The media is the oxygen of the body politic

On October 7, 2009, at the Salzburg Seminar on Investment in Media, News, and Information, Amadou Mahtar Ba, the CEO of AllAfrica.com (the continent’s leading news agency) gave a remarkable opening address. Being someone who has worked in the media sector, and in the specific interest to put in place AfricaNews.com as a pan African network of media talent, I find relevance in his words. Please see his speach in its entirety. To learn more about the event please
see the website.

A Pillar in Building Strong Democracies, Economies, and Societies
Amadou Mahtar Ba
Opening Address, Salzburg Seminar

Dear Friends,

I am so glad to be here tonight and to seemany familiar faces and new ones whose
names have been familiar for some time
though we have never met.

It’s truly an honour to be among likeminded
individuals from all parts of the
globe who share in the recognition that the
media remain a central pillar in building
strong democracies, economies, and
societies.

Since we are here in friendship and almost
in an intimate setting, let me start by
making a confession. Indeed when
Benjamin asked me to deliver the opening
address, I did really wonder why he was
doing this to me. He is supposed to be a
good friend or at least a gracious host, so
why put me on the spot by asking me to
come and talk to the experts you all are
about a subject which you all already know
so very well, a subject on which you have
read and written so extensively.

Quite frankly, I started to wonder what
friendship means in Austria. But I quickly
realized that what I was being asked was
definitely not to come here and repeat
what all of us know. Rather, I think what I
can contribute are my personal
perspectives – those of an African media
executive who has spent several years in
the private media sector and who is
continuing to work toward reshaping the
future of the African media landscape.
This landscape is one that many of you
have also worked in cultivating and
continue to influence.

Now that I have come clean with you, let
me start by what I am sure all of us here
would applaud. And that is the statement
of President Barack Obama as he
delivered his opening address to the
Ghanaian Parliament in July 2009. He
said:

“An independent press is part of the
capable, reliable and transparent
institutions that will lead Africa to success
in the 21st century.”

I practically shouted “He gets it!” I believe
this is one of the most powerful
statements President Obama made during
his first trip to Africa as President of the
United States. It is a statement on which
all friends of the continent must build.
Since President Obama gets it, what can
we do to help ensure that his policies
follow this vision? What can we do to
ensure that other world leaders also
recognize the importance of an
independent press and then invest in and
support it?

So friends, what do we know? What makes
so many policy makers in the West,
academics and other thinkers believe that
media play such a crucial role? Let us look
around the world and try to understand
why.

In Latin America, a revolutionary named
Simon Bolivar declared in 1842 that the
masses need to be educated using public
debates, newspapers and books.
In the United States, in 1787, Thomas
Jefferson the third American President,
writing to Edward Carrigton a politician
from the state of Virginia boldly declared
that: “The basis of our governments being
the opinion of the people, the very first
object should be to keep that right; and
were it left to me to decide whether we
should have a government without
newspapers or newspapers without a
government, I should not hesitate a
moment to prefer the latter”.

In London, in 1900 at the first Panafrican
Congress led by W.E.B. Dubois the famous
African American visionary, the first
decision taken was to build a panafrican
news network to help educate the world
about the living conditions of black people
and particularly those in Africa under
colonial domination. Sixty three years
later, in Ethiopia, at the creation of the
Organization of African Unity (OAU) the
ancestor of today’s African Union, the
founding leaders, in their first declaration,
called for exactly the same thing. This is
not coincidental. The OAU decision led to
the creation of the Panafrican News
Agency, PANA, years later as an
Intergovernmental organization where I
started my professional career in the
media sector by helping restructure and
privatize it.

In Asia, the Economics Nobel Prize winner
Amartya Sen argues in his book Poverty
and Famine that no country with multiparty
politics and free media has ever
suffered from famine.

So, that is what we know, and through all
these examples, what is striking is
throughout history, many thinkers
asserted that the media are an essential
public good. The media can accomplish
civic education and provide people with
knowledge of their rights, duties and
safeguards. Through media, whether
community radio stations, local
newspapers or television programmes,
especially in local languages, it is possible
to develop the most remote areas. All
these possibilities, including building
linkages among different cultural and
ethnic groups, are the foundation of our
nations.

Let me put it even more strongly: if the
lungs are essential to the health of the
body, it is the oxygen which they process
which is the key to life. The media is the
oxygen of the body politic when we talk of
good governance, accountability and
democracy. You can have all the vital
organs: heart, brain, and liver but without
oxygen the body shuts down and dies.
Similarly democracy needs elections,
parliament, separation of powers, a vibrant
civil society and a private sector. But
without the media, democracy in modern
societies and economies just cannot work.
It becomes then as if around the world,
visionary leaders have supported the view
that the media has a special role in our
societies and therefore deserve protection
from any type of hindrance, and
particularly from any form of government
censorship and regulation. After all, press
freedom results from the longstanding
view that the media help us find the truth –
often by holding government
representatives and others accountable for
crimes, corruption and ineptitude. The
media can also help us identify their
achievements and successes, a role which
we sometimes forget.

We have many recent examples from
Africa, the continent with which I am most
familiar, to demonstrate the key role of
media in strengthening democracy.
For instance, in early 2000, at the highest
point of the conflict in a country of
francophone West Africa (which though
we are among friends, will remain
nameless to protect the guilty), I visited
the head of state. I thought that I could be
helpful in convincing him to release 2
public radio journalists arrested for
reporting about the unrest in the country. I
also wanted to talk to him about releasing
the funds promised to support the nascent
vibrant private media.

After listening to me very carefully, he only
had one question “Why would I help feed
the monster that wants me out of my
seat”? Since that day, I have come to
strongly believe that it is a fallacy to think
that dictators do not know the importance
of the role media can play. I believe that,
in fact, it is exactly because they know and
understand the media well that they
choose to crack down on this sector. It is
also that knowledge and understanding
that drives the leaders of coups d’états to
always secure radio and TV stations right
at the onset.

Second example. Has anybody here seen
the documentary movie “Pray the Devil
Back to Hell” about the Liberian Peace
Talks in Accra in 2003 mediated by
Nigerian General and former head of state
Abubakar?

The movie is about the role of women
peace activists in forcing rebel leaders and
government officials to reach a peace
agreement. These fearless women used
radios and cell phones to target and
mobilize other women to converge onto
the meeting venue blocking all exit doors
so that no one could leave the
negotiations until an accord was signed.
Third example. Most recently, many
journalists have been jailed in the
aftermath of the disputed elections results
in Iran. When President Ahmedinejad was
asked about it in an interview with NPR he
said that to his knowledge no journalist
was in jail because of their reporting
negatively on him or his government and
he asked for names. Less than a week
later, the journalist mentioned in the
interview was released.

Through these examples, we can see the
role of the press as well as information
and communication technologies in
building strong democracies and
societies.

But if we all know this argument, and
accept it, what are we doing to help
strengthen media in the places where it is
most needed?

Let me emphasize that, strong
independent media does not occur in a
vacuum. A society also needs other
strong institutions, the judiciary in
particular.

For this reason, I challenge all of us here
to start thinking about the holistic nature
of investment in media and in media
development. We must all become
advocates within our institutions and
governments to focus greater attention to
the sector, including having media
development stand as a priority on its
own. Too often, media development is
buried under general programmes or
activities like governance,
communications, or even sometimes
public relations.

Innovative efforts which look to include
media front and centre in global efforts to
promote good governance need to be
given much higher priority. Why?
First, a strong, independent and
professional media are central to
achieving and maintaining good
governance and all the positive good that
stems from having responsible and
accountable authority. Media are
irreplaceable public watchdogs providing
a platform for a well informed citizenry to
endorse or sanction its leaders.
In addition, media that perform their
watchdog role, making government
actions transparent, can help spur
economic development overall by making
it more difficult for public funds to
disappear from state coffers into the
pockets and accounts of a few.
Second, a strong, independent and
professional media help build confidence
for economic investment by signalling that
impunity has no place in the system.
Third, a strong, independent and
professional media is a source for credible
information in areas as vast and different
as health matters, environmental
concerns, cultural events, entertainment,
and the list goes on.

Friends, if this is true and you agree with
me, then we face another challenge. That
we must recognize that much of our
collective investment in the media thus far
has yielded poor returns. While they
sometime look good on paper, many of the
programs to support media development
over the years have not given us the
results we would have hoped. The figure
of about 250 to 300 million dollars being
spent annually on media development is
probably a conservative estimate. But
what do we have to show for this
investment?

I profoundly believe that it is time to stop
repeating the same mistakes. We often
talk about sharing “best practices” – this
phrase has become almost a cliché. How
about thinking a minute about sharing
“worst practices” so that we can avoid
repeating them?

Let me take the case of training for
instance, training journalists. Many
institutions, private foundations, bilateral
as well as multilaterals and even
corporations, easily embark on training
journalists for the sake of ticking a box
and move on. But this training is often the
same recycled modules and too frequently
given to the same people over and over
again.

Even when trainings are effective in
endowing journalists with new skills, they
do not necessarily account for the fact that
media development organizations
themselves are often operating under
tremendous political, economic and social
constraints that prevent public interest
information to take priority.

Do not get me wrong, capacity building is
absolutely important and I am the first one
to recognize that. However, I think it is
important that it is seen as an aspect of a
broader solution,
As the convener of the largest group of
African media owners and operators in
Africa, I can tell you that African media
leaders see the challenges and
opportunities as clearly as you do and
they stand ready to show leadership and
collaborate with you to help grow a quality,
free and sustainable media that serves the
public good. I hope as we deliberate future
initiatives over the next three days, we can
harness that leadership.

Allow me here to mention the example of
the African Media Initiative (AMI) which I
believe is an innovative, holistic, and
revolutionary way to secure strong and
independent media across the continent. It
is a totally new and different approach.
This initiative has been developed
following the largest ever consultation and
research process on the media in Africa,
under the auspices of the UN Economic
Commission for Africa and the BBC World
Service Trust and managed by African
professionals. It concluded that there is
significant public and private
underinvestment in Africa’s media sector
and that current efforts need to be of
greater scale and strategic focus. The
research confirms that donor investments
are fragmented and lack coherence, but
that if focused correctly, there is potential
to increase the flow of private investment
in the media.

AMI research and consultation specifically
found that:

 Despite sector growth,
professionalisation is patchy with
standards low and training programs
tending to be static, short-term and
lacking impact.

 Little to no attention is paid to business
and management training.

 The changing technology landscape is
both a huge opportunity and a black hole
of knowledge for most media houses and
practitioners.

 Accreditation systems are still used as
political tools by governments.

 Private investment opportunities are low,
either due to a mismatch in deal size and
available funds, or a lack of knowledge
of what is in the pipeline.

 The advertising base, as well as bettertargeted
media, is confined to the few
markets with reliable audience
measurement and media monitoring in
place.

 Enabling environments for free media
and for increased private investment
oftentimes are inconsistent and remain
restrictive.

An “information deficit” on the sector
limits investment, well-targeted
development funding and learning that is
necessary for the sector to thrive.
These are serious problems for anyone
concerned about improving governance
and accountability of societies, and indeed
the media itself.

As demonstrated by the AMI research and
consultation, accepted values and roles
for the media based on global best
practice or even the formally agreed
policies of the AU are not well rooted. The
media’s operation is susceptible to both
external and internal controls (state
pressure, regulation, and control; as well
as the use of private media to pursue
narrow or hidden political, religious, or
ethnic goals).

To address these core constraints, AMI
defined a vision of an African media that is
pluralistic, largely sustainable, free and
responsive to the needs and interests of
its audiences.

We believe that while state/public media
and community media remain critical, it is
the private media which will drive the
media and information revolution in Africa.
AMI will focus on the importance of
fostering and supporting leadership
standards to implement agreed policies
and ethical practices across the sector and
emphasising the fundamental importance
of improving economic sustainability
though new revenue streams, investments
and adapting to changing technologies.
Of course, this is an ambitious program.
However, we believe that within a ten year
time frame, it is realistic to see
demonstrable and lasting improvements in
strengthened professionalism, increased
private investment and targeted donor
funding. We believe that together, we can
achieve greater synergy and scale behind
media freedom and the production of
critical continental information, research
and learning.

AMI’s proposed interventions and
functions must not be looked at in
isolation. This is important because media
development is wedded into an
interlocking web of political, social,
economic and technological factors. All
these factors play a significant role in
determining the structure and function of
media.

Viewed as a whole, the program sets out to
address four key problem areas:

(a) the
political and regulatory context of media
production,

(b) the professional context of
media practice,

(c) the investment climate
for media business, and

(d) the
information deficit around the sector.
Although I would love the opportunity to
talk more about this with those interested,
let me not prolong my pleading for a cause
that has become personal to me because I
am dedicating time, resources and most
importantly my credibility as an African
media leader to make it happen. Let me go
back to the topic of the day.

All the examples I have evoked reassure
us in our beliefs that media play a critical
role in building democracy, support
economic growth and remain a pillar of our
societies. But having said that, we cannot
now sit back and rest on our laurels in this
knowledge.

Do media not play a negative role too? Do
we not have examples of that?
So what are we going to do to ensure that
we do more than the same old “best
practices” that have become all too
familiar?

Indeed, I have discussed the positive role
of media but there are too many examples,
from Rwanda to Kenya and Somalia, where
media have participated in unleashing the
devils and showing the worst part of
human nature.

We all know the devastating role played by
Radio Milles Collines in the genocide in
Rwanda, the role of ethnic radio in Kenya
in inciting post election violence, and the
use of radio, Internet, and media
technologies by al-Shabaab in
perpetuating violence throughout Somalia.
However, we are not here today to expand
on these and other “worst practices.” I
really do believe that we have to learn from
these sad lessons. We must consider
them as loud calls to vigorously embark
on serious long term and strategic focus
on the media. We must avoid repeating
the worst chapters of our collective
history.

I just want to share one last example with
you. Exactly a week ago, I received a call
from Nzerekore, a province in Southern
Guinea near the border with Liberia. The
Archbishop called me around 11pm in
Washington DC to warn that
unprecedented inter-clan violence was
being prepared. He wanted me to alert
former Senegalese President Abdou Diouf,
currently heading the Francophonie
Organization and serving as a mediator in
the Guinean crisis. Since I do not have
direct contact with Diouf or his office, I
called a friend at the World Bank who then
alerted the top officials there and at the
UN.

The same night, the UN and World Bank
mobilized a team to address the events in
what may have seemed to some as a
distant region with little international
importance. By the early morning,
meetings were held in churches and
mosques by the elders association of the
province to help stop the events under
preparation. The immediate crisis was
averted.

Now imagine that there was greater media
freedom and liberalization of the airwaves
in Nzerekore but that poorly trained and
partisan journalists were in control of
them. Well, the same causes producing the
same effects, a repetition of Rwanda could
have been on the cards.

I opened with the words of different
leaders around the globe who all spoke of
the important role of the media. On the
American soil, over two hundred years
separate Jefferson from Obama and both
view media as a sine qua non condition for
building strong democracies and
societies. Yet, even with centuries of
experience, venerable American media
institutions are under siege, not having
figured out how to harness new media
technologies. So please do not give up on
the African media and let us all participate
in shaping it.

I want to close by constructively
challenging us all to advocate for and to
create bold, innovative and holistic
programs, in partnership with the African
media, to help radically transform the
media landscape on the continent. The
time is now and it is desperately needed. I
cannot think of a more esteemed forum
and group to help seed that action and
roadmap for the future.

As we all have come to witness in the
cases of Kenya and Zimbabwe, holding
elections alone and having 3 pseudo
separate powers do not correlate
necessarily to good governance. A much
more broader view is needed and it is our
common duty, all of us here, to frame that
view and fight for it.

Let us meditate on the question about
what makes the coffee sweet – Is it the
sugar or is the act of stirring it?
Now let us ask ourselves what makes
democracy work? Is it having elections
and media, no matter the quality? I believe
that what makes our societies sweet is
having a media that can periodically stir
the pot while at the same time ensuring
that it can uncover the best and the worst
of our societies.

I look forward to working with you over the
course of the next three days in exploring
how collectively we can develop bold and
innovative ways to strengthen African
independent media. If we are successful
on this continent, I am sure that we will
learn best practices that can be employed
worldwide.

I thank you all very much.`

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About zia505

The world is changing right before my eyes. Sometimes I don't know how I will ever keep up. There are so many ideas floating around on this internet. If only I had the means to collect them....

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