PoliticsNews & AnalysisAfrica's media wars: Ideals, deals and money behind the scoops


Posted on Thursday, 08 November 2012 12:15

Africa's media wars: Ideals, deals and money behind the scoops

Journalists, politicians and business fight for control of Africa's information industry. Changes in new and old media alike are bringing the news to Africa's citizens in different formats, while publishers battle state secrecy laws and political pressure.

African journalists are caught in a fire fight at a time of unpreced- ented social and economic change. On the one hand, governments, ruling parties, plutocrats and public relations hit men for big business are determined to protect their interests, if not their reputations, and stamp their version of events on history.

On the other, Africa's audience – radio listeners, television watchers, newspaper readers and internet users – is growing exponentially. This young audience is hungry for independent and reliable information.

It is much harder to steal an election today, thanks to text messaging and FM radio; or to spill hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil, thanks to internet-savvy activists who can get photographs online within minutes. Media proprietors are asking different questions about the new technology, such as how to make money distributing their news on mobile phones.

This makes the job of journalists more exciting and important, but most of the media houses are failing to live up to the challenge and invest in resources and training programmes. There are more privately owned newspapers, radio and television stations than ever but most of their journalists lack the resources or time to take on big investigative stories.

Pockets of excellence

There are notable exceptions such as Ghana's Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who has run pioneering stories on civil service corruption and labour abuses in undercover investigations.

There is Ethiopia's Eskinder Nega's investigative reporting that landed him in jail. They are both members of the South African-based Forum for African Investigative Reporters, which is hunting for funds and gets little backing from the continent's over-cautious media proprietors.

The proprietors' calculus is simple: strong reporting on corruption and human rights abuses is expensive and makes enemies in government and big business. So why bother?

State broadcasters and newspapers are still seen by politicians as part of the government propaganda machine. In July, Zambia's President Michael Sata – a longtime critic of biased state media – pledged to keep financing the troubled state newspapers and broadcasting corporation.

Some post-Arab-spring governments in North Africa are unwilling to embrace the free expression that helped open the way for competitive elections. In Tunisia the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists raised alarms about the appointment of Lotfi Touati, a former police commissioner who is close to the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, as head of the Dar Assabah media house in August.

Friends in high places

Journalists have already accused Touati of censoring reports that criticised his nomination. Protests against proposals to make blasphemy a criminal offence forced Ennahda to drop the plan in October.

Islamist regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan have cracked down hard on independent journalism. In North Africa, the new Islamist regimes in Egypt and Tunisia may find it harder to abolish the freedoms that people seized from the previous secular dictatorships.

Governments can influence the media by restricting access to officials and cutting official advertising. In Nigeria, Nduka Obaigbena's This Day group is the market leader for extracting advertising from federal and state governments, closely followed by the Aboderin family's The Punch group, the Ibru family's The Guardian and veteran journalist Sam Amuka's The Vanguard.

It's a bizarre coincidence that three of the top five newspaper groups in Nigeria are owned by proprietors from the Niger Delta who take a fairly generous view of the performance of Nigeria's first president from the Delta.

There is talk of Obaigbena starting a television network to compete with the independent and critical Channels TV. Undoubtedly, Obaigbena – the nearest thing Africa has to Rupert Murdoch in terms of ambition and ruthlessness – can expect enthusiastic support from government advertising.

South Africa – where Obaigbena launched and briefly ran one of the best daily newspapers in the country before hitting commercial problems – now has four dedicated investigative reporting teams: at Sunday Times, City Press, the Mail & Guardian and Media24Investigations (m24i), which works across the Media24 group's titles. Adriaan Basson, assistant editor at City Press, which broke the 'Nkandlagate' scandal in October over an estimated R200m ($23m) of public money spent on upgrades to Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma's homestead in KwaZulu-Natal, says there is a growing appetite for investigative journalism in South Africa. "Publishers, especially newspaper publishers, have seen the value of owning and breaking these stories, having your publication's name attached to big exposés."

But Basson warns against growing threats in South Africa, where the Protection of State Information Bill, known as the 'Secrecy Bill,' was passed by parliament in November 2011. Parliamentarians have made nearly 200 amendments to the bill, but if passed by the upper house it would give the security minister sweeping powers to classify information.

After City Press published a report on state funding for Nkandla, publics works minister Thulas Nxesi said he would investigate the source of the leaked information, which Basson says was already in the public domain.

"After 1994, we've seen an opening of governance and access to state information, which wasn't there during apartheid. We don't want to go back there," he says. There are growing complaints to the intelligence ombudsman about monitoring of journalists, says Basson.

Some African journalists come under direct physical threat. Somalia has proved the deadliest place for journalists in 2012: ten of the 48 journalists killed so far this year were in Somalia.

Despite the likes of Cape Verde, Niger, Tanzania and Ghana – which ranked above the USA in the Reporters Without Borders media freedom barometer – most African governments continue to harass and jail troublesome journalists.


"African governments don't see journalism as an important partner in state building and nation building. They see journalism as an enemy of the state," says Trevor Ncube, whose media stable includes South Africa's Mail & Guardian and Zimbabwe's Newsday. Ncube says there is a tendency...

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