The media, being the Fourth Estate of governance, has a critical role to play in providing checks and balances by disseminating well-researched and balanced information in order to positively influence policy formulation.
However, with hardships facing various media houses and individual practitioners, it has been difficult for journalists to execute their work and undertake adequate research in order to write stories that can influence decision-making processes.
In this context, the need to support journalists in their quest to carry out their work in a conducive environment cannot be overemphasised.
Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) is one such civil society organisation that is scaling up support to media practitioners as a way of boosting investigative journalism.
PSAf is investing in empowering journalists through various initiatives, such as the recently held media training programme hosted at South Africa's Rhodes University.
The training initiative coincided with the annual Highway Africa conference during which a selected number of journalists from the region underwent training.
PSAf targeted journalists from Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The media personnel were trained on the sidelines of the annual conference.
Highway Africa Director Chris Kabwato reminded the journalists that such conferences were vital because the various presentations organised by media scholars gave new knowledge to the journalists in attendance.
Mr Kabwato, a Media Studies lecturer at Rhodes University, said journalism was diverse and as such, it was important for journalists to learn to be creative and resourceful in their research.
He appealed to the journalists to also specialise in reporting on issues that can help to hold national leaders accountable to the public.
He advised the journalists to refrain from relying on scheduled assignments or speech reporting but to venture more into looking for stories in the marginalised communities.
The PSAf regional media training, among other things, was aimed at highlighting the importance of fellowships that are tailored to support journalists in their research and in-depth reporting on an array of topics ranging from gender, children's rights, health, environment and governance, etcetera.
It is through this programme, and others like it, that PSAf seeks to strengthen the role of journalism in promoting accountability in decision making processes at local government level as well as at national level.
Under the fellowships, PSAf provides a small grant to enable journalists conduct in-depth research and generate evidence on lack of accountability, targeting mainstream, community and online media journalists.
PSAf Programme Manager for Media Development and ICTs Elias Banda said a lot of the development challenges in Southern Africa were rooted in the lack of accountability by those in decision making positions.
According to Mr Banda, it is from this background that his organisation was compelled to roll out media fellowships aimed at changing the situation by supporting the work of journalists.
"On paper, there are many good policies on public health, education, mining, agriculture, natural resource management, and any sector you can think of, but most of these good policies are not being implemented for reasons that tend to vary from country to country," he said.
Mr Banda said the lack of accountability appears to be a common denominator in most of the cases.
He observed that a lot of communities in Southern Africa were wallowing in poverty because those entrusted with power to make and effect decisions were not being accountable to the citizens.
To address the lack of accountability in the region, PSAf has initiated a programme to link community members with decision makers through platforms such as mainstream and community media as well as community structures like radio listening clubs and community action groups.
"Media practitioners have great power which can be used to shape better communities. Unfortunately, most media practitioners do not realise the power they have and this results in them failing to bring out issues that will instill a certain level of accountability among duty bearers," he said.
Mr Banda said the situation has further been compounded by difficulties in the environment where the media operate, which also exposed some journalists to corruption and other vices.
He observed that the unfavourable conditions of service for most journalists also limited the extent to which they can go in fostering accountability from decision makers.
"There are cases where a journalist may have good intentions of investigating an issue, but he or she may easily get tempted or distracted by brown envelopes (bribes and corruption) and other enticements meant to silence him or her," he said.
It is in this regard that PSAf has been providing small grants or media fellowships to selected journalists for them to produce in-depth and thoroughly investigated content.
PSAf has noted that the media has what it takes to speak the truth, influence accountability of decision makers and also help foster development in disadvantaged communities.
"Our media fellowships will cover the 10 southern African countries where we are implementing our strategic plan," Mr Banda said.
He said PSAf believed that the fellowships would contribute to increased coverage and improved quality of media content which promotes accountability.
Journalists attending the training initiative called for more training opportunities of this nature to enable them increase their knowledge through experience and networking within the region.
For this author, Highway Africa conference, together with the training programme, was an eye opener.
She feels that the annual event was not only a wonderful experience for purposes of networking and learning new ideas, but also something that teaches creativity and other dynamics of journalism.
It is important for journalists to be supported through such events so that they can get more exposed and report on practical stories that can influence decision makers.
If more organisations can partner with the media in supporting journalistic works through training and other initiatives, a lot can be achieved in bettering communities in Southern Africa.