– by Hendrik Bussiek * (article available in this week’s Mail & Guardian)
Public broadcasting has a lot of friends in the world today – though they do not always seem to be loving quite the same thing and certainly not for the same reasons.
(Almost) every national broadcaster in Africa now lays claim to the PBS title, proudly calling itself a ‘public broadcasting service’, regardless of how it is run or constituted. There are obviously a lot of myths and misperceptions around what is basically a simple and straightforward concept: a broadcaster that serves the public as a whole and is accountable to the public as a whole.
Clearing up some of these misunderstandings and assessing the real status of public broadcasting in Africa is one of the purposes of a comprehensive survey currently undertaken by the Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP) of the Open Society Foundation – the first such survey on the continent. Researchers in 12 carefully selected countries (Benin, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe) are presently busy collecting and collating information on regulation, ownership, access and performance as well as prospects of reform of broadcasting in Africa. Field workers are interviewing representative samples of listeners and viewers to assess their use of media in general and opinions on broadcasting in particular – another first in most of the countries under review.
The study starts from the premise that development and democracy cannot thrive without open and free public space where all issues concerning people’s lives can be aired and debated and which gives them room and opportunity to participate in decision making. Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen describes democracy as “governance by dialogue” and broadcasters are ideally placed to facilitate this dialogue by providing the space for it – if their services are accessible, independent, credible and open to the full spectrum of diverse views.
The key objective of the survey, therefore, is to assess whether and to what extent the various forms of broadcasting are able to create such a public space, with special attention given to those services which call themselves ‘public’.
While the study may be unprecedented in its scope and depth, it does feed into ongoing discussions among broadcasters, civil society and politicians on the nature and mandate of genuine public broadcasting. At least on paper there is already broad consensus on the need for state broadcasters to be transformed into truly public broadcasting services. The AU’s African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights says in its 2002 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa that “state and government controlled broadcasters should be transformed into public service broadcasters accountable to the public”. This African document serves as one of the major benchmarks in the AfriMAP survey (see box below).
Most countries in Africa still have a long way to go towards the realisation of the ideal of a truly public broadcaster. But the process is gathering speed – not just because progressive forces in civil society and among law makers are pushing for it. Already even staunch defenders of state broadcasting are reluctantly learning the lesson that their impact and influence is on the wane: with more and more other sources of information at their disposal, people are not easily fooled any longer by blatant propaganda or content with government using the airwaves purportedly to ‘inform’ its citizens while in fact crowding out almost all other information or points of view.
The survey’s ultimate goal, then, is to provide facts, figures and informed assessments on where broadcasting in Africa stands between “His Master’s Voice” of old and the envisaged public broadcasting service of the future. These data can then be used as a sound basis for the friends of public broadcasting to conduct and intensify their advocacy work, both among decision makers and civil society as a whole. To assist in these efforts, National Fora will be held in all participating countries to discuss the results of the survey and explore avenues and strategies for possible reform.
First results will be available from September 2008 on www.afrimap.org
* Hendrik Bussiek is the editor-in-chief of AfriMAP’s Survey on Public Broadcasting in Africa