Winter 2000

Digital Dividends for Journalism in Africa

While obstacles abound, the potential Internet payoff could be huge.

By Tanya Accone
"See that building across the square?” the content manager of one of Zimbabwe’s leading news-driven Web sites asked me on a recent visit. “That is where we keep the getaway car in case of emergencies, like an unscheduled visit from the security police.”

That may sound like something straight out of a Bond movie, but it is a reality in many countries throughout Africa where the media—in all its old and new incarnations—still have to play a careful game of cat and mouse with governments.

Someone from outside of Africa might imagine that training, access to the technology, and the required infrastructure themselves are the most significant stumbling blocks that African journalists must surmount in order to take advantage of the emerging forms of communication. But high on the list of hurdles are wary and restrictive governments. Tunisia, for example, arguably has the most extensive legislation governing the Internet in the world. Laws that specifically limit freedom of expression have been applied to the Internet, and users practice stringent self-censorship in the firm belief that their electronic communications are being closely monitored. All Internet traffic passes through the single state telecommunications network, and Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) are required to pass on lists of users and their details to the government on a monthly basis.

That is not to say that low rates of literacy or erratic supplies of electricity are not big obstacles, too. Or that cost factors typically associated with state-controlled telecommunications monopolies are not limiting factors. In fact, just the mere act of connecting to the Web is significantly compromised by problems such as diesel shortages in countries such as Nigeria, where diesel-powered generators often satisfy a greater proportion of power usage than does the national provider.

Until these issues are adequately addressed, being able to label oneself an “African online” will remain the preserve of the academic and business elite. Even in the most populous and developed Web nations in southern Africa, journalists’ access to the Internet remains a privilege rather than an accepted norm, both in gathering the news and getting it out to consumers.

Africa constitutes less than one percent of the global Internet population, but every country on the continent has access to the Internet. However, in most nations it is only used in the major metropolitan areas. Even though its use is still scarce, the Web, rather than other emerging technologies, including cellular phones and satellites, is driving fundamental changes in the production and consumption of news.

New media is changing and challenging the face of journalism on the continent. It gives Africans new ways to deal with old problems and provides new opportunities for expression, debate and debunking, while simultaneously giving old problems new ways of manifesting. The Web enables African journalists to utilize three important resources: free access to information, the ability to tap into experts anywhere on the globe, and the capacity to monitor alternate reporting and perspectives on a variety of issues.

Many African governments have been confounded by the impossibility of being able to police the Internet, both in terms of what information is accessible and what news can be published. State sanctions have been imposed on journalists in some countries because of their use of pieces of Web-sourced information in which facts contradicted the official line. In Tunisia last year, online journalist Taufik Ben Brick was beaten up for his criticisms, and authorities continue to block Web sites critical of the state, including Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters sans Frontières. Two journalists from Sierra Leone’s The Independent Observer were arrested for “illegal online activity,” and earlier this year, Senegal-based journalist Daniel Bekoutou was forced to flee to France after his life was threatened because of his support to have the former Chad president, Hissene Habré, prosecuted for torture. His story, “Hunting the Dictator,” was finally published on the Internet.

Even access to data such as population statistics can be contentious depending on the country concerned, not to mention the red flags that get raised when journalists are able to access freely available satellite images via the Internet, which often tell a tale of unreported events or denied circumstances. Attendees at a recent African new media conference saw satellite images taken over southern Angola that showed a large area of the country ablaze with numerous fires. It is possible these fires are linked to political conflicts in the area; however, nothing about the fires had been reported in any media.

Ironically, one of the major needs of African journalists and media consumers is regional and Pan-African information, as people often know less about neighboring countries than those much further afield. Being able to access this kind of content, often presented from an alternate point of view, has proved to be empowering for both journalists and ordinary users.

Pan-African organizations such as the Senegal-based African Women’s Media Center and Namibian-based social action information provider, WomensNet, were established to meet these needs with specific focus on social issues affecting women. Both organizations have a very strong current focus on HIV/AIDS and design their training programs and support services to put female journalists in touch with accurate, useful and otherwise unavailable information about this disease. These organizations focus specifically on female journalists because, as women reporters, they have been previously disadvantaged and tend to report on the disease, which claims, as its primary victims, women and children.

Numerous media training initiatives throughout the continent are aimed at equipping journalists with Web skills. Workshops are designed to enhance their ability to find sources of data that are relevant to the stories they are reporting. Journalists also learn how to manage, manipulate and interpret information and also to hook up to networks of experts whom they can tap for independent comment and analysis. Computer-Aided Research and Reporting (CARR) is recognized as an essential tool for journalists across the different media, and therefore this subject has become a third-level course taught in universities.

While a laptop, digital camera, and a satellite phone are enormously helpful in getting stories out of hot zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is the humble e-mail service that is proving to be the most powerful modern tool for journalists. This fast and effective communication tool, with its low bandwidth and basic hardware requirements, makes it an ideal solution for infrastructure-poor environments like Africa. Add to that the benefits that free Web-based e-mail services can offer—accessibility and the security of being relatively untraceable with no incriminating copies harbored on your hard drive—and these offer journalists here a winning option. Journalists have used e-mail to issue alerts on crises, to mobilize support for colleagues suffering unjustly as a result of their pursuit for the truth, to share and distribute information and, of course, to file their stories and make them available to the world beyond their borders.

In Nigeria, e-mail has proved to be “mightier than many swords.” Journalist Omololu Falobi, from that country’s Sunday Punch publication, was recently recognized for his initiative, a monthly e-mail compendium of news and information about HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, which provides the most comprehensive coverage of the issue available. Most importantly, e-mail has enabled journalists to network among each other across the continent. The informal and spontaneous information exchanges formed via e-mail are often more effective in disseminating information and alerts and amassing support than any of the traditional wire services could be. Through the act of being able to share experiences, offer advice and pool knowledge, powerful alliances have been formed.

Some of the success stories include the Southern African Broadcasters Association and the Media Institute of Southern Africa, both of whom have launched e-mail-based news services covering the affairs of 14 countries. These reports are reliable and viable sources of regional information. In many instances, e-mail is the distribution mechanism of choice.

The impact of the Internet has been as significant on media consumption as it has on production. Traditional print and broadcast houses in East Africa, for example, have established a strong online presence during the past four years and have discovered that their online audience is completely different, with unique needs and demands. Media that were previously recognized only in their region have transformed into news providers to the world, and such sites have become some of the virtual meeting places for expatriate communities worldwide. One of the most radical transformations of a media outlet is that of South Africa’s Sunday Times. In three short years, it went from re-publishing its weekly business section online to launching a separate Internet team who publish content throughout the day via the Web and mobile platforms. Some 20 percent of those who view these pages are from outside South Africa. Other media throughout the continent have also made Internet-specific investments, including Kenya’s Nation Group, Senegal’s Le Soleil, Nigeria’s Financial Standard, and many media houses in southern Africa.

There is still, unfortunately, a dearth of African-created content on the Web. The majority of Web sites containing local content and which are also hosted locally are in South Africa, followed by Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Full-scale Web operations are costly to build and maintain, and even in South Africa’s advanced Internet market, where money spent on online advertising is in the millions of dollars, the human, technical and financial resources for most initiatives is minimal.

When I worked at The Washington Post, there were more than 100 people employed to run their daily Web site, with a significant amount of automation. In contrast, until recently I directed the daily Internet operations of South Africa’s largest newspaper across both Web and mobile platforms, and I had a team of three that burgeoned into five.

Skills, infrastructure and advertising support are critical success factors, along with the encouragement of enterprising initiatives such as the site built by a Tanzanian, Majaliwa Nyenzi. Nyenzi, a self-taught Web journalist, won an award for innovative use of new media for his Web site. Using his portal, journalists and Web surfers alike can get a firsthand look at all aspects of life in Tanzania, ranging from news, shipping data, tourism information and city guides to business directories and chat rooms. His site attracts a huge amount of attention and has become the country’s virtual de facto port of call, since no other Web site currently provides this kind of aggregated information on Tanzania.

The anonymous nature of this new medium also encourages debate. The kind of discourse that would never grace the pages of local newspapers flourishes online, because users are comfortable expressing themselves freely under the guise of non-traceable nom de plumes. On M-Web Zimbabwe, for example, the simple act of having multiple stories of the same news event equally presented and carefully juxtaposed has generated elevated levels of debate about how a single issue could be so differently represented. In fact, discussion forums, bulletin boards, online polls, and listservs are becoming an effective means of checking the true pulse of society, or at least that of the e-fluential elite. Discussion forums in Zimbabwe have been abuzz with very critical commentary on the state’s leadership, fiscal policy, land reform issues, and police brutality. These are precisely the critical issues that concern Zimbabweans, but which are not easily accommodated in the traditional media because of government censorship and harsh reactions to negative or critical publicity.

But just as new media is fostering a culture of debate and criticism, so too it is fostering a culture of new censorship. ISP’s are the hardest hit, targeted by governments for hosting, providing access to or facilitating the transmission of unflattering information. In Zambia, ISP’s have been threatened with the revocation of their licenses if they host sites which carry information which is too critical of the government, while in other nations in northern Africa the Internet can only be accessed using government facilities. In addition, many governments order ISP’s to block specific Web addresses for a variety of reasons.

Many of the most important challenges lie ahead as access becomes more widely available and liberalized economies lead to improvement in infrastructure and the costs of using it. Governments are becoming smarter about using the Internet for their own information dissemination purposes but also in their attempts to police the medium. It is also yet to be seen whether mobile phones, with their incredible penetration and growth rates, will become the next platform of choice, which itself could spawn a new kind of new journalism. As news organizations in South Africa are discovering, journalism for cellular technology rides on the art of the precis—the concise and precise conveying of information in 160 characters.

Despite these challenges, African journalists should hardly be viewed as second class Net-izens. They have molded Internet tools to suit their specific needs, devised ingenious technical solutions to overcome the idiosyncrasies of their situations, and continue to apply the medium as an effective means to foster a culture of freedom of expression. If journalists’ use of the Internet in Africa pays its digital dividends in democratic values, then we will have truly achieved the key objective of our profession.

Tanya Accone is the executive producer of M-Web Africa, where she oversees the development of Internet businesses and content portals throughout the continent. Prior to this, she was the internet editor of South Africa’s largest newspaper and worked at The Washington Post.

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