Mobile phones serve as conduit to freer media alternatives in Kenya

Democratic media expression in Africa is being facilitated by NGOs and technology

 

The fall of the Berlin Wall more than 25 years ago transformed the political landscape in Europe, but its repercussions were felt much further afield.

In Africa, without continued support from the Soviet Union, the “Big Men” dictatorships that had defined sub-Saharan African politics since the independence wave of the 1960s collapsed. Countries such as Tanzania, Mozambique and Guinea replaced socialism with a free market and made steps towards multiparty democracy and a liberalised media.

The media systems were often helped with financial support from the United States, UK and other European countries to ensure any new media model was based on the liberal press systems of the West. The rationale for this “media assistance” is to encourage freedom of expression, and support a vibrant public sphere.

What has resulted in many countries in Africa has been an explosion of media. In particular, radio is king, with hundreds of private radio stations springing up around the continent. Radio’s popularity is because it is affordable; can be run on batteries (in an environment of continued unstable electricity supply); you don’t have to be literate to access news on it; and it can be broadcast into rural areas – the often “media dark” areas, as referred to by media NGOs – where a large majority of Africans live.

New technology is bringing this growth of media a step further. The mobile phone is bringing information at a radical rate to those who live in these “media dark” areas. In 2000, there were about five million mobile phones in Africa. Today, there are about 900 million. Predictions are that, in the next two years, 30 per cent of these will be smartphones.

Participatory

radio Mobile phones

have changed how people engage with media. “Participatory radio” is the NGO buzzword given to call-in radio shows, which are taking over the airwaves and transforming how Africans listen to and interact with each other.

Talk radio may seem old hat to people in the West but, in the past five years, it has been revolutionary for people in remote areas. Africans can now voice their opinions in public, talk to politicians about grievances and engage in debate in a way not possible a few years ago.

In east Africa there are also active communities blogging and engaging in online forums in this new virtual public sphere. Jaamiforums.com and Michuzi blog are two websites popular in Tanzania. Mzalendo.net and Mashada. com are accessed widely in Kenya.

“The stories that you’re not seeing in the press, you’re seeing on social media,” says Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists in East Africa. “Jamiiforums is this amazing cathartic tool where even disgruntled politicians go and upload sensitive documents.”

Many Kenyan bloggers are acknowledged to be keeping the traditional media on their toes in maintaining their watchdog role. During an open discussion in Nairobi last month between the Bloggers’ Association of Kenya and government representatives, they were told by veteran journalist David Makali to “keep punching holes into journalists, to keep us on our toes”.

Twaweza (“we can make it happen” in Swahili) is an NGO supporting media and information communication technology projects in Kenya and Tanzania and funded by Irish Aid. It focuses on children’s education and enabling people to act for themselves. Its head of ICT projects, Kees de Graaf, says “we’re aiming at people being better informed in a way that helps them improve their own situation, rather than just sitting and waiting until life becomes better for them. Which is really the case, especially in rural Tanzania.”

Social change

De Graaf says many initiatives use ICT for positive social change: “We use multiple platforms. For example, we use the media, both print and electronic media, but we also go through religious organisations. We ask the preachers for five minutes of their preaching time and work with local grassroots activists. Our whole aim is to make people more activist. It is a big challenge, but I think there’s progress. We can see the signs.”

Information is increasingly available now, on both traditional and new media, but people still want information they can trust, especially at politically sensitive times such as elections. However, in Africa much of the mainstream media is co-opted by politicians or business interests, leading to questions about its impartiality. At elections, many Kenyans turn to the BBC World Service or CNN. It would seem really independent, trustworthy information doesn’t come for free.

In Ireland and the UK, we pay a licence fee or newspaper price. But in “media dark” sub-Saharan Africa, it might just have to be the media assistance donors who cover the cost for now.

This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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