The continent has plenty of problems, but desire for media isn't one of them.

"Africans are the least-served people in the world in terms of the circulation of information. This continent exhibits a mass media that is everywhere limited in terms of quantity and also, sometimes, quality," says Professor Guy Berger, who heads the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa. He sees this as a major handicap to the evolution of an information society.

Berger is quick to point out that Africa, with its 54 countries, is not all the same, but says it's essential to increase media density in Africa to advance democracy and development.

It would be a mistake to believe the predominant global misperception of Africa as a hopeless continent with fewer success stories than failures, including its press. Yet, media in Africa is largely the product of colonialism. Broadcasting has continued to be a reliable instrument of propaganda, first used by colonial rulers and later by independent African governments that came to power. Newspapers have provided some exceptions.

As African countries attained independence in the late 1950s and '60s, this didn't herald media freedom. Most countries on the continent were independent by the time the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was formed in 1963, but many were under military dictatorships or one-party rule, and others were at war. And like the colonial rulers who preceded them, new African governments continued to dominate the media. Where the private press survived, it did so precariously.

"I wanted to tell the African story from within to the world beyond," said Sorious Samura, a Sierra Leonean journalist and filmmaker now living in London. The media in his home country was weak, and the people were dependent on international media such as the BBC and CNN. This was one of the predominant concepts of a group of southern African journalists meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1990, including me, who realized how little African people knew about one another in comparison to what they knew about the rest of the world.

The group, mostly journalists who were later characterized as the "guerrilla typewriters," the forerunners of independent media in several sub-Saharan countries, hailed from, among others, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi, Botswana and Tanzania. They went on to found the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) in 1991 to fight for and strengthen the democratization of the region. Journalists in other African regions followed suit.

The Windhoek Declaration - the 1991 UNESCO resolution, written at a U.N. conference in Namibia, that declared a free and independent press essential to democracy - marked the end of one era. Slowly, African governments began to commit themselves to the principles of press freedom, and these were affirmed in the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights in 2002 and later the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, which recognized freedom of expression and information as a fundamental human right. An achievement, indeed. But one which was hard-fought and barely won. Even today, many governments pay lip service only to these commitments, and the fight for press freedom has far to go in several countries.

Many obstacles remain on the road to building a stronger, more independent and sustainable African media. And if, as Kwame Nkrumah said in 1957, "the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa," so, too, is the freedom of the media unless it is extended to all, not some, African countries. It's no surprise that the most glaring example in southern Africa is Zimbabwe, where an independent press is regarded as anathema, and untenable conditions make it impossible for any but the state-sponsored media to operate in such conditions.

Print appears to have pride of place, being mainly in the forefront of change in African media.

Radio is the most accessible and the most consumed media, and state ownership continues to dominate this field. Attempts to open up broadcasting across the continent have met with varying success. Community radio has grown, but it is vulnerable and often unsustainable. Major growth has come about in commercial radio, particularly in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the increase from eight to 150 stations can be attributed to free elections. In Senegal, economic changes, which have brought about a liberal broadcast policy and investment, have been key to growth.

Television access remains limited, and penetration in sub-Saharan Africa has been slow. But there are discrepancies: From 2 percent of the population in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, figures rise as high as an estimated 76 percent in Mozambique. The expense of television is inhibiting, as is high-priced electricity and running costs. Satellite TV recently brought an influx of foreign channels.

Probably the company with the biggest African footprint and most successful pay-TV business is South Africa-based MultiChoice. It started from small beginnings to launch one of the first pay-TV channels outside the United States in 1986, and its analog subscription-based service has penetrated 20 African countries. Although television remains elitist, MultiChoice, through its DStv, makes a promise to "enrich lives" in its mission statement. "It can happen anywhere. In a city. In a remote village. To millions of people. To one person. To someone we don't know. To someone we work with. To the fortunate. To the less fortunate," says the company, which acquires channels from local, African and international suppliers and then packages them for the continent.

In the fight for freedom in Africa, the "one man, one vote" call was a rallying cry for self-determination. And now most Africans have a cell phone, but the digital divide itself is hardly narrowing. In 2004 the World Summit on the Information Society reported that Africa has the highest ratio of mobile phone users to total phone users of any world region; out of 100 million phone subscribers, 76 million are mobile subscribers. A PANOS report in 2003 put African Internet access at less than 1 percent of the total population (6 Internet users per 1,000 in Kenya), and although this rather gloomy picture has improved in recent years, and the number of people who use the Internet has grown across all countries, the anticipated new media growth is mobile phone technology.

Probably one of the strengths of new media technology in Africa is that unpleasant truths hard to tell back home can more easily be communicated abroad than before, as in the recent Kenyan upheavals, for example, when bloggers kept the world informed of what was happening.

Take the recent elections run-off in Zimbabwe, when President Robert Mugabe barred access to most of the world's media. New information technologies played a role in getting information to the outside world. Governments find it easier to ban newspapers and close down television stations than shut off Internet access.

The role of media practitioners themselves is absolutely key in forging a future for African media in which people can be informed by a multiplicity of sources of news and information - most important, independent media - sources that contribute to better understanding as well as democratic choices.

But independent media organizations remain vulnerable, sandwiched between state-owned media and bigger corporate entities, especially in countries such as South Africa and Nigeria. It remains an irony that in countries where issues of public priority often languish for lack of government funding, there always appears to be a budget for bankrupt state media mostly representing "the master's voice."

While Africa still has its journalist martyrs, largely gone are the "guerrilla typewriters" of the '80s. The director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Kaitira Kandjii, describes African journalists largely as "passive." On a continent plagued by unemployment and scant job access, many "regard journalism as work that puts bread on the table. In the past, journalists saw their work as a calling and a duty. The spirit of activism is dead among the new generation, [who] would not be prepared to go to jail to attain freedom."

Skills and training remain one of the greatest challenges in the media industry, according to research done by the South African National Editors' Forum. The "fear factor," too, cannot be underestimated, and among many journalists, especially those in the employ of state media, there remains a tendency toward self-censorship and a reluctance to irritate the authorities with what is perceived by government as "negative" reporting. Critical and independent media practitioners are often equated with a lack of patriotism.

Africa does need to seek innovative ways and means of developing quality and pluralism and sustainability in the media. In this regard the weaknesses and strengths of the various sectors need to be taken into account. Mobile phone technology would seem the most obvious choice, although not necessarily the best one. Its impact, though, cannot be ignored, and this is a trend that is likely to increase with more affordable devices and wider mobile phone coverage by telecommunications companies. Radio remains vital and accessible to a majority. The ways and means to sustain smaller private networks, to counteract state control on the one hand and commercial stations on the other, must be found in order to bring more choices to Africans.

Print media is limited by a lack of a reading culture, and transportation to remote and rural parts, and yet where there is a vibrant selection of print media, it continues to be the main source of quality news, and is never far from the probing eye of governments. Although its impact is spare, it is still intense, particularly in regard to democratic accountability. Strengthening this is a priority for the strengthening of civil society.

In a paper presented on Annual Press Freedom Day at a UNESCO conference in Belgrade in 2002, I wrote: "The landscape of formerly nondemocratic societies the world over is littered with the skeletons of once brave media initiatives which were unable to withstand the might of state power during conflict, or which failed to win the battle for sustainability once peaceful transition had begun."

As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in 2000: "In the aftermath of conflict, a free and independent press offers a way out of mistrust and fear into an environment where true dialogue is possible, because people can think for themselves and base their opinions on facts."

The potential for media growth on the African continent is enormous, and there is little doubt that foreign-based media empires will soon begin forays into various countries and muscle out local competitors. For African media organizations themselves, the challenge will lie in owning and managing quality media, and in "telling our own story," rather than relying on outside interests to do it for us. African media professionals need to get their act together to do this sooner rather than later.

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