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May 18, 2005

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An African Al-Jazeera?

Philip Fiske de Gouveia

Executive Summary

Good governance is universally acknowledged as a crucial precursor for development in Africa. Free and effective media play a vital role in improving that governance.

African countries need effective media because they cannot hope to democratise, prosper, or engage with the rest of the world as equals otherwise. Yet in Africa the development of a pluralistic print and broadcast media has been fitful. As a consequence, the African media have struggled to make positive contributions to the political, economic and social needs of the continent. An indigenous pan-African broadcaster could help to redress this quickly, yet to date such a project has received scant attention from policymakers and stakeholders. It may be the case that country-specific aid planning has been an obstacle in this regard.

Africa will continue to need an effective pluralist media embodying a wide variety of forms, content, and funding models, and operating at local, national and regional levels. Stakeholders and donors should continue to support the development of such a diverse and fragmented media, especially through support for journalist training schools and media research facilities.

At the same time, African stakeholders should now also look to establish a multi-lingual, independent, pan-African broadcaster. This paper argues that such an entity would do much to improve the continent’s political and economic landscape in the medium-to-long term. Lessons can be learned from the experience of the Arab satellite television news channel Al-Jazeera. This station, which only began broadcasting in 1996, has already had a real impact, for example, in improving transparency and accountability across the Middle East. As a consequence state media, which have previously tended towards uncritical ‘protocol news’, are now being forced to improve their own coverage.

It seems probable that a pan-African broadcaster would have similar consequences. Previously secretive governments would be forced to become more transparent and open. Intra-continental understanding – and consequent political and economic contact – would increase. It also seems likely, for example, that a pan-African broadcaster would help build solidarity between North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Opportunities for factional media to incite violence, for example, as in Rwanda in 1994 would be more easily limited. Media which act as an alternative to established western broadcasters, and better present Africa to itself, will improve the continent’s ‘self-confidence’. Such media also help educate viewers and listeners about the workings of democracy, or health issues such as HIV/AIDS. A pan-African broadcaster which reaches out to the diaspora, as Al-Jazeera has, would also have positive economic and cultural influences, inviting greater participation from Africans outside the continent.

A pan-African broadcaster would also compliment, not undermine, UK public diplomacy efforts. The creation of successful indigenous media which advocate transparency and good governance in Africa is in the UK’s political and economic interest. As Africans turn from traditional transnational sources of news like the BBC World Service to indigenous local and national media, as they will, it is important that impartial, independent media sources are available. A pan-African broadcaster would help meet that need. It would be short-sighted for UK policymakers to ignore the prospective mutual benefits of such a broadcaster. UK involvement in the establishment of, or support for, such a broadcaster would also do much to project a positive image of Britain in the region.

In this context, the following UK-specific policy actions are recommended:

1) The UK government, as 2005 chair of the G8 and holder of the EU presidency, and in partnership with key stakeholders in Africa and the EU, should move to establish an effective, independent pan-African broadcaster;

2) The UK government should announce funding for a series of feasibility studies. A working group should simultaneously be established (with a majority African element) to address issues such as language, choice of media, technology, programming, location and balance between regional and sub regional content;

3) The UK government should convene a small conference of key stakeholders, including African private sector interests and media NGOs, to draw up a plan of action.

A variety of stakeholders have developed specialised research in the field of media development – and a number of African and non-African organisations are working to create more effective media in Africa. These include the South Africa National Editors Forum (SANEF), the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the BBC World Service Trust, the Department for International Development (DfID), the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and Article 19. Other initiatives, such as the Africa Together Vision (ATV) project, are already investigating the feasibility of a pan-African television station. The UK government should engage the expertise of these organisations, and other stakeholders, in establishing an independent pan-African broadcaster. Lessons should also be drawn from the experience of other transnational broadcasters such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC World Service, particularly the latter’s multi-lingual, multi-media output.

At a cost of around £1 million, a series of UK-sponsored working groups, and a small conference, would comprehensively examine both the feasibility and design of an indigenous pan-African broadcaster. Ultimately, such a broadcaster could be established at a cost of around £70 million per year, over a five year period. This presents an affordable and constructive opportunity for the UK, in partnership with stakeholders from Africa and the EU, to make a major contribution to African development. African governments, donors, and non-state actors (including private sector interests) can and should work towards establishing such a broadcaster as part of a pluralist, continent-wide media.

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