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The last decade and half in African history has witnessed dramatic changes in the media terrain on the continent, with most of the new developments occurring alongside or even signalling the opening up of the political space in different countries as single party and military rule went into decline and multi-party systems were re-introduced. But equally important is the fact that the world-wide revolution in information and communications technologies (ICTs) was refracted into Africa in ways which has had a transformatory effect on the media terrain on the continent. The changes which have occurred are visible enough even to the most casual of observers: the collapse of the monopoly of the state on the print and electronic media with the emergence, indeed proliferation of privately—owned and managed radio and television stations, as well as newspapers; the growth and spread of the use of mobile telephone technology to deliver and receive news; the deployment of dedicated satellite spaces for enhancing territorial coverage and transmission quality; the adoption of new electronic printing technologies that facilitate the simultaneous production and distribution of newspapers from multiple sites; and the rapid spread of access to and use of the internet as a medium for accessing news and for disseminating information. These developments have not only re-shaped the ways in which news is produced and distributed but also the mode of consumption of information, the publics that consume news, and the type of news that is sought after. In other words, the changes that have taken place have carried implications for the way in which the role of the media in contemporary governance in Africa is structured.
Students of politics, media studies and mass communications have always been brought up on the dictum that the media constitutes the fourth estate in governance, the other three being the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But the relationship between the media and the state has historically been a hotly contested terrain, one which is made complicated by the fact the media, nominally at least, also has a primary responsibility to inform, educate and entertain the reading and listening public, doing so with the autonomy, creativity and critical orientation that is necessary for its credibility. In the context of Africa’s recent history, that complication was “resolved” in most places either by the imposition of a state monopoly on the ownership of the media or the enactment of highly restrictive laws to limit the room for manoeuvre of the private or non-governmental press. In the environment of repression and intolerance that prevailed, it was not uncommon for pirate and “guerrilla” or underground media to flourish even if at great peril to the journalists whose dedication powered them. Ordinarily, therefore, the liberalisation of the political space in most of Africa over the last decade and half, and the new possibilities offered by the ICT revolution, ought to represent an important new opening for an effective role by the media in the processes of governance on the continent, including the development of a civic culture that could help strengthen the democratic transition. The extent to which the media has been able to play this role and with what consequences is a relevant research question which will constitute an important focus of the 2005 session of the CODESRIA Democratic Governance Institute. Participants in the Institute will be invited to examine the role of the media in contemporary governance in Africa with a view to assessing the progress which has been recorded, the setbacks which have occurred, the reasons that underpin progress and setback and the prospects for the future.
Participants in the Institute will also be encouraged to, among many other issues, examine the patterns of distribution of the media as between print and electronic organisations; shifts that may be occurring in the relative influence of one medium as compared to the others; the structure of ownership of the different media organisations that exist and the implications of ownership for the exercise of journalistic integrity in reporting the news; the role of journalists not only as reporters of news but also makers of the news which they report in terms of the issues which they cover and emphasise; the state of press freedom in different countries and the extent to which this could be an indicator of the depth of the process of democratisation that is underway; the quest for a greater access to information and the campaigns for legislation supporting the freedom of information; the capacity for investigative reporting and examples of investigative journalism that have contributed to advances in the boundaries of democratic governance; the capacity of the media to play the role of an effective watchdog of government in view the heterogeneity that characterises the media sector and heterogeneity of the interests that own the media organisations; the role of the media in the politics of identity that is widespread in Africa today and which, in the most difficult cases, has resulted in violent conflicts and the collapse of central governmental authority; the tensions between the public service functions of the media and the logic of commercialism that drives most organisations; the utility for democratic governance of the deployment of mobile technologies; the status and role of the internet as a tool for the creation of new publics which are able to aggregate opinion for the transformation of politics; the internet as a resource for the creation of new social and political communities or the spread of new types of identity and the implications of this for democratic governance; and the content and direction of multi-media services in different countries and the ways in which they connect with governance at different levels.
Through the 2005 Governance Institute, the Council proposes to extend the work which it has supported in recent years on the media and democratisation by focusing attention on the range and variety of issues arising from and posed by changes in the African media terrain. Prospective participants will be encouraged to map the different contours of change that are occurring, produce fresh empirical and analytic insights, engage in a comparative analysis of their findings and reflect on the challenges posed by their own work to inherited/dominant conceptual frames.
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