By Joe S. M. Kadhi
The firing in June 1998 of Kwendo Opanga, one of Kenya's most respected political columnists, for allegedly accepting bribes from President Daniel arap Moi's ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), triggered a lively public debate on the issue of journalistic ethics in Anglophone Africa. The debate was conducted in "Expression Today." [ A journal about democracy, human rights and the media in Kenya, published by the Media Institute and distributed to all important journalists and journalism scholars through out Anglophone Africa.]
For well over a period of two years before Kwendo Opanga lost his job, however, serious discussions on journalistic ethics had been going on at the United States International University - Africa and the main points discussed concerned freedom of the press, independence, impartiality, fair play, decency, accuracy and responsibility.
The fact that such a senior editor could be caught with his pants down on ethical issues simply meant there was a need for ALL journalists in Africa to be reminded of the basic principles of journalistic ethics. As practising journalists from a number of English speaking African countries were discussing various journalistic ethical principles, several African governments, including those of Kenya and Uganda, were in a process of formulating specific codes of ethics for journalists which by and large would include the seven aspects journalists were discussing in Nairobi.
There are many ethics related scandals involving top journalists in English speaking African countries that one hears about all the time but never reads about in the papers. The range of ethical problems encountered by media reporters in most of these countries is somewhat startling. They include conflicts of interest, freebies, junkets, intellectual theft, deception, carelessness, kowtowing to advertisers and politicians, use of dubious evidence and outright bias. It is striking how often Kenyan and indeed most African journalists fail to live up to the high standards they often prescribe for everyone else in their respective societies.
While discussing independence as an ethical principle journalists from Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, The Gambia and Sudan who attended most of the workshops organised by the University agreed that for a newspaper, TV or radio station to be really independent it had to be free from governmental, commercial and proprietorial interference in editorial decision making.
In examining the impact of proprietors on news processing and coverage, I have had to depend mostly on more than 35 years of experience of well over 300 journalists who attended the workshops, which were conducted under my guidance as the journalism programme coordinator of the University.
News selection and proprietorial influence
All the journalists at the workshops had come across no newspaper owners who were willing to reign as constitutional monarchs with as little interference as possible in the running of their newspapers. Neither had they seen proprietors who were ready to pay the piper and to have no voice in calling the tune.
This brings me to a sensitive issue of the relationship between newspaper proprietors and editors in the region. Almost all the journalists participating in media workshops agreed that newspaper proprietors in Anglophone Africa seem to have succeeded in making puppets out of their editors. They seem to have also succeeded in commanding total control of their newspapers. Invariably, newspaper owners in the region have been men and women of great wealth but no talent to produce newspapers; and editors have been men and women of great journalistic talent but not enough wealth to produce newspapers. Kenya and other English speaking countries of Africa have seen a few men and women of talent start their own newspapers and succeed. Most of them seem to find it difficult to survive on the market.
Assuming that both newspaper owners and editors in the region had honourable motives before they signed contracts, it is obvious from the discussions that most proprietors looked in editors for ability, sincerity and integrity. The relationship between editors and newspaper owners in Anglophone Africa does not last long when they begin to disagree on minor and major issues pertaining to newspaper production, especially the selection and treatment of news.
Before hiring an editor in this part of the world a newspaper owner looks for a person whose political and general outlook are in sufficient consonance with his own. I once worked under an editor who did not see eye-to-eye with the newspaper owner and believe it or not, there were always arguments as to who was in charge in the newspaper office. [ The editor was George Githii and the newspaper owner was the Aga Khan. The paper was The Daily Nation . The disagreement was over the coverage of the Middle East crisis. The Aga Khan being a Muslim backed the Arabs and George Githii as a Christian backed the Israelis during the late 70s.] The result was always chaotic!
How then do the owners of most newspapers in Anglophone Africa make sure that nothing appears in their newspapers that is likely to embarrass them? How do they go about making sure that what they do not agree with does not appear on the pages of their newspapers? As the workshops were taking place in Nairobi we chose to get those questions answered by examining two national newspapers in the Kenyan capital - The East African Standard and The Daily Nation.
The questions we wanted to examine concerned seven aspects of journalistic practice, which were mentioned at the beginning of this paper. Journalists at the workshops agreed that these seven were vital to the profession. After lengthy discussions the journalists agreed that no self respecting newspaper owner in the region could claim to have any say in his establishment if he could not guide his editors on each one of the seven issues; but at the same time the journalists agreed that no newspaper editor worth his salt would blindly allow the owner or any other authority to bend rules concerning the seven principles.
Because of the importance of the seven principles of journalism, it was imperative to discuss each one of them separately. The workshop decided to discuss the principles as the American Society of Newspaper Editors first adopted them in April 1923 [ There were many reasons why these seven principles were selected for discussion. The most important is the fact that USIU-A is an American university and many of the participants graduated from American universities.].
Many African editors at the workshops were not sure about the wisdom of basing African discussions on American principles but after a lengthy dialogue it was agreed that such journalistic tenets as accuracy and independence were universal and it would be foolhardy to pretend that there was an African Accuracy or an African Fair Play, for example. The workshop examined what the American editors recommended in 1923, then discussed the relevance of the proposals in Africa and later looked deeper in the manner the principles were implemented in the Daily Nation and the East African Standard.
This is the right of newspapers to attract and hold readers. It is a right that is restricted by nothing but consideration of public welfare. The use a newspaper makes of the share of public attention it gains serves to determine its sense of responsibility, which it shares with every member of its staff. A journalist who uses his power for any selfish or otherwise unworthy purpose is faithless. [ Taken from the American Code of Ethics and presented to the African journalists for discussion.]
Both journalists and newspaper owners at the workshop were concerned about this principle. No newspaper owner would allow any member of the editorial staff to misuse powers for some selfish reason; yet no editor or journalist of whatever rank would allow himself to be used by the newspaper owner or any other authority for selfish reasons.
I happen to know of one famous Kenyan editor who would use his position to fight personal political enemies and, sure enough, in the final analysis, he proved to be faithless to the high office entrusted to him as editor-in-chief. [ This was George Githii who was the Editor in Chief of the Daily Nation in the late 1970s.]
Freedom of the press
Freedom of the press is to be guarded as a vital right of mankind. It is the unquestionable right to discuss whatever is not explicitly forbidden by law, including the wisdom of any restrictive statutes. [ Taken from the American Code of Ethics and presented to African journalists for discussion.]
No Nation or Standard editor had agreed to work against freedom of the press because there had been no directive from the owners to do so. In the past, there had been well known taboo subjects and to a certain extent, there were still some that were regarded as taboo on newspaper pages - subjects like certain individuals' afar accounts and their not-so-legal accumulation of wealth. [ The Daily Nation and The East African Standard in Kenya, like many pro-government newspapers in Anglophone African countries, never write stories about the corrupt head of state in a negative manner. The so-called alternative press in Kenya and opposition newspapers in other countries have started doing so due to the process of demo cratisation.]
Most journalists at the workshops agreed that the taboo subjects existed in almost all the Anglophone African countries and that there was a mutually agreed conspiracy of silence requiring such extra-sensitive subjects to be swept under the carpet for the benefit of both the owner (his/her paper had to be protected) and the editor (his/her job had to be protected, too).
Freedom from all obligations is vital. Promotion of any private interest contrary to the general welfare, for whatever reason, is not compatible with honest journalism. So-called news communications from private sources should not be published without public notice of their source or substantiation of their claim to value as news, both in form and substance. Partnership in editorial comment, which knowingly departs from the truth, does violence to the best spirit of professional journalism; in the news columns it is subversive of a fundamental principle of the profession. [ Taken from the American Code of Ethics and presented to the African journalists for discussion.]
As far as the promotion of private interests in Anglophone Africa was concerned, it became pretty obvious to all the journalists at the workshop that there were many commercial items published as news.
Most journalists wondered what readers thought of two different newspapers that printed the same picture bearing the same caption together with identical stories and exactly the same headlines word for word!
If the episodes left readers wondering how journalists from different and at times competing newspapers could write such identical stories, they certainly made the marketing and public relations consultants laugh with amusement, as they continued to receive fat cheques from their clients for the free publicity they got from The Nation and The Standard.
The workshop never succeeded to get the Standard's policy about what PR material is but at The Nation, both written and pictorial material from the public relations consultants was banned when I was editing the paper. [ I was the Managing Editor of The Daily Nation for 10 years from 1978 to 1988, when I was promoted to be Deputy Editor in Chief of the paper.] If the PR material was to be used there was a rule that required it to be rewritten in the news style of the newspaper and its self-indulgence removed.
All at the workshops agreed that any journalist dedicated to the principle of independence should not have any quarrel with that kind of directive from the management; indeed if the newspaper management demanded PR material to be used to attract advertisers, editors and other journalists would be up in arms against such an arrangement.
As the Managing Editor of The Nation responsible for writing editorials, I knew there was a standing rule that required editorial comment to be written, except in rare cases, on the most significant events of the day.
The rule also required that editorial comment, like news stories, contain facts. Editorials were not to be spiteful, prejudiced, propagandist or extremist. Editorials were required to avoid the bizarre and the offensive, and to always maintain a standard of decency and good taste. Almost all participants said they had similar rules in countries they came from.
Nation editorials always supported the principles and objectives of the Kenya government. I was, however, free to criticise government policy both in the editorial columns as well as in my personal column called "Why?" [ I wrote the column "WHY? Asks Joe Kadhi," published every Sunday in the Sunday Nation for a period of 10 years when I was the Managing Editor of the paper and continued to do so for several years after becoming the Managing Editor of the Daily Nation.] provided the criticism was really necessary and remained objective and responsible.
If anyone called that kind of guidance from the management proprietorial interference then it was a healthy interference. I would have hated to be directed by the management of The Nation to write editorials which were not factual and if I was forced to do so I am sure I would have retired earlier than I did. I expressed these views at the workshop and most participants from various African countries agreed with me.
According to a renowned journalism scholar, Edwin Emery, the obligations of any newspaper (and any other mass medium) to its community are to strive for honest and comprehensive coverage of the news, and form the courageous expression of editorial opinion in support of basic principles of human liberty and social progress.
The media in Anglophone Africa that have been most consistent in fulfilling Emery's obligations have been rewarded with public and professional acclaim.
The region has also witnessed some fine writing of news and features as well as vigorous crusading presentation of news stories of community interests that have now become special ingredients which have kept papers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana and even Zambia high in print media professional rating.
Obviously the publications from countries named above must have editorial guidelines probably designed by the proprietors but which must guarantee some form of non-interference in the editorial decision making process. When African journalists met at the USIU-A workshops they all agreed that proprietors the world over love to make such undertakings to editors. African journalists were particularly thrilled by Ben H. Bagdikian's example of such an undertaking being made in April 13, 1936 by the owners of the Morning News and the Evening Journal of Wilmington, Delaware. On that day the owners of the two newspapers issued a formal resolution instructing editors to "avoid blind partnership; never to misrepresent the facts either in their news or editorial columns; never to resort to suppression except for the public good; and always to give all sides a fair hearing in all public questions."
As the former Managing Editor of the Daily Nation for more than 10 years I certified that the two papers Bagdikian was talking about were no different from a good number of those in Africa which are fond of describing themselves as "independent" newspapers.
Editors in Africa very often solemnly declare that the owners of their publications allowed editorial freedom and would not fiddle with the news. But they and I knew that their owners, like those of the two Wilmington newspapers, didn't really mean it when they talked of editorial independence. Probably when newspaper owners talk of editorial independence they mean something different to what editors think of those
words. Editors at the workshops verified that owners were to their publications what generals are to armies.
Community educational institution
Like Bagdikian many at the workshops believed the newspaper was a community educational institution run for profit. The owner's relationship to the news he or she printed was something like a university trustee's relationship to reading material selected for archaeology courses.
Nine times out of 10 the editorials printed in African dailies, weeklies and occasional opposition newspapers were as predictable as catechism. The news departments of most African newspapers and magazines were designed to overreact or underreact to certain kinds of financial and political news. This reaction was more often than not based on the impulse to create a picture closer to the dreams of the ownership. Yet it was not unusual in Anglophone Africa for media owners in general to doubt the patriotism of some of the journalists they hired - hence the unfair firing of senior editors without explanation to the readers or viewers. If there was a tradition within newspapering in Africa to contain this distrust and tension between owners and staff as there was in universities, it could result in a pluralism with the advantage of a checks-and-balances system. But unfortunately during the discussion among African journalists there seemed to be no such tradition on the continent.
Currently, Kenya, like many other Anglophone African countries, is going through a peculiar kind of journalistic liberty which has given way to writing commentaries that are not only partisan but whose "facts" could easily be challenged. Hiding behind powerful godfathers, such writers seem to be able to get away with murder; but whenever they indulge in such unethical activities they are, in fact, doing violence to African journalism. The only way journalists could effectively convince politicians of the undesirability to enact the infamous Defamation Acts against the Press is to be responsible.
Good faith with the reader is the foundation of journalism worth its name. By every consideration of good faith a newspaper is constrained to be truthful. It is not to be excused for lack of thoroughness or accuracy within its control or failure to obtain command of these essential qualities. Headlines should be fully warranted by the contents of the articles. [ From the American Code.]
All participants agreed that no newspaper in the world could claim to be incapable of publishing inaccurate information; but then no newspaper in the world should be forgiven by its readers and the community if it did so deliberately. If we counted the number of corrections published daily by both The Daily Nation and The Standard, we could get a rough idea of the concern of the owners of the two newspapers about this important aspect of journalism upon which sincerity and truthfulness depended.
Again, the workshop did not have the experience of what The Standard did to remedy the problem of inaccuracy in their papers but experience at The Daily Nation clearly showed that newspaper proprietors abhorred inaccuracy.
Everyone at the workshops agreed that any journalist who did not respect accuracy in the profession did not remain in it for long unless, of course, they were employed as a propagandist whose duty was to bend all rules about accuracy and come out with half truths or pure lies just to please the boss. Obviously, any journalist who agreed to be manipulated like this by a newspaper owner, be he a politician or a business entrepreneur, was subverting one of the most important principles of the profession.
An editor reprimanded by the owner for inaccuracy could not claim that the owner was interfering with news processing and coverage. Whenever a newspaper was inaccurate in its news coverage or processing, complaints always reached the editor, and if the editor had a role in producing the inaccuracy, then it was not long before the complaint reached the owner.
Very often, complaints about inaccuracies in both The Standard and The Nation had been voiced by people, including the President. Whenever that happened, believe it, heads rolled. I knew what it meant when President Moi attacked The Nation over the radio for publishing "inaccurate" stories. I knew how high the temperature was in the office of the then chairman of Nation Newspapers, Mr. A. A. A. Ekirapa, when he wanted to know why it did not occur to the editor that publication of a particular news item was professionally imprudent.
From experience on the hot seat in an editorial office, I had first hand knowledge of what happens to a newspaper in Africa which publishes inaccurate information. Many times I had to rub shoulders with top lawyers in the corridors of law courts while defending The Nation against mistakes by careless reporters or insensitive sub-editors.
As someone who had seen all sorts of misfortunes befall a newspaper for publishing what was taken by the authorities to be inaccurate information, I would be the last to accuse the management of any newspaper which comes up with a formula to stem down the rate of inaccuracies. The majority of participants from various English speaking countries of Africa agreed with me.
At The Nation, the management came up with a splendid scheme which was intended to eliminate factual, typographical and other errors from the newspaper. Sectional and individual areas of responsibility were clearly defined; and those in a position of such responsibility were held solely accountable for such errors.
Publication of any material as a result of any proven improper motivation, or any form of unprofessional behaviour, meant that someone would be shown the door. An editor or journalist who fell victim to such an arrangement would always blame the predicament on undue interference from the management. But the truth of the matter was that any good editor or journalist would accept such an arrangement as a challenge to competence. The workshops were told by various participants that many African countries had similar arrangements to that of Kenya's Daily Nation.
Sound practice makes clear distinction between news reports and expression of opinion. News reports should be free from opinion or bias. This rule does not apply to the so-called special articles unmistakably devoted to advocacy or characterised by a signature authorising the writer's own conclusion and interpretation. [ Taken from the American Code.]
If there was an area where both The Standard and The Nation had excelled, it was in the ability of their editors to distinguish between news and commentaries. Never in my time on The Nation was an editor forced to write an editorial by the management or proprietor of the newspaper, except on one occasion when George Githii resigned, citing proprietorial pressure to force an editorial down his throat as the reason.
The issue became so hot that for the first time in the history of the newspaper, journalists staged a strike in support of their editor. But Githii let his colleagues down by using very uncivil language against a representative of the proprietor who had come to Kenya from Paris to solve the strike problem.
Since then, clearly defined rules on editorials were established at the Daily Nation. They required all editorials to be balanced, constructive and informative and had to demonstrate clearly that they were a result of comprehensive research. Before then, Githii could write about anything he thought about and attack anyone he chose to, the views of the proprietor notwithstanding.
The workshop was told by many participants that many media houses in English speaking African countries had similar rules to the one at the Daily Nation. But there were many old journalists who were almost all trained in Britain who held that an editor was reduced to a toothless bulldog by the newspaper proprietor if he or she was not free to write an editorial of his or her choice and took a unilateral stand regardless of the views held by other members of staff, the editorial board or even the proprietor.
In Anglophone Africa the days seem to have gone when editors could behave like demigods, as indeed they did and to a certain extent still do, in the United Kingdom where they seem to have the final word on any story or comment and can still behave as "dictatorial" editors. The majority of participants agreed that such despotic editors in Africa turn out to be more ruthless if they become puppets of proprietors.
The workshops agreed that modern African newspapers respected professionalism rather than the whims of an individual editor. Many such papers had a team of editorial writers who actually worked under an editor of editorials or commentaries. Where there was none, the team worked under the managing editor or the editor-in-chief. Normally the team of editorial writers met every morning to go through possible subjects, then selected the writer of the subject chosen. Such a team would always ensure that the views expressed in editorials were those of the newspaper and not those of an individual editor.
Following the Githii fracas, The Nation came up with a formula that worked smoothly during my time as managing editor of the paper. The workshops were told that the same system was used today but it was not possible to know whether The Standard had a similar method of editorial writing. What was obvious to the participants of the workshops was that Kenya, like most Anglophone African countries, was witnessing a new breed of journalism which seemed to know no distinction between news reporting and editorial commentary. Whether the new breed of African journalism was healthy or not, history would tell. [ The new breed of journalism is mainly practised by opposition newspapers which mix commentary with hard news stories without much attention being paid to impartiality. A lot of such newspapers as The Star, The People and Finance are normally referred to as the gutter press in Kenya. Their accuracy is, however, suspect among the academic circles.]
A newspaper should not publish an unofficial charge affecting reputation or moral character without opportunity given to the accused to be heard; right practice demands the giving of such opportunity in all cases of serious accusations outside a judicial proceeding. A newspaper should not invade private rights or feelings without sure warrant of public right as distinguished from public curiosity. It is the privilege, as it is the duty, of a newspaper to make prompt and complete correction of its own mistakes of fact or opinion, whatever their origin. [ Taken from the American Code.]
This was yet another area in which both The Standard and The Daily Nation showed good example of mature professionalism either due to good editorship or because of "guidance" from proprietors.
One thing was certain: that unlike a KANU [ Acronym for Kenya African National Union, the ruling political party. ]-owned publication, The Kenya Times, which, for some strange reasons, appeared to be immune to libel cases, The Standard and The Nation were careful about making false accusations against anyone because publication of such stories often led to libel suits.
If there was one issue which made African newspaper proprietors shake in their boots, it was the issue of libel cases in which newspapers were found "guilty" of publishing false accusations against respectable members of the society. Apart from losing a lot of money paid as damages and for legal fees, editors who habitually went to court and lost libel cases also lost their professional integrity and credibility.
Many participants at the workshops knew of a number of newspapers in Europe and United States which employed lawyers fulltime as members of the editorial department if only to look at copy likely to land editors and owners in court. Editors of those newspapers listened when the lawyers suggested any changes in the presentation of any "dangerous" story.
Participants revealed that the increased number of privately owned newspapers in the majority of English speaking countries had made the use of lawyers to vet stories before publication more and more common.
Whenever that happened, journalists in general and editors in particular welcomed the move to avoid an increasing number of libel cases. The workshops were told newspaper managers in Kenya were already persuading some of the newly qualified lawyers to train as journalists with a view to using them as anti-libel watchdogs on newspapers. Similar trends are happening in a number of English speaking countries of Africa.
A newspaper cannot escape conviction of insincerity if, while professing high moral purpose, it supplies incentives to base conduct, such as to be found in details of crime and vice, publication of which is not demonstrably for general good. Lacking authority to enforce its canons, the journalism here represented can but express the hope that deliberate pandering to vicious instincts will encounter effective public disapproval or yield to the influence of a preponderant professional condemnation. [ From the American Code.]
On the issue of morality, both The Nation and The Standard editorial management teams did not seem to need any guidelines from newspaper owners. The Group Managing Editor of The Standard, Mr. Kamau Kanyanga, appeared to be making deliberate attempts to turn the paper into a down market one to capture new young readers. The Standard had of late come under heavy criticism from the puritanical members of our society for this bold journalistic move. But many at the workshops believed there was room in the country and the rest of Africa for that kind of journalism. Whether or not it succeeded, history alone would tell.
Discussing decency in newspapers reminds me of a time when I was on late duty at Nation House during one of Aga Khan's visits to Kenya. When I was about to put the paper to bed, I received a call from one of the top managers ordering me to remove an "ear piece" advertisement urging readers to use a particular type of condom because it gave the user certain specific results which were described in the ad in words leaving little to the imagination. The ad also had a picture of a tired looking half-naked lady - obviously obscene and indecent stuff for a self-respecting family newspaper.
What was interesting about that ad was not only that it had been approved by senior people in the advertising department and placed on the front page of the paper, but the fact that it took the visit by the Aga Khan for anyone to realise that the publication of such material was indecent and uncalled for. The condom ad incident is just an example of how sensitive people become when owners of newspapers are in town. What happened to the obscene ad could happen to any news story considered offensive to the newspaper proprietor when he is on a visit to Kenya.
The concept of human rights in journalistic ethics
The concept of freedom of expression as a human right is universally accepted in the region as an important aspect of journalistic ethics. In Kenya, for example, journalists who fail to respect freedom of the press constantly come under fire at discussions on journalistic ethics at the USIU-A. Many journalists attending the discussions express resentment of any form of monopoly or control of the means of expression in Africa, whether this monopoly is by government, a political party, the church or any other special interest group.
In the suspension last year of the Kenya Television Network's head of news, Vitalis Musebe, and his deputy, Isaiya Kabira, for correctly reporting the events of Saba Saba, [ Saba Saba is a direct translation of the Kiswahili words Seven Seven, meaning the Seventh Day of the Seventh Month, i.e. 7th July, which was the day in 1990 when Kenyans revolted against President Moi's one party state and forced him to agree to multi-party democracy. Every seventh of July Kenyans demonstrate against dictator ship and in favour of democracy.] police brutality was strongly reminiscent of 1952 colonial methods of dealing with rebel writers of Gakara Wanjau's [ A well known Kikuyu nationalistic author of pro Mau Mau books. ] calibre. The parallels of the two abuses of power were close. Both suppressed the truth and whereas one had been dumped in the dustbin of history the other was sure to suffer the same fate.
The Kenyan journalists' suspension was an excellent example of violation of one of the most respected ethical principles of independence for practitioners who have to be protected from governmental, proprietorial and commercial interference in their editorial decision-making.
African journalists in English speaking countries know that ethically it is wrong for governments to guide editors, with or without threats, on how to prepare their copy and what to do with it. Yet that was what happened in Kenya on July 7, 1997 after pro-reforms and democracy demonstrations in the streets of Nairobi. The two courageous journalists put their professional loyalty before their employer's [ The Kenya Television Network (KTN) belongs to the pro-government East African Standard .] demand to disregard the truth in favour of pleasing the powers that be even when the latter were obviously at fault.
The public outcry that followed the suspension was indicative of the fact that the people of Kenya, like those of many Anglophone African countries, were aware of their right to know.
The issue of governmental violation of journalistic independence in both the mainstream and the alternative media in Kenya was crucial because the people only got to know about it when it involved a big event such as the Saba Saba demonstrations. The public hardly ever get to know about governmental interference in editorial decision making in any of the African countries in the region when it involves selection, placement and even editing of what may appear to be ordinary but sensitive stories they read in Africa's daily press or see on their TV screens.
If Kenyan editors were to be frank they would admit that attempts to guide their pen were made almost daily by those who possess political power but fear the greater power of information. Very often this is done with the full knowledge of, and may be in collaboration with, media proprietors with either an axe to grind or other interests to protect.
Apart from governmental interference, editors in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and other Anglophone African countries suffer in silence whenever proprietors, believing that whoever pays the piper should call the tune, determine what is read in our newspapers or seen on screens. Yet they have to tolerate that agony to protect what appears to outsiders to be the high ranking positions they hold.
The story of commercial interference in the editorial decision-making process in English speaking Africa is as old as journalism itself. On an almost daily basis African editors have to deal with numerous demands to promote commercial items with no news values. At times they are asked to suppress stories of news value to editors but dangerous or damaging to either real or potential advertisers. Whenever this happens editors, more often than not, also suffer in silence or follow the publish-and-be-damned philosophy at the risk of being shown the door.
Positions held by Musebe and Kabira were quickly filled by people who saw nothing wrong in their colleagues being victimised. Almost joyfully they stepped into their departed colleagues' shoes as if they had always ambitiously just waited for the opportunity.
To many students of journalistic ethics this state of affairs clearly showed the lack of professional solidarity and indeed the lack of ethical insight. Was it unethical for any journalist to appear to support those who suppressed freedom of the press? A number of Kenyan journalists interviewed argued that if journalism in that country was fully professionalised, the suspension of Musebe and Kabira would not only have been impossible, but they couldn't have been replaced as quickly as they were. Fraternal professionalism rather than subterranean skulduggery would have triumphed.
The respect for freedom of the press in Africa could not come about when some journalists did not appear to understand it. Many African journalists believed that the time had come for constitutions to be amended to guarantee that no legislation against freedom of the press would be contemplated by anyone in power now or in future. Freedom of information acts also needed to be introduced in Anglophone countries to ensure that journalists were not only free to publish the information they had, but were also allowed free access to that information.
Press freedom and ethics
Today many African dictatorial regimes behave as if they had the sole right to grant press freedom as a privilege to their sycophantic loyal journalists. The rest of the world, of course, perceives press freedom as a human right the same as freedom of expression, movement, conscience, assembly and association which require no one's benevolence or permission to be observed. The African brand of democracy will always be wanting when freedom of the press remains a debatable issue on the agenda of their priorities.
Discussing the vital issue of freedom of the press, Derrick Sington [ Derrick Sington, Freedom of Communication, Oxford 1963.] poses a number of important questions: How far should the state or any other authority control or limit free expression in the interest of truth to protect individuals' mental and spiritual welfare or to protect itself? How far is the individual's right both to circulate ideas and information, and to have access to them, unlimited and sacrosanct? In what hands should the media of information be, if not in the hands of the state? [ Ibid.]
Whereas Sington admits that freedom of communication has never been absolutely complete in any society, it is basically true that both human progress and just dealing are likely to be crippled in societies where free expression is repressed or seriously interfered with. Progress in every field of ideas has, as often as not, been born of the lonely struggle of one dissenting man or woman. He suggests it is the unorthodox mind questioning the accepted beliefs of its day and challenging the word of authority itself that time and again has revolutionised science, social thoughts and sometimes the whole mental perspective of mankind. Where free expression is effectively denied to the dissenting but inspired individual, either by the state or by the majority, great ideas can be permanently lost.
All African journalists attending USIU-A workshops agreed fully with Sington. They also acknowledged that besides safeguarding the pursuit of truth and the increase of knowledge, freedom of expression also provided the social climate in which justice could flourish. It made the exposure and prevention of injustice much more probable. Where authority had committed injustice and could also restrict freedom of expression it tended to use its power to cover up its unjust acts. By suppressing the truth, if it could, it prevented the exposure of its own mistakes or misdeeds. Where freedom of expression existed, therefore, injustice was far less likely to pass unchecked. A historic example of the exposure of injustice through courageous free expression was the news bulletin on Saba Saba police brutality by the suspended KTN reporters.
The ethics of covering elections fairly and impartially
According to one great editor, C. P. Scott, comment is free but facts are sacred, and that was the one aspect of African journalism we discovered through our discussion where the ethical importance of impartiality was always put to the test. When in Kenya I conducted workshops in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu to prepare journalists for the impartial coverage of the 1997 general elections, it became very clear that African journalists often forgot the issue of impartiality and the famous words by Scott. It became clear, too, that many African journalists ignored the vital question of separation of news from comment, or the religious avoidance of what in current usage is termed tendentiousness or what Americans simply call editorialising. Though Scott's words had been classic, they tended to lose much of their force if divorced, as they commonly are in Africa, from their context.
What C. P. Scott said was: "The newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation, must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, facts are sacred. Propaganda, so called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents no less than of friends has a right to be heard. Comment is also justly subject to a self imposed restraint. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair." According to yet another journalism scholar, Wilson Harris, the highest canons of journalism could find no better definition than that. [2 Harris, Wilson, The Daily Press, Cambridge , Mass., 1949.]
Yet even Harris admits that this is not quite all the story. He says the question how far it is the function of the press to give the public what the public wants is still worth asking. Here, of course, the element of competition enters. It is convenient to speak generally of the press, but what is meant in fact is a number of individual newspapers, each intent on increasing its circulation at the expense of the others. In the campaign the odds are all in favour of the paper that gives its readers what its readers want, as against a rival who gives them what it thinks they ought to have. [ Ibid. ]
Despite the journalistic rules of impartiality, African readers have a special liking for editorialised presentation of news the way The People of Kenya is so often fond of doing. As an example, take the intro of a recent front page lead of that paper:
The writing is on the wall. It is either reforms
or anarchy. That is the loud and clear message
that the Kenyans have been beaming to President
Moi for the last couple of weeks, but like the
mean-spirited and stone-hearted Pharaoh of
ancient Egypt, he is unwilling to let the people
down. It is the biggest challenge he has so far faced.
["Reforms: Moi's Biggest Test" in The People of July 11-17, 1997 (No. 228).]
Investigative journalism and ethics
Impartiality has never prevented modern journalists from presenting their stories in an interpretative manner provided their interpretations are based on facts. Interpretative journalism becomes even more forceful when it is based on investigative powers. Most of the alternative newspapers in Anglophone Africa tend to ignore the ethical rule of impartiality; but their editorialised presentation of news is only popular among readers because it is based on well researched stories which are interpreted to the readers in a slanted manner to suit the convenience of the parties supported by the editors. Very often this crusading, and often biased, presentation of stories has landed a number of newspapers in very serious legal problems, some of which seem to be more political than legal.
Many of the alternative press publications in English speaking Africa are naturally partisan, but that should be no excuse for their blatant twisting of news to an extent that opinion becomes more prominent than facts. Obviously journalists anywhere in the world have plenty of opinion. But the profession is based on the idea that they can keep those opinions out of their stories. Very often journalists in the African alternative press, and at times even those in the mainstream press, do less than a perfect job of it. Readers often see personal feelings intruding into their so-called hard news stories.
Recently, for example, The People was ordered by courts to pay Shs 10,000 to Joshua Kulei for alleging he was involved in corrupt practices with Nairobi-based Asian businessmen.
If the alternative press in Kenya appears to be rather weak on the ethical requirements of impartiality, they are even weaker on the fair play issue. Hardly ever are readers of the alternative publications which make scathing attacks against KANU leaders given the opinion of the people being pounded; yet professional ethics demand that voice should be heard, too.
Ethically any accusation made by a newspaper outside a court of law should be balanced by opinions of those being accused. The alternative press in Anglophone Africa is full of serious accusations against leaders in
[page-number of print ed.: 104]
governments or the ruling parties. Very often the accusations are legitimate since the papers publishing them are only playing their watchdog role of the Fourth Estate. But the manner in which the stories are presented to the people is unprofessional as it fails to observe the important ethical requirement of fair play. Stories accusing the government of all manner of things would sound more authentic if the accusations were balanced by comments of the accused, even if that comment was simply saying "no comment!"
It is easy for journalists in the alternative press to be biased because they rub shoulders more often with opinionated politicians. It is also possible many of them don't even know that being publicly biased is being unprofessional. The thrill of chasing an expose on a major corrupt practice within the government could easily blind them to the fact that as professionals they must always make an attempt to see the other side of the coin.
Howard Kurtz, the press critic of the Washington Post, says journalists' real bias is bad news bias. They love conflict, emotion, charges and counter charges. A reporter who spends months chasing allegations of wrongdoing sometimes finds his vision clouded by the thrill of the chase. One who spends too much time hanging out with cops and prosecutors may wind up thinking the same way, sometimes overlooking reckless conduct by his law enforcement buddies. A city council man who keeps feeding a reporter inside dope is less likely to become the object of harsh scrutiny. But these tendencies have more to do with mind-set than ideology. [ Kurtz, Howard, Media Circus, New York, 1993.]
Recently when the majority of Kenyan journalists were in favour of a meaningful dialogue between the government and the opposition parties, many of them said so publicly and in their columns. Much of their reporting on the issue of dialogue was expected to be biased either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play. This kind of bias was noticeable to any keen eye. It was natural therefore that when pro-dialogue groups held huge demonstrations throughout the capital city and other major towns of Kenya on July 7, 1997, all the papers gave them the front page treatment they deserved as a major event. The point I want to make here in favour of Kenyan journalists is that despite the known latent bias among journalists favouring the opposition stance of dialogue, no journalist took part in the demonstration as an active participant.
This Kenyan episode contrasted sharply with another demonstration in the spring of 1989, when 300,000 people marched in Washington for abortion rights. The demonstration turned into a journalists' watershed because the marchers included a number of reporters and editors from New York Times, Washington Post and other media organisations. [ Ibid.]
According to Kurtz one of the demonstrators was Linda Greenhouse who covered the Supreme Court for the Times. Though she had had permission from her boss, Howell Raines, before taking part in the demonstration, Greenhouse was later reprimanded for "violating New York Times policy." Fairly or unfairly, those who join the news business give up certain rights. Matters that are routine for most citizens, such as signing petitions or contributing to political candidates, ought to be out of bounds for members of the press. We ought to set ourselves the same standards to which we so rightly hold public officials, though no one should pretend that we are opinion-free. It is the public parading of such opinion that poses the danger of leading us onto a slippery professional slope.
In Anglophone Africa survival of the alternative press appears to depend heavily on exposes obtained from freelancers who are not necessarily reliable news gatherers. Many are the times as the Managing Editor of the Daily Nation when the use of stories from such reporters landed me in courts facing serious libel lawsuits. Yet when all is said and done, it is natural for any truly independent newspaper, radio or television station to have a professionally healthy hunger for exposes. All I am suggesting is that that hunger must always be tempered by a careful guard against reporters' temptation to lie. This temptation is not peculiar only to African journalists.
A close examination of African press - both mainstream and the alternative - reveals that untruth can and does slip through editors' fingers,making it difficult to erect an airtight defence against lying reporters. Hence the need to check and recheck all the facts before putting pen to paper. I knew of a news editor at Florida's St. Petersburg Times who had a big poster above his head for all his reporters to see which said, "If your mother says she loves you check it out!"
Both the alternative and the mainstream press in Africa have little problem with decency which is an important pillar of journalistic ethics. Practitioners and proprietors in the Western world are unable to agree on how to curb encroaching tendencies to use pornography as circulation boosters in down- market newspapers. The International Press Institute has become a stage for debate between those opposed to pornography and those backing it as a form of journalism.
The latest worrying pornographic threat to communication has hit the Internet, forcing Germany to make attempts to tame the Web. Writing about the "Internet Trials" in the Time magazine of July 14, 1997, Jordan Bonfate says the question of how to police the borderless realm of Internet has baffled jurists and legislators ever since the World Wide Web started its wild expansion in the early 1990s. But regulation happy Germany, he says, was one of the first countries to try to patrol this twilight zone of information and entertainment, zealously extending existing criminal statutes to the Internet and sending in the cyber-sheriffs to go after the likes of Angela Marquardt and Felix Somm, both accused of providing access to home pages on the Web with illicit content. More obvious still, the Bundestag [ The German House of Representatives.] recently passed Europe's first comprehensive national Internet law.
The new legislation defines responsibility for pornography and other potentially objectionable material appearing on computer screens, prescribes the rules of protecting the confidentiality of personal data and grants the world's first licenses for "digital signatures," a supposedly foolproof method of protecting commercial transactions on the Internet. [ "The Internet Game" in Time Magazine Vol. 150 No. 2 page 28 (July 14,1997).]
The Internet as an ethical issue
Though the Internet has already entered the homes of the affluent in Africa, it has yet to pose a national crisis as a means to corrupt the youth of the continent. The measures taken by Germany were discussed at the USIU-A workshops and all the African journalists from every African country represented thought it was an ideal step which African governments should emulate.
The issue of decency on newspaper pages can be serious as there is a tendency on the part of at least one national newspaper in Kenya, The East African Standard, to go down-market for circulation purposes. Given the eagerness noticeable among the young professionals keen to become proprietors of their own publications, I believe it will not take long before Africa witnesses the birth of magazines specialising in prurient interests.
Journalism in Anglophone Africa is among the most admirable on the continent of Africa but among its biggest problems facing it is how to deal with inaccurate information. Accuracy has become a major professional concern among journalists all over the world, but in English speaking Africa it is a particularly serious problem because the region appears to be in short supply of reliable news sources even among official circles. Yet a lot of what is published in African newspapers, like in the rest of the world, is second-hand information. Journalism scholar, Curtis D. MacDougall, admits that most news gathered by reporters is second-hand but warns journalists to remember that news sources unquestionably are responsible for as many if not more news story errors than reporters. He even suggests that mistakes made by those giving out news may be intentional. [ MacDougall, Curtis Interpretative Reporting The Macmillan Company, New York. (1968). ]
The issue of accuracy, or lack of it, was seriously discussed at the USIU-A workshops and all African journalists in attendance agreed with MacDougal that the reporters' weapons against inaccuracy, as a result of news sources' inability or unwillingness to give reliable information, were verification and honesty of purpose. If a reporter approached the task of both reporting and writing his or her story without prejudice, whatever error he or she made would at least be unintentional. Fairness and caution both required that when two persons interviewed differed greatly in what they were saying, the statements of both should be included in the news story. To achieve this objective, reputable newspapers went to extremes almost unimaginable to the general public. The sentence saying that Mr. Smith could not be reached for a statement may have been added to a story many hours after futile efforts to attain either accuracy of fairness or both. [ Ibid.]
The trouble with African journalists trying to be accurate was that they were often dealing with people capable of making public statements and totally denying ever making them when they found themselves in political or legal hot soup. Recently a prominent Kenyan opposition politician, Kenneth Matiba, told journalists he had resigned his parliamentary seat and promised to communicate his resignation to the speaker of the National Assembly the next day [ "Matiba Resigns" in East African Standard of May 31st 1997, front page (No. 25826).].
But the next day Matiba disowned the story, scapegoating the journalists who had written it. More than anywhere else in the world, reporters in Africa had to be extra careful because they were not only dealing with inaccurate, misleading and sometimes outright lying sources of information but also with extremely ruthless laws that dealt cruelly with published untruths. The only answer for the true professionals was to be truly responsible journalists ready to publish the truth and be damned for it. Which brings me to the next most important pillar of journalistic ethics, responsibility.
Whenever African despots talk about "responsible" journalism or press they mean the journalism and press they have in their pockets and therefore in their total control. Newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations in Africa have been used or misused to perpetuate dictatorship ever since colonial powers gave way to African authoritarianism.
Whenever a coup replaces one dictator with another, the first thing the rebellious soldiers go for is a radio station. African journalists have a much harder responsibility of upholding journalistic principles at the risk of not only being labelled traitors by the dictators, but of endangering their lives in so doing. The argument about whether journalists in Africa are nationalists or professionals first has been advanced by those in power when appealing to practitioners to suppress important news in the name of patriotism.
Functions of the media and building public opinion
In my opinion, which I expressed at the USIU-A workshops, journalists are more patriotic when they are guided by the truth and when they draw demarcation lines between right and wrong. Obviously for journalists to do this most effectively they must understand and master the functions of their profession. Holmgren and Norton tell us the way individuals use the media give us clues as to the functions of the media in society as a whole. [ Holmgren, Rod and Norton, William, "A Look at Modern Media" in The Mass Media Book, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1971.]
If we consider the time people spend on media, we might conclude that most Africans have far more respect for news and information than for entertainment. Holmgren and Norton say people need a continuous survey of our environment, whether immediate or distant. They become uneasy if they don't receive a stream of information, however uneven, about changes taking place on the horizon. More simply, this involves the reporting of news or presentation of information about our world and its people. We might call this the watcher-function of media, and it is performed especially well by newspapers, television, radio and news magazines. [ Ibid.]
The two scholars also say the other function of the media is to give us a forum, a running series of arguments among rival views and personalities enabling people to reach a consensus about issues facing society.
They also explain other roles such as the teacher-role of the media. Examined carefully it becomes easy to see that the real bosses of the professional journalists are the people rather than the government or media owners. Responsibility to a professional journalist should be total dedication to serve humanity by safeguarding freedoms of conscience, movement, assembly and association and through that process uphold freedom of expression. This calls for total professional commitment which many believe can only be achieved by devoted dedication to journalistic ethics upheld by independence, freedom of the press, impartiality, fair play, decency, accuracy and responsibility as discussed above.
A close look at how journalists perform their duty in English speaking Africa would reveal many violations which are not only confined to the alternative press or the press in Kenya but are committed generally among all journalists in Africa and indeed the world. Kurtz reveals a whole range of ethical problems encountered by media reporters and his revelations are startling. He lists pitfalls such as conflicts of interest, freebies, junkets, intellectual theft, deception, carelessness, kowtowing to advertisers, use of dubious evidence and outright bias. He says it is striking how often we in the news business fail to live up to the high minded standards that we prescribe for others.
Professionalisation of journalism in the region
The mushrooming of organisations for journalists in Africa such as the Free Press Commission and the Association of the Free and Independent Press when unions of journalists and the press clubs are still in existence is a clear indicator that African journalists are, by and large, still in search of their professional identity. They seem to be torn between the fame gained by opening their professional doors to the newsrooms to allow free expression from all quarters; and alienating themselves from every Tom, Dick and Harry calling themselves journalists by establishing a professional body for only practitioners of proven qualification and ability.
When African journalists met in Nairobi early this year to discuss this vital aspect of journalism, almost everyone in attendance agreed that the unrestricted rush into journalism by people who were neither trained nor employed as journalists seemed to have damaged the dream of high standards of professionalism in African journalism. This had, in effect,fuelled the fires of anarchism in the vocation. Allowing many other professionals or even laymen to contribute to African newspapers, radio and television had for a long time run right through the heart of the media culture in Africa.
There could be little argument that the quantity and not quite the quality of people claiming to be journalists in Africa had increased. Yet many in Anglophone Africa saw journalists as people who had manoeuvred themselves into the enviable position of being so powerful as to be immune to criticism. African dictators, however, did not appear to share those views. There were those in authority who had constantly put African journalism in the dock or on the psychiatrist's sofa with the sole purpose of muzzling the press.
Journalists meeting in Nairobi also agreed that they as people could be transformed into highly specialised professionals. But then they posed a number of questions: Could this happen to African journalists when they established their own professional body? Was it really necessary or desirable for journalists to form such a professional organisation for themselves? Would all the people calling themselves journalist today belong to the organisation or would some of them fail to meet the required standards to be set by a professional body?
Those who suspected they might fail to make the grade when such an organisation was established were among the first to capriciously torpedo the idea of such a body for journalists.
But that did not change the fact that there were many in African society who detested journalists as people and despised them as writers - an attitude that did not minimise the need to establish an organisation to safeguard the interests of the profession as opposed to the interests of journalists as workers, a function now fulfilled, adequately or not, by the many unions of journalists in Africa.
Journalists meeting in Nairobi found many strong reasons for and against the formation of a professional organisation, but before they found them they posed a number of questions: How do people become professionals?
What routes must they follow? What roles are they expected to play? What commitments must they have as professionals? [ Journalists attending the workshop were guided in their discussions by Michael Kunczik's Concepts of Journalism - North and South. Friedrich - Ebert - Stiftung, Bonn,1988.]
Today Africans enter journalism with various degrees of clarity about its discipline and potential career opportunities, hence their levels of commitment have been vague. There were many in the profession who felt there was a need to modify journalists' view of their career, making a number of issues clearer and more specific and less confusing. They felt journalists should not only concern themselves with the acquisition of necessary writing skills in the course of their training but also a different set of priorities, beliefs and values vis-à-vis their profession and professional lives.
Examining Kunczik's Concepts of Journalism, the African journalists accepted that members used specialised skills based on a theoretical foundation, acquired in a systematic training tested in a special examination which regulates entry. This definition, which is German in origin, goes on to say that a profession possesses an organisation whose members are bound by a code of ethics, have great personal responsibility and are relatively autonomous.
The African journalists thoroughly discussed the above definition of a profession and concluded that it was probably as good as any for them to look at as a guide to establish their own organisation. After the discussions they posed a number of vital questions: Could the Kenyan journalists, for example, claim to have all the specialised training as professional people? Could all of them claim to have been tested as professional people and were they all prepared to be examined yet again before they formed a professional body? Were they prepared to establish a body which would regulate entry into the profession? Whereas journalism could be defined as a profession based on a theoretical foundation, who was prepared to make sure that all practitioners were bound by a code of ethics? Had there been a universally accepted code of ethics for African journalists?
In 1992, a committee of editors in Kenya compiled a journalistic code of ethics whose objective was to maintain acceptable conduct. The code, which was reproduced in full by both The Nation and The Standard, was intended to guide every news media practitioner and was based on the premise that all journalists had a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards.
The Kenyan code of ethics dealt with issues concerning accuracy, fairness, opportunity to reply, letters to the editor, unnamed sources, confidentiality, obscenity, taste and tone in reporting, paying for news and articles, plagiarism, privacy, sex discrimination, financial journalism, comment, conjecture and facts, protection of children, victims of sex crimes, use of pictures and names, journalistic judgement, verification of reports, acts of violence, covering of disputes and clashes, sensational headlines, judicial Acts, editors' responsibility and advertising.
Obviously, the list of issues to be considered on matters of journalistic ethics is long, yet every item could itself require no less than a full newspaper page to discuss. As Professor Francis P. Kasoma [ Professor Kasoma who is the author of Kitabu attended one of the Nairobi dis cussions and made an extremely useful contribution on the issue of ethics for African journalists.] of the University of Zambia's Department of Mass Communication puts it, with the coming of pluralistic politics in Africa, journalists will increasingly be unable to use the need to obey orders as a shield against unethical performances. Whether they form a professional body or not, journalists in African countries cannot avoid adopting some form of ethical code or another, but with a professional organisation in existence all journalists could be forced to abide by the code's demands at all times or face the risk of being disciplined.
One area of concern which journalists meeting in Nairobi examined regarded the training of professionals. If journalists in Africa established professional organisations in their various countries, they would have to make sure that the training of journalists was not only relevant to the work they did but that it also remained flexible enough to accept any new theoretical and technological advances that may be made to the profession in the international circles. Naturally, therefore, the professional bodies would have to be affiliated to other international organisations of similar persuasion, beliefs and principles.
The Nairobi meeting observed that for a long time journalists in Africa had developed a tendency to fix their standards of performance in such a way as to resist efforts by others to correct them. Normally efforts to correct, guide or even control the press in Africa had come from governmental leadership and the establishment of a professional body could either protect professionals from such authoritarian interference or it could open more doors to criticism and manipulation - all depending on how the bodies were constituted and manned.
One of the most important concerns of a professional journalists' organisation would be to ensure no journalist lost his or her individual freedom of writing or broadcasting the truth as he or she saw it, yet at the same time remain organised in characteristically disciplined manner sustained by the reinforcement of rules of professional etiquette.
It was when such rules of etiquette were being introduced that many saw the press being controlled by whoever formulated the rules. Anyone in government, opponents of a professional body argued, who wanted to put the press in Africa in their pockets, would only have to establish a journalists' professional body which was itself in the government pockets. Such a body, they maintain, could lead to licensing of journalists and restricting of their movement and indeed their information sources.
The proponents of a professional body, however, claimed that such an organisation would make sure that politicians or those in power were manipulating no journalist whether such powers emanated from governmental or proprietorial sources, whether a journalistic professional body was manipulated by the government or newspaper and radio owners depended on its constitution and the integrity of its office bearers.
Supporters of the formation of a professional body argued that only its existence would give journalism in Africa the capacity to lead its members to perform their work more in accordance with the needs of society than had been the case in the recent past. They argued that a professional body would force whoever was in power to accept the fact that journalism was the Fourth Estate which needed to be accorded freedom, just as the judiciary needed to be guaranteed independence and the legislature supremacy while the executive was not allowed to overstep its responsibility in running the affairs of the country.
Opponents of a professional body warned that its existence could give the executive an excuse to restrict its membership to only those who were known to be pro-government in their outlook while those journalists with radical anti-establishment views would be silenced forever.
The truth of the matter was that both eventualities were possible depending on how the professional bodies were structured. Properly constituted professional bodies could make sure that the individualistic self-validation was crystallised in journalism schools and became so deep rooted that there would be little need for an external policing system by legislation to control journalists. Trainee journalists could be moulded in journalism schools to have professional ethics in their bloodstreams, so much so that all they wanted when they become practitioners was to prove to be loyal to the profession rather than to individual politicians or political parties.
When the debate on whether or not to establish a journalistic professional body started, many African journalists' self-perception of the term "professional" was examined and found to vary, but at the end of the workshop everyone agreed with Kunczik's three meanings: The first meaning could be heard when stories were being discussed in any newsroom. Stories were done in a "professional" way as opposed to those done in an "amateurish" way. This meaning of the term "professional" was based on the performance and merit of an individual journalist. A professional opposite would be an amateur. The second meaning was based on training with a trained man or woman considering themselves much more professional than the untrained one, who may or may not be more experienced. The third meaning was based on the code of ethics, which entails all the items listed by a committee of editors. No journalist could pretend to be professional if they did not observe objectivity and accuracy in their work, for instance.
The establishment of professional bodies in Africa would ensure that all the three meanings were systematically synchronised and merged, giving the practitioner an identity that would prioritise the interests of the community and democracy.
Also examined at the workshops were what Kunczik calls professional norms. Kunczik, like many other journalism scholars, believes there are two norms of the profession - a technical and an ethical one. The technical emphasised the techniques of fast news gathering, writing and editing skills. The ethical norms were more concerned with the obligation to society and democracy. [ Kunczik, Michael, op.cit.]
Participants at the USIU-A workshops were divided. There were those who believed that journalism could not be defined as a profession because it had to give room to the multiplicity of opinion needed in a democracy. That was why its definition had to be carefully worded to bar those who wanted to enter it with explicit interest or personal political pursuits which would regard the public as gullible simpletons whose minds could be manipulated as successfully as they were by Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine.
The issue of whether or not the state should regulate or license the entry into the profession was not even to be entertained. In this debate almost all the groups from various African countries constantly quoted Kunczik. His story of how the Third Reich used the press as merely a propaganda tool to mould Germans to National Socialism was constantly repeated. African journalists all agreed to do everything possible to make sure this was not repeated in Africa.
The next subject of discussion concerned training of journalists. Everyone from all the African countries represented believed that journalism as a profession had to have the ability to formulate and implement or approve a training programme which the occupation in Africa seems to be most loudly crying for. Theoretical or practical training had to be thorough and recognised universally. This was not possible if those training the journalists were themselves of dubious qualifications. The trainers of journalists had to ensure that what they offered was thorough and proper; examining all the segments of the profession for journalism indeed does have segments.
Then there was the vexed question of selecting those to be trained as journalists. Efforts had to be made to ensure that only people who merited were selected and not potential propagandists who would end up singing the tune of those in power to reward them for the favour of being selected for the training. Members of different newspaper, television and radio departments may want to look for different qualifications of potential candidates.
Finally, on the training issue it was realised that a proper journalist could effectively be trained if he or she was given an outlet to exercise their talents in a practical way. Hence a university newspaper, magazine, radio and television stations were considered of vital importance, no matter how those in power viewed them. All these were issues which could be settled easily with the establishment of a professional body.
While examining the pros and cons of establishing a professional organisation for journalists, the USIU-A workshops had to make comparisons between journalism and the nearest profession to it - public relations. Like PR, journalism dealt with the public. Some practitioners in public relations had successfully established professional organisations, which were respected internationally. One of them was the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations whose objectives were to promote and develop the art and science of public relations practice in Nigeria.
What would be wrong with establishing a journalistic professional organisation whose aim would be to promote and develop the quality of journalism in various parts of Africa?
What would be wrong with establishing a professional journalistic organisation whose aim would also be to establish and prescribe high standards of professional and ethical practice and to ensure the observance of these standards?
What would be wrong with establishing a journalistic professional body to make sure that it encouraged the attainment of professional qualification in journalism through its examination and further training?
What would be wrong with establishing a journalistic professional organisation, which would conduct research and collect and disseminate information on all aspects of journalism in the world for its members?
What would be wrong with establishing a professional journalistic organisation whose aim might also be to publish a journal, books and papers and guidelines on the profession?
Those who wanted to have a professional organisation for journalists saw nothing wrong with these suggestions which were derived from the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations. Others saw them as likely to lead to suppression of the freedom of the press. All the same, there was nothing wrong with opening up the discussion on the issue, which could lead to professional qualifications of many journalists in Africa being examined and questioned.
Many believed that professional qualifications for journalists in Africa should be a statement of competence relevant to the actual work of journalists and intended to facilitate entry or progression in employment or higher education in journalism.
The examination to be sat by all who wished to be members of a professional organisation for journalists would be practical in orientation and aimed at all practitioners intending to be registered with it. This was probably the most controversial aspect of establishing a professional body because many would refuse to be examined for whatever reasons. If journalists in Anglophone Africa, including Kenya, wanted to establish a professional organisation I believe I gave them a lot of food for thought through the workshops at the USIU-A.
The media was engaged in a serious discussion on liberalisation of airwaves about a month before I wrote this. Everyone at the USIU-A sponsored deliberation agreed that the discussions touched essentially on a human rights issue. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which clearly says that everyone has the right of freedom of opinion and expression, was thoroughly examined. But this right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" without interference was constantly violated in many African countries by governments refusing to liberalise airwaves and instead using them as a vehicle of propaganda and domination through monopoly of broadcasting activities.
Participants also discussed Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also says:
Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions but these shall only be such as a provided by law and are necessary:
For respect of the rights or reputations of others.
For the protection of national security of public order or of public health or morals.
Article 20 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which says any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law and any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law, was also thoroughly discussed.
Participants found it interesting to compare the parts of the UDHR and the CCPR quoted above with Section 79 of the Constitution of Kenya, which deals with the protection of freedom of expression and says:
Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, that is to say, freedom to hold opinion without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons) and freedom from interference with his correspondence.
Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision that is reasonably required in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; that is reasonably required for purposes of protecting the reputation, rights and freedoms of other persons or the private lives of persons concerned with legal proceedings, preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority of independence of the courts or regulating the technical administration or the technical operation of telephony, telegraphy, post, wireless broadcasting or television or that imposes restrictions upon public officers or upon persons in the service of local government authority, and except so far as that provision or, as the case may be, the thing done under the authority thereof is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
After the discussions journalists concluded that in democratic countries governments meddled with television and radio at their own peril because broadcasting was an issue on which just about everyone should have an opinion. That was so because radio and television broadcasting were living symbols of democracy in a free society. They were also significant and necessary instruments for maintaining freedom of expression.
As the discussions were taking place in Kenya there were indications of attempts being made to control information in the country by concentrating commercial TV in the hands of a few individuals who by and large happened to be KANU sympathisers. Examining the demands that were being made by democratic movements, it was clear that many of them did not place broadcasting high on their agenda. There could be a great variety of reasons for this and one of them could be that not many people understood what was at stake with regard to state control of broadcasting.
The issue of governmental control of broadcasting had to be put firmly on the agenda of the democratic movement and made part of the discourse of constitutional negotiations. There was therefore an urgent need to restructure the broadcasting environment in Kenya ahead of constitutional negotiations.
Participants also agreed that the evil of information control in general and the control of the electronic media in particular had been a subject of great concern for all freedom loving forces in Africa whose main objective was the formation of a creative atmosphere which would liberalise airwaves and widen their functional input into the democratisation process. It was therefore reasonable for other prospective broadcasters in African countries to demand free and fair competition although the politicians presently controlling the airwaves were unwilling to accept the principle of liberalisation of airwaves. It was about time Africans started thinking about equal opportunity in broadcasting if the airwaves were to be liberalised for their benefit. The debate on the need for liberalisation of airwaves in Anglophone Africa had always been overshadowed by the preoccupation of leaders' concern for the overall structure of constitutional reforms, yet it was when the constitutions were being reviewed that Africans could agree on who should control the airwaves in their respective countries.
All the participants agreed that it was important for airwaves to be freed from direct governmental control before the electronic media could achieve some form of autonomy that was necessary for the creation of a broadcasting atmosphere that permitted people's participation in true freedom of expression. People had to decide, for example, in whose hands the airwaves should be and before that important decision was made the subject had to be on the agenda of intellectual fora involving political thinkers, media experts and indeed ordinary citizens.
As I've pointed out, only the wealthy who back KANU in Kenya seem to be given a chance to participate in private broadcasting. Yet, as has now been amply proven, simply being a wealthy man or woman and running a wealthy company in other fields is not enough to ensure success in commercial radio and television. Those who won commercial television in Kenya may have succeeded in other kinds of business, but what they provide to people as entertainment and news may not necessarily be up to
acceptable professional standards. This point was accepted by all participants who said what was happening in Kenya was also happening in other African countries such as Uganda and Tanzania.
Participants also agreed that paucity of professionalism among electronic media practitioners in Africa was obviously responsible for the potential of television and radio not being realised in creative terms and the mere act of liberalisation which would give way to an increased number of independent radio and television stations may not necessarily automatically solve that problem.
It may very well require a long term and sustained effort to shift the emphasis to quality promotion of professionalism. Whatever the case may be, participants believed that the time had come for Africans to decide whether they had room for the existence of (a) autonomous, (b) public service, (c) independent or (d) controlled broadcasting systems. Whatever happened, as democratic countries they had to come up with broadcasting systems favourably matching the people's needs and aspirations. In essence the issue of the formation and development of a broadcasting policy was related to two key questions: Who should control the airwaves and who should regulate them?
The majority of Africans today depend on government controlled broadcasting for their news and entertainment. Yet the issue of these stations' perceived bias in favour of politicians in power is not likely to disappear overnight.
From the moment most African countries became free about 30 years ago new regimes started manipulating news over the radio and television as a key component of their propaganda arsenals; that trend is not likely to disappear overnight but will in all probability be retained by new regimes for as long as possible, especially during the preparation for the current process of democratization.
Politically sensitive news
The fact that most African broadcasting stations draw heavily on journalists working for the government owned news agencies clearly means that the contents of the broadcasts will always be pro-government. This is more so with regard to all the politically sensitive news and current affairs programmes. It is a fact that the journalists cum civil servants working for these stations are responsible for setting the conformist style of news and current affairs presentation. Very few of these journalists can be expected to have the moral courage to refuse to participate in programmes they know are meant to serve the narrow political purposes of those in power. The reasons for this could be both opportunism on the part of the young journalists as well as their vulnerability due to shortage of jobs in their countries. It was agreed at the workshop that against this background it would be preposterous to expect the young practitioners at the news agencies to be assertive towards the authorities.
Traditionally most African countries have set broadcasters three objectives – entertainment, information and education. The three goals have, in my opinion, been used very often as the very instrument of information suppression by making sure that the education of the people will consist only of what the ruling class' manifesto is all about; their information contains only the pronouncement of the so-called leaders and their entertainment is made up of songs in the leaders' praise. I believe there may be a need to add yet another important objective - enrichment - to enlarge people's interest to carry to them new choices and possibilities in life which may be national, regional or local. When I shared this belief with the other African journalists at the workshops many of them agreed with me.
An interesting observation made at the workshop was that the rigid governmental control of broadcasting in Anglophone Africa has British colonialism as its historical background. Yet the British were among the first to accept the importance of liberalisation of airwaves; as early as April 1974 they appointed a 16 member committee under the chairmanship of Lord Annan to consider the future of broadcasting in the UK. The report of the committee was submitted in March 1977 and its main recommendation on various aspects of broadcasting was that the programmes should create "insight and delight."
Apart from that the report also recommended that broadcasting should always adapt to social and technical changes, bearing in mind that the number of viewers and listeners was getting better educated, if a little bit older, all the time. This report fascinated African journalists who believed Africans interested in liberalisation of airwaves should study it.
The British are not the only people to have conducted research on the need to reform TV and radio communication systems. Many have done so with more or less similar results. Talking of communication researches brings to mind one of the most important to have been conducted about communication problems. I am, of course, referring to the UNESCO sponsored international commission on communication problems under the chairmanship of Sean MacBride, which was appointed in December 1977 to examine among others the totality of communication problems in the modern society.
The final report of the commission was published in June 1980 and covers the entire gamut of communication policies and operational systems. The MacBride report was thoroughly examined, and all the participants supported the following points:
Though the MacBride report did not restrict itself to broadcasting it made a number of interesting observations, which could benefit Africans while debating on the issue of liberalisation of airwaves. Among them is the fact that communication is a basic individual right, as well as a collective one required by all communities. Freedom of information - and more specifically the right to seek, impart and receive information - is a fundamental human right, says the report. The report singles out defence of human rights as one of the most vital tasks of communication.
MacBride also suggests that the diversity of choice in the context of communication should be a precondition of democratic participation. The development of decentralised and diversified media should provide larger opportunities for a real direct involvement of the people in the communication process.
The liberalisation of airwaves in Africa would have very little meaning to the people if it did not result in their total involvement in broadcasting activities. As MacBride puts it, the exclusion of the disadvantaged groups from normal communication channels should always be a major issue when people are defining their communication policy. In the case of Africa the majority of citizens were denied such elementary rights to communicate and the matter had to be taken as seriously as when a people are denied other human rights values such as freedom of assembly or expression.
Another important observation made during the discussions was that in Africa there were people with many languages and with many cultural streams intermingling with each other. Africans were also largely poor and illiterate. The audio and audio-visual media had therefore even more critical roles to play in African societies than in better placed ones.
To involve the people of Africa in broadcasting activities, steps needed to be taken to change the present monolithic image as the omnipotent and omniscient broadcaster. Among the first to change should be some of their boring programmes, especially news and current affairs. News and current affairs programming had come to be regarded as the true index of the quality of broadcasting as well as the touchstone for genuine autonomy of the professionals and the tone of a broadcasting organisation as a whole. The poverty of Africa's range of news and current affairs programmes indicated the low level of socio-political sensitivity of our broadcasters. The limits imposed on the content and style of their programmes clearly indicated the need for boosting the independence of the African journalist. The maturity and professional excellence of the cadres engaged in broadcast journalism could best be judged by their current affairs programmes. Complaints about current affairs programmes by the government-controlled broadcasters were justified because the people producing them seemed to have long abandoned the basic dictum of good journalism that views and news ought to be separated.
It may be true that the recent increase in numbers of opposition newspapers in the region has militated against the exclusion of their views in the mainstream newspapers, but the monopolistic situation of radio and TV renders the pro-government institutions vulnerable to charges of bias. The fact that Africans today can openly debate on the issue of liberalisation of airwaves means that we are now witnessing high expectations alternating with scepticism. Despite the debate, however, people cannot help being suspicious when promises for change in the electronic media are made. They still feel bluffed when proposals are officially made to enhance the credibility of public media.
There is a belief among members of African governments and the journalists who support them that an elected government has an inherent right to project its point of view and that the mandate bestowed by the people also includes projection of values accepted by the nation. It is my belief that this right is not superior to the right of the people to know and get an opportunity to make independent judgment on government actions, however buttressed by majority support. When I shared this belief with other African journalists it was received with overwhelming support.
No one could deny that any government had a major role to play in explaining to the people the reasons for its actions. The government could also have reasons to involve the people at large in governance of the nation through shared information. What the rulers of Africa often forgot was the vital fact that this right could not obliterate the right of the opposition to put across its points of view on issues and happenings in Africa. Fundamentally this should be beyond any argument because the people's right to be truthfully informed about both government activities and how the opposition view them is so vital that it would rank supreme.
An important related question was the ability of journalists to assume a responsible role of presenting facts and views with utmost objectivity and using the broadcast medium to good effect. The main problem of the African radio and TV reporter was that he or she was not generally allowed to function freely and in a professional manner. The people at Government Houses and indeed even State Houses have always wanted to manipulate the electronic media to serve their own political interest. They did not want radio and TV to cover anything about the dictators of Africa in a poor light. Needless to say this leads to a loss of credibility.
Unlike print media reporters, who were allowed a margin of independence in the interest of getting the exclusive stories, reporters at the government controlled African radio and television stations could not afford to ignore the powers that be. Hence they played safe and their coverage of news and current affairs became dull and handout based.
An important requirement of covering political controversy was balance and it was here that the reporters at African broadcasting stations ran into serious difficulties. They were rarely allowed to function in a free and fair manner. If they could be honest with you they would always tell you how their stories were constantly revised, rewritten, replaced or even killed at the insistence of an important person from any of the government ministries or party headquarters.
It was this sort of blatant interference in the functions of Africa's electronic media that now led to the demand for liberalisation of airwaves. The call to free the airwaves was seen as part of the democratisation process, which would allow new and probably more professional broadcasters to enter the sector and break the statutory monopoly enjoyed by those in political power. All these were important points for all the people of Africa to ponder because all the participants believed the restructuring of broadcasting should take place on a democratic basis and not over the heads of the people.
Perhaps one of the most important discussions we have had concerns the coverage of gender issues in the African press from the point of view of both the portrayal of the woman in society as well as her employment in the media industry. The discussions tried to answer questions of why certain gender taboo issues have not been given as much coverage as they deserved and why the woman was deliberately being left out even when covering issues affecting her life or her activities in life.
Gender as ethical issues
Throughout the discussions gender issues were perceived as an important element of human rights for women. Men could no longer be allowed to continue to succeed economically, politically and socially at the expense of leaving women far too behind and get away with it all by simply saying that behind every successful man was a woman. The woman today would rather not be behind anybody's success but her own. She wished some men took the trouble to be behind her success for a change. All she wanted, however, was to be at the same level of success with men because she knew it would take a long time before she was allowed to play the leading role. The time had, however, come when gender issues had to be openly discussed through the press even though, by and large, the mass media in Anglophone Africa remained men dominated.
From the beginning of the discussions, attended by a large number of female journalists from the region, it was accepted that in the past, indeed until very recently, gender issues were not regarded by journalists, including female journalists, as important enough to warrant front page treatment in newspapers or to run as first items in television or radio news bulletins. The reasons for that were many and complicated but the situation would never change unless every journalist conducted a thorough examination of what determined the subjects covered by journalists, who assigned them and who allocated the space or air time used by the stories once they were written. Needless to say everyone at the discussions also had to examine how the stories on gender issues were written before editors used them as "hard" news stories, features, news bulletins or film documentaries.
The discussions started by determining what gender issues were and how to go about making sure journalists in future did not ignore them. Women being part and parcel of humanity made it extremely difficult to distinguish which aspect of human existence needed to be highlighted so as to enable journalists to evaluate women's role in society and whether that role was being given its due respect and recognition. If journalists agreed that gender issues were basically human rights issues then it became less cumbersome to list aspects of life that tended to disfavour women or discriminate against them. In the African context the list can be very long.
Poverty among women
All participants agreed that though they were the most hard working group, women in Africa were not given a fair opportunity in either earning decent incomes or owning property. Despite the hard work, many of them appeared to be among the groups with lowest incomes. They were denied a fair opportunity to make a good income for themselves and were not given a fair chance to take part in making important economic decisions. There were few of them in the administration and even fewer in parliament, their large numbers as voters notwithstanding. A very small number of them were in African courts and in local governments. One never heard of their representation in big financial institutions.
For all these reasons it became impossible to see stories about women's poverty as such mainly because there were no women spokespersons specifically concerned about women's poverty. Journalists writing about economic issues or business stories hardly ever highlighted the mistreatment of women in the economic activities of Africa mainly because many of them were either not gender sensitive or they simply happened to be men writing about a male dominated affair. Business assignments specifically to cover the unfair imbalance against women were not made, hence business pages hardly ever carried stories about the mistreatment of women in this important sector of the continent's economy. Past mistakes, in the view of many participants, could only be corrected by sensitising present business writers to gender issues or better still making sure that women journalists held important positions in business sections of editorial departments.
Violence against women
According to research conducted by UNESCO, stories written in African newspapers depict men and women playing their traditional roles which associate men with strength, leadership, decision-making and independence and women with the very opposite of these characteristics. Hence journalists in Africa wrote hardly any stories about violence against women, mainly because male editors did not assign journalists to cover them or when they were written they were used on inside pages as fillers mainly because journalists were insensitive to gender issues and did not see them as "news."
This revelation made journalists at the workshops examine even more important aspects of gender issues in African journalism namely: Who should determine what is news in modern day journalism? Was it fair to continue to publish on front pages stories of male politicians calling each other all sorts of names day in and day out when women were being seriously injured by their husbands who thought they were only "disciplining" them by physically beating them up without a single world being written in African newspapers about these shameful activities?
Many male African journalists regard a husband’s causing serious bodily harm to his wife as simply a private domestic affair unworthy of any publicity. According to UNESCO only a small minority of women in Kenya were considered to be newsmakers; and the exclusion of women from the "news" was, of course, related to the definition of news which needed to be re-examined if gender issues were to get fair coverage in African newspapers, TV and radio stations.
The problem of lack of coverage of violence against women in Africa was caused by more or less the same insensitivity of male editors who assigned reporters to various jobs, or it was caused by absence of women journalists in decision-making positions in newspapers.
Poverty and violence against women were only two of many subjects that could occupy much more prominent positions in African newspaper pages as well as prime time TV and radio programmes. Other subjects ignored by either male journalists insensitive to gender issues or lack of female journalists to cover them included forced female mutilation; unfair opportunities in jobs, educational opportunities, etc; polygamy and forced early marriages; lack of legal awareness among women victimised by men; cultural and religious beliefs that tended to go against women's human rights; laws being used to subordinate women; health issues such as illegal abortions endangering women's lives and unequal partnership in marriages.
The traditional women's page
One of the biggest problems for women journalists - and the cause of lack of adequate gender sensitivity among most African journalists - had been caused, paradoxically, by the so-called women's pages, which had been responsible for the subjugation of female journalists at work and the reason for chasing stories of very little benefit to women readers.
The workshops were told that stories written by women journalists in Africa were mostly published on women's pages which were dull for the historical reason that these pages were started by female European journalists writing for European readers. They wrote about European fashions and trends with no African woman in mind. Though African women editors had taken over the publications of these pages, very little seemed to have changed in content, suggesting that every woman in Africa was preoccupied with Western oriented beauty and hair style, cooking and child-husband care.
Participants concluded that attempts must be made to restyle the traditional women's pages both in content and positioning in newspapers so as to give women journalists and indeed male journalists who believed in gender issues an opportunity to write about more important issues concerning the rights of women in society. In this day and age when both women and male journalists underwent the same training and had more or less the same academic qualifications it was foolhardily to ask women journalists to write for women's pages only and write about dull subjects such as hairstyles and the latest shoe fashions.
Possibly one of the strongest arguments against women's pages was the placement of news about women's issues on these pages, which told men that this was not their concern. The fact that no gender battle would ever be won without changing the attitude of men did not seem to concern those who were after the continuation of the present set up of separate pages for women. Female editors and reporters with the same qualifications as men were now taking a different view of women's pages and they demanded that sensitive gender issues should be given as much prominence in newspaper display as any other issue concerning men.
Thirty years ago when the women's pages were being written and edited by European female journalists, African women readers had a problem of dealing with the notion that black woman was "ugly." That, it was suggested, was the beginning of the use of wigs by black women who, trying to look as European as possible, did not care how ridiculous they appeared wearing blond wigs that actually did make them look ugly. Through women's pages the press in Africa played a highly significant role in promoting and selling the notion of the ugliness of African woman.
Women journalists in Africa would be doing a great professional job if they exposed that sector of cosmetic industry in Africa that was entirely dependent upon the pursuit of European beauty by black women. It has made certain entrepreneurs in cosmetics and wigs millionaires. Yet any serious campaign against commercial products which tended to demean the African women were likely to face very serious opposition from powerful groups of advertisers who were likely to get the backing of newspaper owners. This was despite the fact that a number of advertisements published in African newspapers continued to expose African women to a feminine model whose psychological, physical and material characteristics were derived from a Western system of cultural values which attempted to make them look like European women.
Negative media treatment of women
Either because of ignorance on how to deal with gender issues or because of the absence of women in important positions in newspaper decision- making jobs, journalism in Africa can correctly be criticised for continued under-representation of women in the hard news columns of newspapers and news bulletins of the continent's radio and television.
Apart from under-representation of women in the news presentation in Africa there has also been a noticeable ambivalent attitude to women in the news which is evident in certain stereotyped images in which women are either "good" and "pure" or "bad" and "immoral." Generally speaking this image of women comes across in stories in newspapers or even book fiction and indeed plays shown on our TV screens. The "good" women are those who are confined in homes taking care of their families and are
dependent on men while they show romantic attitudes towards their husbands. The inferior status of women in social, economic and cultural spheres comes out as accepted norms in both fictional characters and actual newsmakers.
Generally speaking women in Africa mostly make news as wives, mothers or daughters of men already in the news. They hardly ever make news in their own right unless, of course, they happen to be part of the man-run or man-benefiting fashionable activities or man-benefiting entertainment business. And the advertising that goes with these fashionable and entertainment activities is usually extremely condescending both in tone and its unhidden manipulative intentions. The misuse of women as the "bait" through which to sell various products need not be emphasised.
If the portrayal aspect of the issue looks hopelessly bad, then that of employment can be said to be equally impoverished as the participation of women in media production is still very wanting in Africa.
The workshops acknowledged the fact that apart from being numerically fewer than men, employed women journalists found it extremely difficult to climb to editorship or other important positions in the editorial departments of newspapers and other media organisations.
The workshops acknowledged that the morale of women journalists was constantly being affected by the attitude of editors towards day-to-day news decisions about what to cover and how to cover it. Women journalists were sent to uninteresting assignments because it was assumed that they could not handle aggressive sources of news.
Because of the equality in educational background of almost all journalists in Anglophone Africa today and the fact that the majority of them go through the same training, it was extremely unfair to insist on giving assignments based on gender even though those assignments had nothing to do with gender issues.
© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
at 4:34 PM ·
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