Africa: The End of Africa's Mr President TV - Several Steps Forward and Two Steps Back for the Liberalization of the Airwaves

London — Most African countries have now formally ended the monopoly of state-run TV. Many more countries have liberalized their airwaves over the last ten years but there is a small but stubborn minority that have failed to do so. Russell Southwood assesses the current state of play and looks at the impact of social media on the debate.

You cannot mistake Mr President TV when you see it. The news opens with the Agriculture Show opened by the President or his latest overseas visit. At its worst, this is then followed by a succession of Ministers speaking in declining order of status. For a stubborn minority of African countries, this is the only TV option available.

Progress over ten years has been substantial. In 2008, we analyzed 40 African countries to see whether they had allowed the licensing of private TV channels. In 2008 only 17 or so countries out of 40 had done so. By 2010, this number had risen to 28 out of 46 countries. In 2011 we analyzed 47 countries, 25 of which had liberalized and 3 were partially liberalized. The last category reflected the slow speed of implementation: licences had been announced but not implemented.

By March 2014, the number of partially liberalized countries rose to 15 and not liberalized fell to 8. The table below from August 2018 covers 52 countries:

Liberalized 38

Partially liberalized 4

Not liberalized 10

The number of countries liberalized has gone from 17 in 2008 to 38 in 2018 ten years later. Some countries appear to have gone backwards: for example, both Comoros (in 2008) and Mauritania (2012) announced private TV licences were to be granted but nothing happened. On the plus side of the balance sheet, among the countries liberalized or with clear plans for imminent liberalization are Cote d'Ivoire; Gambia; Mali; and Rwanda.

Why does the liberalization of the airwaves matter? Private TV stations provide much needed competition in both the areas of news and entertainment. The state-run stations may have much wider transmission areas but the impact of competition usually sees audiences move to other channels. When you've had a 100% audience, you can only really lose audience. Competition usually sharpens up the editorial output of the state broadcaster.

The assessment offered in the table above does not deal with issues like: whether politicians are proxy private media owners; the level of censorship in the media; or the level of threats to journalists and station owners. But wider media generally drives a wider set of viewpoints and information with the Internet acting as a backstop where people can get information not provided by traditional media.

Increasingly social media has been acting as the pressure valve for news, views and ideas that cannot be aired on broadcast TV. Even relatively liberal African media regimes have unspoken "red lines" that cannot be crossed.

Social media often allows these kinds of information to circulate and in doing so often competes directly with broadcast TV, particularly in the news area. As so much of African Government is about appearing strong (when actually being too weak to accept public challenges), it has been seen by some of Africa's rulers as something that needs to be controlled.

Uganda's President Museveni has taxed users of social media to discourage what he sees as "a luxury". Tanzania's President Magufuli has put in place a regulatory framework to licence bloggers and has made the licence cost sufficiently high to discourage bloggers.

All the while, public broadcasting as an idea in the European sense is something that is really only available (after a considerable amount of fighting) through SABC in South Africa. It is time Africa's rulers - younger and older - realized that a lively public discussion through media and social media is a sign of strength not weakness.

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