11 May 2021 Africa’s information flows still suffer from global competition
The debate to end all debates ended with the promulgation of the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), but like the African traditional hearth the embers linger on half a century later. The world should have been flat today with information flow from all directions. But it is not. Africa, the globe’s least industrialized continent is still a net recipient of information from the industrialized North – the injury that NWICO was to cure.
The needle has hardly moved: the African continent still stands at the point where the debate started even as the world transitioned through various stages of information evolution. How Africa is viewed in the world is still framed through the information-rich nations’ lenses (Africa no Filter, 2021). We explore below, 50 years after the commissioning of the MacBride report, if the 1976 UNESCO conference in Nairobi were to be held again, whether the discourse would be any different.
Nordenstreng observes that although the debate was heated in the mid-1970s, the global information flow discussion and its implications on world relations had been going on for decades. “The roots of the debate … can be traced as far back as the pre-war League of Nations … Tens of … pieces of international law existed by the late 1970s, including 44 standard-setting instruments with more or less direct reference to the performance of the mass media” (Nordenstreng, 2010: 2). But these instruments had no effect on the imbalance in information flow. As the debate raged at the United Nation’s Assembly, African leaders had been equally seized of the matter. Much of the debate in Africa took place within the Organization of African Union (OAU) summits and across African capitals.
There were few pan-Africanists more passionate about the continent than the founding president of Ghana, Kwameh Nkurumah. He envisaged an Africa “free in the fullest sense, of a continent holding itself politically sovereign, ordering its economic destiny, and achieving its own cultural and spiritual personality” (Eko, 2001: 365). But there were stumbling blocks on the way. Africa might be what she is: rich in natural resources, in flora and fauna and in cultures. However, the framework for assigning value to these resources has never been in Africa’s control. A newly independent continent, (Ghana, the first country to gain independence did so in 1957, with the others following in short order), Africa’s voice at the global level was muted.
Half a century ago, the concern of the South was that the information market was dominated by merchants from the North; among them Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, and UPI. They streamed their content to the South and dominated coverage of the South and disseminating it to the rest of the world. The world saw Africa and Africa saw the world through the prism of these players. The direction of information flow was one concern, the other was the content transmitted; it was a concern about both the quality and quantity of information.
Much of the content framed the South in stereotypical images that either conflated Africans with African flora and fauna or presented such flora and fauna as symbolization of the continent. The allegiance of African leaders was divided, and they seldom spoke with one voice. The continent depended on aid and had no influence over any transnational media. “Primarily the nations of the South, which included all countries of African continent, wanted a radical overhaul of the … international communication system. They wanted the world communication system to reflect the diversity and equality of all human races” (Ojo, 2002: 3). The framing of Africa in the international media was not flattering to many African observers.
Exploitative and distorted view
Thussu (2005: 48) notes that through their control of major international information channels, the western media gave an exploitative and distorted view of developing countries. He has analyzed the failings as:
- Owing to the socio-technological imbalance there was a one-way flow information from the “centre” to the “periphery”, which created a wide gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”;
- The information-rich were in the position to dictate terms to the information poor, thus creating a structure of dependency with widespread economic, political and social ramifications for the poor societies;
- This vertical flow (as opposed to a desirable horizontal flow of global information) was dominated by the Western based transnational corporations;
- Information was treated by transnational media as a “commodity” and subjected to the rules of the market;
- The entire information and communication order was a part of and in turn propped up international inequality that created and sustained mechanism of neo-colonialism.
Then Tunisian Information Minister, Mustapha Masmoudi, was a leading voice of the discontented South. Masmoudi, Thussu notes, argued that there was:
“A flagrant quantitative imbalance between North and South created by the volume of news and information emanating from the developed world and intended for the developing countries and the volume of the flow in the opposite direction… gross inequalities also existed between developed and developing countries in the distribution of the radio-frequency spectrum, as well as in the traffic of television programmes. He saw ‘a defacto hegemony and a will to dominate’ – evident in the marked indifference of the media in the developed countries, particularly in the West, to the problems, concerns and aspirations of the developing countries. Current events in the developing countries were reported to the world via the transnational media; at the same time, these countries were kept ‘informed’ of what was happening abroad through the same channels. According to Masmoudi, ‘by transmitting to developing countries only news processed by them, that is, news which they have filtered, cut, and distorted, the transnational media imposed their own way of seeing the world upon the developing countries’” (Thussu, 2005: 49).
The MacBride Commission “was established to study four main aspects of global communication: … state of world communication; the problems surrounding a free and balanced flow of information; and how the needs of developing countries link with the flow; how, in light of the NIEO [New International Economic Order], a NWICO could be created and how the media could become the vehicle for enlightening public opinion about world problems” (Thussu, 2005: 50).
The obstacles placed in the path of the NWICO report have been documented. They include opposition by the western media, by western governments, the structure of the debate itself, the form of the report, and even the lack of capacity in the South to step up to the plate. There were efforts in Africa, even if feeble, to right the wrongs. Such efforts predate the NWICO. The challenges of Africa were many. Western nations were economically powerful and owned the media of communication. “80 per cent of the international news that flow through the newsroom across the globe came from the four major news agencies – Reuters, Agence France-Presse, United Press International and the Associated Press – and international cable news networks – CNN and BBC. Of this, about 20 per cent [of the content] is devoted to developing counties, which count for almost three-quarters of the world population” (Ojo, 2002: 1). The report had “called for the democratization of the media and equal access to information” (Scher, 2010: 198). Ojo (2002: 6) concluded that “the NWICO debate was a failure,” as this could hardly be done.
Still there were efforts at correcting this situation, which included the setting of media exchange centres to encourage intracontinental and intercontinental communication. Among these were plans for the exchange of films, radio and television programs, and finally establishing a pan-continental news agency. Unfortunately, these efforts – some spearheaded by the OAU, later African Union (AU) – either collapsed along the way or have not scored the kind of success expected, maybe with the exception of the film sector. The film sector efforts, however, had preceded the NWICO.
The Carthage Film Festival was the first exhibition, started in 1965 and launched a year later; it intended to counter the negative and stereotypical images of Africans in movies. It was initially held in Tunisia every two years to alternate with another African film festival, FESPACO, but has since gone annual bringing together film makers from Africa and the Arab world. The other initiative was the inter-African cultural revival and exchange program, Festival Pan-Africain du Cinéma de Ouagadougou, (FESPACO) formed in 1972 (Eko, 2001: 368).
FESPACO, like the Carthage Festival, remains one of the success stories of celebrating African films. FESPACO was later recognized and institutionalized by the government of Burkina Faso and remains a premier event of international stature. These cases of partnership in the area of film, however successful they may be, are the exceptions. Their prestige on the global stage is relatively limited against the stated goal of presenting an authentic face of Africa when compared with the other major global film festivals.
Besides films the other areas of collaboration were in radio and television program exchanges and news distribution. Eko posits that
“Television and Radio program exchange in Africa is one of the most concrete forms of Pan-African cultural cooperation. This exchange takes several forms. They include informal station to station deals, formal bilateral cooperation agreements between African counties and their television stations, and exchanges among countries in a specific region or linguistic grouping of the continent” (Eko, 2001: 370).
The African ministers of information agreed to set up these exchange programs to help stem the imbalance. The Union of National Radio and Television Organizations, URTNA, was founded for the purpose of promoting the exchange of programs among African radio and television stations. The radio programs’ exchange function was headquartered in Dakar, Senegal; while the television program exchange was located in Nairobi, Kenya. For a range of reasons, some similar to what bedeviled the Pan African News Agency (PANA), the dream of URTNA fizzled out midstream. The majority of their programs were rejected due to technical quality reasons, whereas a significant number did not pass the political and religious test (Eko, 2001: 375)
The Pan African News Agency (PANA)
PANA was set up on 20 July 1979 with lofty dreams by the African ministers for information to essentially compete with the established global media merchants, and to provide an alternative framing of news. Cavanagh (1989: 355) observes that, “Pana’s mandate was to correct ‘the distorted picture of Africa, its countries and peoples resulting from partial and negative information published by foreign press agencies’, and to assist ‘in the liberation struggles of peoples against colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, apartheid, racism, Zionism, and all other forms of exploitation and oppression’”.
PANA was headquartered in Dakar, Senegal, to collect information from across the continent and transmit to the rest of the world – Africa’s answer to the then big four. But its problems were created even before its offices were set up. The agency, as per its founding statute, was to disseminate the stories without so much as editing them. Many African countries applied a political rather than news prism to frame and submit stories, then sent copies to PANA long after the events had occurred, copies that were of little news value.
Furthermore, the stories were written to reflect the state of origin’s position. In a word, the stories were no more than public relations materials for African governments. Even African countries were hardly using copies from PANA. Cavanagh (1989: 353) reports that in a 1985 survey by Frank Ugboajah, PANA-originated stories accounted for a meagre nine per cent of all agency supplied copy carried in Nigerian media. Nearly a decade after NWICO, western agencies still supplied between 60 and 70 per cent of news carried in Nigerian media.
Communication among African countries was never easy. Messages across African borders would have to be transmitted through their former colonial capitals making the process both expensive and time consuming. While African governments set up PANA with fanfare, they were less enthusiastic about supporting it. Few paid their subscriptions. At one time, out of the then 49 members of OAU, only eight were up to date with their subscriptions. There were other problems such as corruption and misappropriation of resources that further reduced PANA’s viability.
NWICO had little impact on Africa. The direction of information traffic did not change both in terms of quantity or quality. Africa No Filter (2021), reports that “the sources for news gathering on African countries are problematic, the resulting content continues to feed old stereotypes, and often the quality of local journalism doesn’t allow for nuanced and contextualized storytelling that is critical for telling stories about the 54 countries in Africa. In summary:
“Many countries did not feature at all in the media of other African countries … conflicts and disputes under topics such as elections, politics, crime, … and protests not only predominate, but are also considered more newsworthy by editors… They cited scarce resources as the biggest challenge to cover Africa more extensively…. recognized the need for more nuanced coverage, but the available funding dictated that they use stories by western agencies, which often are in line with the expectations of western audiences, to cover stories from Africa. … agencies account for almost half (43%) of the stories about African countries in the media review. Only 19% of the agency stories in the sample size were from agencies based in Africa. This means that it is often non-Africans who set the agenda or offer perspectives on African affairs and events” (Africa no Filter, 2021: 3).
The picture in Africa is still grim. Half a century after NWICO, the MacBride Commission’s report has not made a mark in the continent. Few among African journalists would know what NWICO was about. The number of major global agencies providing stories in Africa may have gone down, but there is a surge in global competition for the African audience pie. Today, nearly every major global television network such as BBC, CNN, CGTN, CNBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, France 24 has programs dedicated to covering Africa and largely from their point of view. Most have multiple programs on Africa (Ndlovu, 2020). Unlike fifty years ago when there was a heated debate regarding the information flow, today that debate is muted, if it is there at all.
Africa no Filter. (2021, February 1). How African Media Covers Africa. Retrieved from Africa no Filter: http://bit.ly/AfricaNoFilter.
Cavanagh, K. (1989). Freeing the Pan-African News Agency. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 27(2), 353-365.
Eko, L. (2001). Steps Toward Pan-African Exchange: Translation and Distribution of Television Programs Across Africa’s Linguistic Regions. Journal of Black Studies, 31(3), 365-379.
Ndlovu, M. (2020). The Future of African Regional (News) Media. Johannesbourg: Unpublished Report.
Nordenstreng, K. (2010, January 27-29). University of Tampere. Retrieved from University of Tampere: http://www.uta.fi/jour/english/contact/nordenstreng_eng.html
Ojo, T. (2002). Post-NWICO Debate: Image of Africa in the Western Media. Cambridge, MA: : MIT.
Scher, P. W. (2010). UNESCO Conventions and Culture as a Resource. Journal of Folklore Research, 47(1-2), 187-202.
Thussu, D. K. (2005). From MacBride to Murdoch: The Marketisation of Global Communication. The Public, 12(3), 47-60.
Levi Obonyo is Dean, School of Communication, Coordinator, PhD in Communication, and Associate Professor of Media and Communication at Daystar University, Nairobi, Kenya. He holds a PhD in Communication and Media Studies from Temple University, Philadelphia, USA. Prior to that he completed a postgraduate Diploma in Tertiary Education at Potchefstroomse Universiteit vir Christelike hoer Onderwys, MA in Communication from Wheaton Graduate School and BA in Communication from Messiah College. He is a past Chairman of the Media Council of Kenya and a former member of Communication Appeals Tribunal. Currently, he is a member of the Board of the Communications Authority of Kenya. His publications include: Obonyo, L. & Erneo Nyakundi. (2011), Journalists and the rule of law. Nairobi: ICJ