Ethics, media literacy and audience engagement in Africa 
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Ethics, media literacy and audience engagement in Africa 

Herman Wasserman

The contemporary media landscape in Africa is characterised simultaneously by disruptions brought about by new digital technologies, such as shifting journalistic practices and media consumer habits and preferences, and structural limitations and pressures on the media that often have a much longer history. This confluence of a rapid media development on the one hand, and the persistence of older legacies on the other, poses challenges for ethics, media literacy and audience engagement on the continent.

It is important, however, that these different tensions are navigated, as a free, independent and robust media on the continent is increasingly important as a bulwark against authoritarian creep, disinformation and populist polarisation. On the African continent, democratisation has often taken the form of cycles which includes democratic regression and lapses to authoritarianism, or the combination of different forms of government resulting in a hybrid system of governance, rather than a linear path leading to the inevitable end goal of a Western-style liberal democracy. The result has often been hybrid regimes where democratic institutions and procedures combined with continued authoritarian tendencies in government.

When considering the role of a democratic media on the continent, it is assumed that such media would not only be free and independent, but also ethical. Since the wave of democratisation that has swept the continent in the 1990s, there have been substantial efforts to set up structures and processes to ensure the accountability of African media. Media councils have been established in several countries across the continent, some of them more self-regulatory and professionally-minded than others, which instead took the form of statutory councils. These councils play an important role to administer media ethical codes on the continent. While codes provide important guidelines to journalists to make ethical decisions, these codes also have an important function of establishing relations of trust between the media and audiences. Media ethical codes send a signal to the public that journalists take their ethical responsibilities seriously and are willing to defend their ethical choices publicly.

While media ethical codes, working optimally within systems of self-regulation, can provide support for media to assert their independence against government interference in editorial processes, media ethics can also be contested terrain, where the media and government are at loggerheads about what the ideal role for the media should be in African societies – for instance, should the media take on the role of watchdog, as in established democracies, where the monitorial function over power is the media’s first and foremost responsibility, or should it play a more “developmental” role, as a collaborative partner to support government in attaining its social development goals?

How should the African media incorporate cultural values such as the communitarian principle of ubuntu, or Francis Kasoma’s notion of Afriethics into its normative frameworks? Can African media subscribe to global media ethical frameworks, or should it follow contextually specific guidelines? These issues have not only been vehemently debated in media ethical scholarship over the years, but also have real implications for journalism practice and policymaking.

The idea of “media accountability” is also sometimes used as an excuse for governments to repress or control media which are critical of them. This repression takes place by means of enacting insult laws or criminalizing criticism of government officials. Journalists are still imprisoned in African countries under this form of libel legislation, despite condemnation by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) in the form of the “Table Mountain Declaration” issued in 2007 to call for the abolition of insult laws. In Rwanda, the government of president Paul Kagame has outlawed any reference to ethnicity in an attempt to defuse any lingering tensions between Hutus and Tutsis that might be fomented through ethnic stereotyping. While ostensibly aimed at avoiding conflict and ensuring that journalism serves peace-building, this ruling has strengthened the positions of those in power and has led to the closure of several Rwandan newspapers and the imprisonment of journalists in that country.

Increasingly, governments are also using the threat of disinformation to suppress media freedom. They do this through an increasing array of “fake new”’ laws, which in countries like Benin and Burkina Faso carry prison sentences or heavy fines. In this regard, we see how African governments’ relationship with media and freedom of expression still shows similarities with authoritarian tendencies that go back to post-colonial times, even if this authoritarianism now presents itself in the guise of a policy response to new digital threats of disinformation.

Formal and informal practices

Digital technologies have however also facilitated greater participation of African audiences in ensuring media accountability. These practices are in line with similar trends internationally. With the rise of new digital technologies that make greater participation by audiences possible, new, more informal ways of keeping media to account have been emerging. These include peripheral journalistic actors such as media bloggers that use online platforms to critique media. A well-known example of this practice is the Kenyan online community Kenyans on Twitter, or #KOT, which have on occasion criticised global media outlets such as CNN for misrepresenting their country. Another well-established online site for media criticism, commentary and debate, is the website Africa is a Country, which works to present a fuller picture of the continent’s culture, politics and media.

Despite the widespread existence of formal and informal accountability measures as outlined above, ethical lapses sometimes occur among African media, that erode the public’s trust and provides ammunition to governments that seek to find ways to criticise the media. An example of this is the serious ethical crises that have dogged South African media in recent years. One of the country’s major newspapers, the Sunday Times, suffered a blow to its credibility when it transpired that it published false stories which were planted by factions within the ruling party which were intent on undermining state institutions such as the Revenue Service. Although the newspaper apologized, the country’s body of editors, the South African National Editors’ Forum, commissioned a report by a retired judge, Kathleen Satchwell, to head an independent investigation into the state of media ethics in the country.

Just like media ethics and accountability has become more open and participatory in Africa as a result of the increasing access and availability of digital technologies, there have also been attempts to empower African audiences to acquire the skills to counter disinformation. Media and information literacy has been a part of academic curricula from primary to tertiary education in many parts of the world, some African countries. More recently, the rise of misinformation on the continent has emphasised the importance of including misinformation literacy skills in such curricula. Misinformation literacy skills include being able to differentiate between different types of inaccurate content in the media, employing a range of strategies to authenticate content found online, or using technology to verify the accuracy of images and videos.

In many African countries, where there is low trust in media, governments, and public institutions, one of the challenges is how to raise critical awareness of misinformation among young people, while resisting a tendency towards general cynicism and mistrust in the media. In these efforts to create more critical awareness of, and engagement with, media and information, it remains important that the particular African contexts within which (mis)information circulates, are taken seriously. Media literacy campaigns which are imported from elsewhere, without due attention to the specifics of African audience needs, their particular motivations for misinformation and the challenges attendant upon media literacy campaigns – such as long-standing social inequalities, gendered hierarchies and unequal access to digital media – are set to fail.

Both in the area of media ethics and misinformation literacy, it is important that African media users are engaged not as passive recipients of information, but as active agents in the public sphere. This public sphere is characterised by continued structural inequalities and power relations that have their roots in the continent’s colonial and postcolonial history, but increasingly have to navigate a rapidly changing digital media landscape. In this digital landscape, audiences are simultaneously interpellated as media users operating within the structural constraints of global technology platforms, while positioned as subjects within local political, social and economic power relations.

African media users have demonstrated creativity, conviviality and criticality when navigating the dual imperatives of asserting their voices within global digital spaces on the one hand and the structural, historical and political factors in African localities. On the terrain of ethics, resistance to disinformation and countering global stereotypes, African audiences are actively reconstructing narratives about the continent and speaking back to global centres of cultural production.

References

Fengler, S. (2012). From Media Self-Regulation to ‘Crowd-Criticism: Media Accountability in the Digital Age. Central European Journal of Communication 5(2): 175-189

Kruger, F. (2009). Media Courts of Honour: Self-Regulatory Councils in Southern Africa and Elsewhere. Research Report. Windhoek: Fesmedia

Voltmer, K. (2013). The Media in Transitional Democracies. Cambridge: Polity.

Wasserman, H. (2022). South Africa: Media accountability in a young democracy. In: Fengler, S.; T. Eberwein; M. Karmasin; S.Barthel (Eds.) Global Handbook on Media Accountability. London: Routledge, pp. 345-353

Herman Wasserman is Professor of Journalism and Chair of the Department of Journalism at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.  He earned his doctorate from Stellenbosch University and worked as a journalist before starting his academic career. He has taught at the universities of Newcastle and Sheffield (UK), Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town, and has been a visiting professor at the universities of Houston, Munich and Tsinghua.

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