On the back of its unique features, African countries have responded to external pressures to democratize and establish ‘free media’ in a unique manner that differs significantly from other models, even among neighbours.
According to a 2015 research paper titled: “Media, Conflict, and Political Transitions in Africa, the authors, Iginio Gargliardone and Nicole Stremlau argue that the prevailing approach to analyzing the media in Africa, or crafting interventions to support its development, have often centered on the degree to which media systems compare with Western models, a strategy that accelerated with the end of the Cold War.
The focus has primarily been on the relationship between the media and the ‘state’. This approach, however, has largely overlooked how governance actually works in Africa, how different social formations are organized, and how power is distributed.
“Whether considered ‘weak’ or ‘failed’, many African states have been unable to provide security and control over their territory, but this has not prevented both international and domestic pressure to provide the trappings of liberal democracy, including regular elections and fostering of a critical and independent media that should act as a ‘watchdog’ capable of holding government to account”, it is argued in the article which adds that “the tension between lack of capacity and the demands to comply with international norms has been a defining factor of democratization efforts across the continent”.
According to the researches, another central, but often overlooked influence on the relationship between media and politics stems from the unique models of governance that have emerged on the continent. These diverse systems of governance are partly the result of how the colonial experience has shaped processes of state formation and how the resulting tensions between formal and informal centres of powers that have persisted.
Many of these tensions have continued to present day, symbolized by the different actors, from international organizations to Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), to influence the modes and quality of policymaking, in efforts to reinforce formal institutions, which often fail to recognize other modes through which governance and communication actually work.
The African journalist is at often times caught up in the wars that always emerge in the African continent, some of which are purely premised on ethnic and tribal tensions. An African scholar, Francis Nyamnjoh succinctly captured the issue when he said: “The tendency among African journalists and media to serve ethnic, religious and regional interests is also indicative of their predicament as professionals and institutions expected to fulfil liberal democratic functions in a context where people are clamouring, as well, for recognition and representation as cultural, religious and regional communities. Such competing claims for their attention explain the apparent contradictions, hypocrisy, and double standards when their actions are appreciated from the standpoint of liberal democracy”.
It is reckoned that even in countries that have been recognized as amongst the most democratic and open in terms of their politics and their media, such as Ghana, these elements have been central to the ways in which journalists operate.
In many African countries, there may be agreement across society’s social strata about the desirability of democracy as the only legitimate system of governance, but institutions have not been allowed to grow from the bottom up to reach this goal, and to build on the language and mechanisms which are routinely used by those who participate in them and contribute both to their perpetuation and change.
Most good governance projects, including those making use of the media, have tended to work against the grain of African societies. They have preferred to look elsewhere, framing the media and the state as autonomous and opposite, stressing the significance of citizen groups and media organizations acting to check on a corrupt and unaccountable central authority, rather than harnessing the notions of moral and social obligation and interpersonal accountability that already permeate these institutions.
This paradigm has been actively encouraged by bilateral and multilateral organizations eager to find additional ways to increase forms of accountability and transparency that are complementary to their own activities, putting pressure on state institutions to which they channel the majority of their funds.
“New media such as the internet and the mobile phone, with their potential of mobilizing crowds and revamping journalism, have further emboldened this perspective, which overtime has led to the creation of important initiatives to keep elected representatives accountable in a more formal sense adopted in liberal democracies”, it has been posited.
Another African scholar, Professor Tawana Kupe has suggested the need to revisit the debate about the institutional roles of the journalism, media and communication structures in our context by more critically and rigorously interrogating the fashionable liberal notion of media and democracy.
The challenge is to develop new frameworks and theories for understanding the relationship between the media and politics that can incorporate the unique political and development circumstances that characterize different social formations in Africa.
Some groups that could be leading such a process of re-conceptualization are civil society organizations and academia, but they are often too dependent on the same donors that have tended to apply and promote the narrow understandings of the relationship between media and politics.
Journalists and media have experimented with new formats and styles, as demonstrated by the popularity of vernacular radio stations taking debates closer to the communities (with both positive and negative results), but this has not led to the development of alternative and coherent models. The prevailing approach has been the establishment of platforms from which to advance a political agenda and attack the incumbents.
In some cases, the most aggressive actors in this space have been governments, which have adopted both proactive and reactive measures to address some of the tensions characterizing the relationship between the media and politics.
The growing movement to theorize alternative approaches to media and politics have been expanded by the greater negotiating power that many governments in Africa have been gaining in an increasingly multi-polar world and at a time of significant economic growth.
“For democracies and autocracies alike, new players such as China have become increasingly important partners and lenders, including in the media and telecommunication sector. While avoiding attempts to overtly export its model, China has offered unprecedented resources to governments to pursue their goals, and with its example of restricting speech while allowing and even encouraging the constant expansion of new and old media, it has also offered greater legitimacy to governments trying to balance political liberalization and development”, the paper further argues.