SA and the future of journalism
Kevin Douglas Grant
Amidst the madness of the World Cup semi-finals last week, delegates of three global journalism conferences challenged African governments to open their countries to the free press – and journalists from around the world to report accurately on Africa.
Grahamstown-based Rhodes University simultaneously hosted the Highway Africa conference, the triannual World Journalism Education Congress, and a citizen journalism event called Digital Citizen Indaba. In doing so, organisers including Rhodes journalism head Guy Berger demonstrated the incredible value of partnerships for African democracies (and rebels in non-democracies) looking to grow their press.
Hundreds of media, technology, and political heavyweights from around the world made the pilgrimage to Grahamstown, arriving just as the National Arts Festival was winding down. They hoped to raise the bar for reporting in and about Africa, and there is plenty of evidence they succeeded.
I was struck by the great balance of world-class talent from academia, mainstream media, citizen journalism, and the technology space. Engineers from Google taught workshops on new media reporting while executives from telecommunications giants MTN and Telkom discussed their efforts to build infrastructure supporting high-speed Internet access throughout South Africa.
South Africa’s Department of Communications called on the reporters in the room to present a fair and positive view of the country in their work. Of course, positive views are not necessarily the work of journalism, but sponsors like the DOC get to deliver their message to the audience whose meals they purchase.
At the same time, the US State Department showcased its “Democracy Video Challenge”, one way that America pursues its interests in Africa. Some of the most powerful panels featured journalists who report from crisis zones, whether from Haiti during and after its massive earthquake or in exile from repressive states like Zimbabwe and the Gambia. One exiled journalist spoke about how she missed her mother’s funeral because she cannot return to her home country.
Delegates who were not already aware learned that mobile penetration tends to be dramatically higher than that of broadband access throughout the continent. This presents a very different environment for Internet storytelling in Europe and the United States, for example.
One innovative use of available resources is Ushahidi.com, a Kenyan information mapping site built on open source software by developers around the world. The site accepts SMS updates from people on the ground, and was first launched in response to the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya.
African entrepreneurs are now pressuring media outlets here to pay market prices for locally created content, while building venues where African journalists can sell their work. They are pulling stories and information from the “crowd” to supplement their own reporting. The larger picture is that African journalists are tired of outside media telling and profiting from stories they feel best qualified to report.
When Archbishop Desmond Tutu signed the Declaration of Table Mountain calling for more press freedom at a farewell braai last Wednesday night, he reminded those assembled of their responsibility as pursuers of truth. Some of those in the audience knew the cost of this pursuit all too well. Tutu also reminded us that South Africa’s media had chronically failed the public during apartheid, just as media organizations often fail the public in countries around the world.
I left the conferences realising the centrality of journalism inside a budding democracy. The power of the press is even more starkly evident in countries where democratic freedoms are not recognised. Those countries with longstanding free presses may take them for granted, but journalism becomes a more sacred task when so much risk is involved in doing it.
Grahamstown represented a gathering of influencers of all types with a vested, long-term interest in the African media. It was also a testament that South Africa will continue to serve as a home base for media development in Africa, and that Rhodes University will continue to be a stronghold. There is much work left to do but no doubt that journalism is better for it.
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