Last week, I introduced an Afrobarometer survey report in this column which showed that supporters of media freedom in Africa are outnumbered by those who want governments, in effect, to control or even censor the media.
This is the first time since the research group began tracking media freedom trends in Africa that the tables have turned. Now, the report shows that in 25 out of 31 countries surveyed, support for media freedom has declined. In Ghana, 57 per cent of respondents say they want the government to control the media.
These have serious implications not only for the media but for the entire governance systems in Africa. Since the 1980s, democracy has been the rallying cry of Africans who have sought to escape from military and strongman dictatorships that ruled in most African countries.
Central to that agitation was press freedom. Studies have shown that monopoly of media resources by governments have been one of the major causes of violent conflicts, including civil wars in Africa.
The UNESCO Conference on Independent and Pluralistic Media in Africa held in Windhoek in 1991, which produced the famous Windhoek Declaration, was itself a product of the agitation for democracy and governance reforms in Africa.
All over the world, one of the main indices for measuring democracy and/or good governance is the freedom of the media. On the other hand, authoritarian rule has as one of its main characteristics state monopoly of the media and suppression of freedom of speech.
Are we to accept that in the third decade of democratic reforms in many African countries the people are rejecting democracy in favour of authoritarian rule?
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It is difficult to see any circumstances under which citizens of African countries would willingly return to dictatorship and military rule if they have a choice. However, in essence, this is what the report is saying. So what is going on?
Failure of democracy?
The first situation that comes to mind is that democracy itself has failed the majority of Africans, if we accept that democracy and media freedom are inseparable concomitants of each other.
A key phrase of the struggle for democracy in the 1970s and 80s in Ghana and elsewhere was “democratic dividend”, by this, it was hoped and widely expected that democracy would yield more than elections, parliament and the other trappings of good governance.
We expected democracy to lead to more equality, less corruption, better management of the environment and good government.
Today, the reality is different. By every index, corruption has soared, very soon we will be observing the 40th anniversary of the June 4 Uprising. An inevitable question would be: if people were executed for corruption, what do we have now? There is now more inequality than we ever had in this country.
It is no better in other African countries. People now even speak with fondness of the bad old times recalling the discipline and order of life under dictatorships. Is it any wonder that they would also recall the time of government control of the media with nostalgia?
Who owns the media?
One of the key features in pre-democracy governance was the almost complete government monopoly of the media. In Ghana, broadcasting was owned and controlled by the government and run as subsidiary arms of the Ministry of Information.
In Ghana, the Constitution has seemingly divested the government of its direct interests in the running of the media but this is not as complete as the Constitution envisaged.
Some of us have argued that the very presence of the Ministry of Information means that the government apparatus for controlling the media is intact and has to find useful work to do!
The 1992 Constitution opened the door for private ownership of broadcasting and other media and the result has been overwhelming and perhaps not was expected.
Media ownership has severely undermined the independence of the media to a point where the concept itself is meaningless in practice. In broadcasting, especially radio, owners have invested purely and narrowly for their specific interests.
Owners are typically politicians, preachers or manufacturers who want to sell their products directly to the public. It would be difficult to find any one among them who is an avid supporter of media freedom, especially, politician media owners have shown that they are incapable of placing the national interest before their sectarian political interests.
It appears to me that far from Africans getting tired of media freedom, it is the media that has mishandled its freedom. This is what happens when freedom comes without responsibility.
What we need to do is to create a media governance architecture that guides the conduct of the media in the direction of the public interest. Ultimately, the diffusion of information and media outputs in popular and democratic outlets, including social media places the responsibility on every citizen to ensure that the media and media institutions work in the public interest.