan Tse from the  University of Hong Kong also pointed to challenges that China still has to face in order to make its ‘Charm Offensive’ appealing to global audiences. According to her, China has thus far not been successful in downplaying its ‘China Threat’ image, despite its efforts to exert influence globally via its media like China Daily, CCTV, Xinhua and other channels. To improve its global image, China should combat corruption in the homeland, ensure food safety and build safe housing structures,  so that can they get receive more positive reporting in West that would lead to greater ‘soft power’ for China. According to Tse, China should also respect socio-economic rights in developing countries and maintain a policy of non-interference if it wants its soft power initiatives to succeed.

The editor of the website Chinadialogue, Isabel Hilton gave a historical perspective on how China used propaganda films in the past to spread its message, but said that these films were unappealing and only appealed to audience who were already committed to the cause. When former Chinese president Hu Jintao put the issue of soft power on the agenda in 2006, China needed acceptance in the world for economic reasons. The 2008 Olympics were a ‘gift to soft power that went horribly wrong’, Hilton said.  Tibet revolted, there were food contamination scandal, algae blooms in the sailing venue and air pollution that made the headlines in Western media for negative reasons. The Chinese government then concluded that they needed to set up its own global media network and expanding print publications like China Daily to counter the perceived negative bias about the country in Western media. According to Hilton, China has had a limited return on its investment thus far – soft power does not work through top-down schemes that are likely to be interpreted by foreigners as propaganda. She says that the involvement of Chinese civil society  in public diplomacy efforts is too limited. The Internet also contributed to the Chinese government losing control of the media agenda at home. Chinese have via social media become creators of content rather than passive receivers of content. Unlike the diversity of perspectives from India, which makes its soft power successful, the Chinese political system prevents this diversity to emerge in online discussions, Hilton said. Instead a ‘rectification campaign’ to counter rumor mongering on internet has been launched. According to Hilton, calls for the Chinese government to form an ‘internet army’ to counter false or unfavourable content online, are appealing to an old-fashioned terminology and outdated methodology that won’t be successful in excercising soft power. global audiences associate names like the artist Ai Weiwei or the Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo with Chinese creativity – however these associations reflect badly on Chinese state. In order for China to successfully exert soft power through media globally,  it therefore needs to open up and display greater transparency in order for global audiences to buy into its exercise of soft power through the media.






Speaking truth to power? Media, politics and accountability



The 17th Highway Africa conference came to and end earlier this week. This is the biggest annual gathering of journalists, academics and civil society representatives on the African continent, and is hosted by the Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies. The theme for this year’s conference was ‘Speaking truth to power? Media, politics and accountability’. This theme had two dimensions: firstly, it sought to interrogate the claim by media to serve as a ‘watchdog’ on behalf of society. How well are they doing that job? Do they manage to keep governments accountable to their citizenry? And do they also keep big corporate interests accountable to their societies?

The second dimension of the theme pertained to media ethics. How accountable are the African media to the publics they claim to serve? Are they regulated well enough? Are they transparent?

These questions made for lively debate over the conference days. Below is my welcome address to delegates, in which I tried to explain why we chose this theme:

Over the past number of years, the Highway Africa conference has posed some provocative and very timely questions that have been debated by journalists, academics, members of civil society and other stakeholders from around the world.

In 2011 we considered questions of media development and sustainability. Last year we debated the view that ‘Africa is Rising’.


The theme of the conference this year is  Speaking truth to power? Media, Politics & Accountability. This theme is again highly topical, and relates to burning issues in the media sphere both internationally and closer to home.


I would like to introduce this theme by starting at a place that often inspires deep thought; a place that you will have the opportunity to visit during the course of today and tomorrow.

This place is the bathroom of the African Media Matrix building, home of the School of Journalism and Media Studies up on the hill, where the afternoon sessions will be held.

Responding to the call of nature there is likely to take longer than you had planned.

The reason for this delay would be that you will find yourself distracted by the many interesting quotes relating to journalism and the media adorning the tiles on the walls. It’s like graffiti, just cleverer.


One of these quotes is from the famous CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. She says:

“Trust and credibility are the commodities we trade in”.


I’m sure you would agree that trust and credibility are at the centre of the relationship between media and society. If media lose their ability to speak to people in a language they understand, about experiences they recognise and through stories that they believe to be true, media loses the reason for its existence.


Unfortunately we have seen in recent years how easily that trust and credibility can be betrayed. The Leveson inquiry in the UK showed us how the media can prey on the very public they claim to serve. The phone hacking scandal there violated the rights not only of celebrities, but of ordinary people like the murdered teenager Millie Dowler and her family. 


This saga reminds us of another quote against the AMM bathroom wall, the well-known one by the poet Humbert Wolfe:


‘You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to’.


Here at home in South Africa we have also witnessed intense debates about media accountability. In an environment where we are experiencing increased intolerance to the media’s criticism of the powerful, including threats to establish a Media Tribunal and to sign into law the Protection of State Information Bill, it is all the more important that the media guards its credibility vigilantly, and be an unscrupulous custodian of the public trust.


After all, the media can only claim the moral right to keep the powerful to account when it also turns that critical gaze upon itself.


This is why in recent years the review of the South African Press Council and the work of the Press Freedom Commission, as well as that of the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team – as yet uncompleted – has been so important.


If the media then claims that is ‘Speaking Truth to Power’, let us remember that the media, as a central component of a globalized information society, itself holds cultural and economic power . Let us therefore also scrutinise the media’s own powerful interests and find ways in which that power can be exercised responsibly.


If the media claims to be working in the ‘public interest’, we need to understand the notion of the ‘public interest’ in the widest possible terms, so that the media remains accountable not only to its readers and viewers, not only to a section of society, but also learns to listen to those who remain on the margins of the public sphere.


The youth, for instance, is one such group. In a recent study conducted by researchers in our School, about which you can hear more in a workshop tomorrow, we found that South African young people may trust the media, but find little in its content that resonates with their everyday lives.


The poor is another group in society that the media often speaks about, but seldom speaks – and listens – to. In a workshop this afternoon, one marking the centenary of the infamous South African Land Act, you will no doubt be reminded that the legacy of dispossession still scars our country and our continent. It may be instructive to remember that this Land Act was vigorously opposed at the time by a journalist, Sol Plaatje, after which our Institute for Media Leadership here at Rhodes is named.


The question of accountability therefore includes the question of how journalists today are defending the rights of the poor and working to counter the legacies of apartheid and colonialism. But, even more importantly, not only how the media speaks truth to power, but also how it listens to the powerless.


A final quote from the bathroom wall sums up this imperative to listen. It is by our former president, Nelson Mandela:


“Freedom of expression is not a monopoly of the press: it is a right of us all.”

Birth of a new communications order




The global communications order is changing, and new theories of communication are needed to understand the changing global media landscape. This was a point researchers from all over the world made time and again as they presented academic papers at the annual conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research, in Dublin, Ireland, recently.

I wrote a column for China Daily  about these debates.



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.