African Agency Holds Power to Account in a Social Media Age

18 December 2019

Structures to support more in-depth investigative journalism are vital in Africa because that seems to be the only thing those in power still truly fear.

Africa's media landscape has undergone a significant change over the last decade as digitalization and new forms of media consumption have weakened state control of information. Social media has provided an opportunity for African citizens and journalists to take agency over how the continent is presented to the wider world, and many emerging African voices bring clarity to this digitally disrupted marketplace. But significant external support is required to make these efforts sustainable.

There is no one 'African' story. African media remains as diverse as the 55 states in the African Union, with each national media ecosystem dependent on patterns of culture and governance - most importantly the power gap between those in leadership and their voters.

Journalists from Egypt, Eritrea and Cameroon - states in the 2019 global top 10 for putting their colleagues in prison - have different perspectives from those in other more liberal African countries.

This is most visible in traditional media where a business model based on advertising revenue has allowed African media houses to grow. But it is susceptible to manipulation from state and business actors holding outlets to ransom in exchange for editorial influence or control - a particularly acute problem in states where business and political elites are closely intertwined, and a middle-class consumer base to fund market-driven advertising has yet to develop.

Those African countries with relatively open borders, stronger passports and a more vibrant civil society also tend to have a more diverse and vibrant media environment. Open borders allow for easier movement, granting journalists the opportunity to travel, benchmark and participate in exchange programs.

The power of online networking

The advent of the social media age has begun to disrupt the links between governance and media health, as the large operations required by 'serious' media organizations have been replaced by mobile phone cameras and social media timelines.

Many African journalists are at the forefront of this innovation, unrestricted by historical perceptions of how journalism should be presented, and free to disrupt and change the established narratives to better engage with their ever-growing audiences.

And, far from replacing journalism, social media has actively empowered African journalists and media professionals. Instead of acting as sources for international media outlets as in the past, African journalists can publish their work on their own platforms, enabling greater ownership of how issues in their localities are globally framed. This local voice is often the key to avoiding the endemic oversimplifications and generalisations that have coloured much external coverage of the continent.

Obviously, these changes bring risks. Individual uploaders are largely free to publish what they like, and misinformation can - and often has - lead to devastating consequences, evident in recent violence across central Mali, South Africa and the middle belt of Nigeria.

But journalists on the African continent have an increasingly important role in preventing the spread of misinformation, not only as purveyors of news but also as fact-checkers, able to discern the difference between valid opinion and dubious rhetoric on social media, while new pan-African digital networks and discussion groups enable journalists to share knowledge, expertise, and story ideas, or quickly verify information from across the continent.

It is now possible to quickly find authentic voices for TV, radio or online commentary through digital platforms, present on the ground and able to speak with real authority. Many online networks also include Africa-focused journalists from outside the continent, and any biased or incorrect coverage of the African continent can be 'called out' and heavily critiqued, with challenges shared and solutions generated. While journalists remain independent, their working practices and professional standards are being shaped by the discourse in the groups like never before.

Online networking has also exposed the existence of lingering cultural differences between journalists of different national backgrounds, such as a hesitancy to discuss sensitive issues - the health of leaders for instance - for fear of being targeted by the authorities, or the level to which government statements are uncritically accepted.

While journalists search for truth, how they go about it is still very dependent on the state of democracy in their country. Though the cross-fertilisation of best practices and critical scrutiny can only improve the quality of journalism on the continent, in many places there remains a long way to go.

Drive for better resources

Across the world, digital media has struggled to create models which can provide news free at the point of access while also successfully monetizing content. This is even more palpable on the African continent, as the subscription-based models employed as a remedy elsewhere are not feasible on such a large scale in countries without a well-established middle-class.

African media needs resources to keep operating at a time when revenue is dwindling, and talented journalists are decamping to join the marketing, communication and sales sectors in search of better wages. Structures to support more in-depth investigative journalism are vital in Africa because that seems to be the only thing those in power still truly fear.

This means more training opportunities, fellowships, and exchange programs to allow the exchange of ideas and expertise. And, as social media has given a platform to talented local voices from across Africa, then an international community which truly wants to understand the nuances of the continent must hire them.

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