Role of the media in Social Movement Building, Promoting Accountability and Community Development – a regional perspective.
A Presentation to the MISA-Zimbabwe and SADC CNGO Commission on Media and Social Mobilisation
29 July 2014, Cresta Lodge, Harare
By Takura Zhangazha
(Establishing a Tradition of Southern African Media Freedom)
The media and telecommunications technology have had an important role in regional political and economic processes.
It has also been key to our regional consciousness in our struggles for democratization.
Whether one considers the mainstream news media of gone days such as the African Daily News, the Voice of Zimbabwe, the Weekly Mail and Guardian the media has shaped our regional consciousness.
It helped shape a consciousness that has focused primarily on the pursuit of democracy and socio-economic liberation.
Further to this, regional liberation movements did not wait for the media to come to them. They created their own media in aid of this same said consciousness.
Many pamphlets, magazines, radio broadcasts helped to accentuate the message of freedom in its Manichean and holistic form. The spoken, written and in most cases coded word was key to the liberation of our peoples across our borders.
In the aftermath of independence , even if ideologically diverse, the media has held firm in continuing to bring not only the regional body but also members states to democratic account.
In the course of doing so, the media has been vilified, repressed and journalists targeted by those very same democratic or majority governments it helped to establish.
Some ember states of SADC have sought more to arrest, detain and convict the media for merely doing its continually organic job off informing the consciousness of the peoples of the southern African region.
This is in direct contrast to the historical tradition of the media having assisted former liberators and liberation movements arrive not only to political power but also to the fulfillment of the democratic principles and values that such struggles entailed.
Examples of post independence repression of the media have been numerous. With some being as recent as the imprisonment of the editor of the Nation in the same kingdom on the charge of contempt of court, the placement of terrorism charges against the editor of the Sunday Mail in Zimbabwe and the pending Protection of Information Bill in South Africa.
The heady idealism of freedom and democracy of the liberation struggle era has been lost to opportunism of the ruling elite, some of whom survived the vagaries of prison and even the death penalty for their political activism due to the stubbornness of the media in covering their individual cases continuously.
Were it not for a media under fire as colleagues at MISA continuously refer to, some of the heads of state and government that will be at the Victoria Fall for the SADC Summit would not be among us.
There is therefore no doubt about the positive historical role of the media in establishing a democratic Southern Africa. Especially where it concerned the media that sided with those that fought for liberation.
This has been well documented by Julie Frederikse in her two seminal works, None but Ourselves, and the Unbreakable Thread. In both works she brought to the fore the role of the media in the struggle for liberation of two southern African countries Zimbabwe and South Africa.
In 2014, as citizens of Southern Africa, we are faced with challenges that affect not only the region but the globe. Especially where and when addressing issues that affect the media.
From questions of the impact of the internet on freedom of expression and access to information to our own governments increasingly following the example of those in the West and the East over and about how to control the media.
More-so in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, Wikileaks and continual global terror threats and the corporate censorship of the world.
In the region, the media has tended to develop without too much state investment on its own. Particularly so where and one considers advances in telecommunications technology. Governments have tended to react to the media only in order to tidy up regulatory frameworks or in order to seek control.
This is regardless of general guarantees of the right to freedom of expression and access to information in most national constitutions in the region.
In keeping with developments in the West regional governments have also sought to control information around the activities of the state using the now common pretext of countering terrorism or protecting sensitive information
So the media’s current positioning in the region is currently reliant largely on the benevolence of governments, global trends in media regulation (especially where they are negative) and a declining market for the mainstream media.
In order to address the key tenets of how the media can play a critical role in building social movements and enhancing democratic participation by the regions peoples, one must ask the question which media?
This is a question that has emerged as a result of the rise of the new/social media driven by private mobile telephony companies and the expansion of the internet.
The mainstream media however remains the most critical, for now, in telling the story of social movements and playing the effective role of the fourth estate. For community development, it is community radio that normally specializes in these issues but because our whole region requires development for the purposes of this presentation we have to consider the media in its entirety
But in order for it to play an effective role in building social movements, the mainstream media has to be establish a democratic tradition of editorial independence. This is for both state owned media as well as that owned within by private corporations and individuals.
The reason why I mention this issue of editorial independence is because our mainstream media has been largely compromised by two factors. These being political interference and the interference by profit motives.
Political interference is largely undertaken via the state especially in media that is funded by the state. This is what has compromised public service broadcasting in most countries in the region. The state prefers to control the output of state funded broadcasting stations.
The state also interferes with the private media for the purposes of control through criminal defamation laws and the registration of journalists and media houses. While countries that still do this are fewer in the region, the continued arrests of journalists in Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe together with repressive media laws remains a thorn in the side of the region.
The motive of profit has become more commonplace in the region and it is increasingly what drives most media businesses. Issues of sales, advertisements have created an unfortunate trend wherein the media now views news largely on its ability to generate revenue than its specific pursuit of the public interest. This has led to the creation of celebrity cultures, which though welcome in democratic societies, has led to the public interest devaluation of news.
Because most of our societies are not arrival societies and while our media can mimic global trends, the region still needs a media that is motivated more by the public interest than it is by profit.
In this we also need a media that is not dominated by monopolies either through the state or singular business corporations. In the region there is a sad trend of multi-media ownership with emerging media moguls investing in newspapers, radio stations and television stations.
From a business perspective it is a good thing that those with money should chose to invest in the media. The challenge has been their potential monopoly on public discourse and news that is in the public interest from a singular vested interested perspective.
It is therefore imperative that the mainstream media strive to continue to serve the public interest from the perspective of its own journalistic values and ethics. In doing so, it may have different ideological biases, but it will assist in bringing to the fore the democratic interests of social movements.
It is however the new media that will remain critical for social movement building. While internet penetration is still relatively low, it is an inevitable that it will soon reach even the remotest areas of the region as companies compete for mobile telephony markets.
The major impact of social media has been to accentuate the right of ordinary citizens in the region to express themselves as well as access information with greater speed. They have also taken to social media to communicate amongst themselves for social purposes such as religious worship, sporting events and keeping in touch with family and friends.
It is however important that social movements understand the utilitarian value of these new media and telecommunications tools. And they must understand them faster than regional governments. There is no social movement that can argue against social media and claim to be intending to serve the public interest. This new media needs to be harnessed to serve the broader public interest in a fair accurate and balanced manner.
There is also an urgent need for both the mainstream media, regional social movements and civil society organizations to collectively act to review the current SADC Protocol on Culture, Information and Sport. It is an archaic and outdated protocol that must be changed in order to embrace both democratic values and technological developments as they have occurred.
The media, media freedom and freedom of expression remain integral to our region’s development and further democratization. The primary responsibility for this resides with member states of SADC that must review and reform in particular SADC Protocol on Culture, Information and Sport. Regional social movements and civil society must ensure that it exerts the necessary pressure on both domestic and regional policy bodies to take into account the integral role that the media plays in the furthering regional solidarity and development. And the media itself, must remain true to democratic principles and values in order to better serve the democratic public interest.