Civil societies, institutions, media houses and journalists in West Africa are vigorously striving to renew and enforce conducive spheres for media practitioners and media houses to secure freedom of expression, access to information, democracy and good governance in the sub region through media excellence.
It is in this guise that The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) organised an event to promote media professionalism, reward and inspire media excellence in West Africa on the 27 and 28 of October, 2017.
The MFWA event dubbed The West African Media Excellence Conference and Awards (WAMECA) brought together journalists, media houses, and experts in the fields of freedom of expression, media and development, editors, academicians, MFWA local and national partners as well as other high profile personalities from governments, embassies, corporate bodies and civil society organisations.
The event which was also graced by the presence of the Gambian Minister for Information – Hon. Demba Ali Jawo and his Ghanaian counterpart – Hon. Mustapha Abdul – Hamid, Minister for Information and other dignitaries paved the way for gurus in the media industry to brainstorm on issues affecting journalists and the entire industry for a way forward.
This work will examine some of the challenges plaguing media professionalism as highlighted by seasoned media practitioners and experts during the MFWA’s WAMECA and how these issues can be resolved to establish purposeful and impact oriented journalism in West Africa and possibly the whole of African.
Major issues confronting the media landscape in West Africa
Insecurity surrounding journalism practice. Journalists in the sub region face enormous challenges which affect their performance. Prominent of these challenges is the fragile state of the security of journalists. The sub region just like other regions in Africa has recorded many cases of aggression, violence and even murder of journalists. The fear of being murdered like some of their colleagues or being targeted weakens the ability of journalists in the region to effectively carry out their activities. Even though not many or alarming recent cases of journalists killed have been registered for over a considerable period in the sub region, vivid images of the fate of journalists who were killed or tortured are still very sharp for journalists to ignore. Some of these cases include; Nobert Zongo in Ouagadougou – Burkina Faso, Eberimah Manneh of Gambia and a handful of others.
Abandonment of journalistic ethics and values: Journalists have gradually abandoned the tradition of investigations to publishing unverified information from social media and other unprofessional and contestable sources. The use of information from the social media for reporting without thorough investigation discredits journalists and media houses. The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that most journalists have forgone the ethics of the profession and clinch to blogging and issuing of alerts rather than undertaking the thorough research and investigative procedure before publication; which has in turn negatively played down on the industry. This is gradually building up to doubts and distrust of information from journalists and rather pushing readers to turn to patronising information from social media platforms and other sources; after all what difference does it make? Noted some readers.
Effects of impunity on journalism practice: Many journalists go through a lot of intimidation and threats from individuals and statesmen cloaked with impunity. This includes politicians and tradition rulers who often persecute journalists and prevent them from accessing information and end up scot-free. For instance a traditional ruler in Ghana forced a journalists to kneel under the sun for about four hours for reporting on some irregularities the former was part. Such humiliating and dehumanising circumstances pose as impediments to journalists on the field. However, “journalists are too powerful and too loud for state actors to ignore’’ stated Muheeb Saeed – Programme Officer of the MFWA.
Influence of politicians: The act of relying on politicians for funding and other support is gradually ruining the media industry in West Africa. Journalists who rely on politicians end up compromising the quality and content of information they publish; thus rendering journalistic works fragile and contestable. It is obvious that Journalists report on every aspect of the society including politics but then they must shun reliance on politicians so as to uphold journalistic values and ethics to avoid damaging and discrediting the noble profession. Even though politicians seem to exert a lot of influence on journalists, there still exist a good number of journalists in the sub region who do well to sustain the standards of the metier.
Misunderstandings and internal conflicts between journalists: Sometimes journalists and media houses fight each other to a point where their ability to function as a group for the achievement of shared values and common goals is shattered. This in itself plays negatively on their individual security and weakens solidarity that can help propel a collative fight for the protection of their rights and other demands of the industry.
The impact of resurgent political crisis on journalism in West Africa: The sub region like most African regional blocks is often plagues by deadly political and constitutional manifestations. During such period, journalists in the course of doing their work end up trading their security or being targeted by individuals or groups of persons. In addition, journalists in such countries are unable to effectively and efficiently play their role to shape good governance and democracy through development reporting due to frequent attacks and aggression from security forces who with orders from higher authorities do not want the media to cover such happenings. This is in a bid to conceal evidences. The recent cases of confiscation of recording materials and brutality from security forces on journalists in Togo, Gambia, and Burkina Faso were cited as typical examples of typical challenges journalists are subjected to in such environments.
The wake of the social media: Recent trends and dynamics of the social media such as Facebook and twitter platforms are exerting negative influence and pose great threats to journalistic practice and the entire professional communications industry. The social media which has the propensity to spread information faster than journalists who require much time to investigate and verify sources before publishing, reduces the anxiety of readers to go for professional journalistic publications. This affects journalism in that before journalists could publish their statements or articles, almost everyone in the community already got the information (sometimes diluted and porous). This reduces patronage, hampers achievement of desired impacts and financial gains for the industry.
Inadequate branding and identification materials for journalists: It was also observed that most media houses these days ignore the significant role branding and identification materials play in facilitating the work and security of journalists on the field. Most often, journalists present themselves to events without any sign or proof that they are journalists or from a media house. This exposes them to attacks as aggressors perceive them to be some individual who might not be working in their interest on the field. Sometimes they are denied access to information or event venues for lack of substantial proof that they are journalists. Non adherence to media professionalism and ethics highly endangers journalists. Some cases of aggression and violation of the rights of journalists cannot be taken up by organisations such as the Media Foundation because at most times the journalists concern are at fault in one way or the other. Doing the right thing will ensure the security and defence of journalists whenever they experience any form of attack.
Existence of many less techno savvy journalists: Still within the scope of the social media and recent technological developments related to communication, it is so unfortunate and frightening to note that at this present age, many journalists in West Africa are completely in the dark when it comes to recent dynamics in the communication industry. Many journalists do not have a single social media account and are not in the know of what transpires on such platforms whereas it indirectly or directly affects their work. How can the media and journalists in particular combat the negative influence the social media is posing on the industry if they are not conversant with happenings on such platforms or versed with current technological trends that can improve their performance?
It is very true that the social media is plagued by credibility issues, fake news and professional journalists are not expected to function in that light but there is need to be familiar with recent communication technologies that could help promote the industry and facilitate the work of journalists. Media practitioners should bear in mind that technology advances faster than they ever imagine as such they must endeavor to be in the loop at all times.
Double standard nature of journalistic publications: Another canker that plagues the communication industry and journalism is the publication of lies and fake propaganda by some workers in the industry. Journalists nowadays are capable of taking time to put up as much as four pages of lies and fake information to the general public. Some journalists go as far as falsely accusing and tarnishing the reputation of individuals which might never or not easily repaired. This malpractice has gone a long way to raise and fortify the issue of the credibility of information journalist publish, damaging the practice and drastically reducing patronage. In this light, the Ghana Minister for information, Hon. Mustapha Abdul-Hamid emphasised that journalists should make sure that the information they send out is credible and well verified so as to avoid using a pen within a few minutes to damage someone’s reputation that might be very difficult to redress.
Recurrent Internet blackout: African governments have recently resorted to blocking the internet or rendering the service ineffective during crisis and manifestations to prevent freedom of expression and access to information. The West African sub region is not an exception to this hazardous violation of the peoples’ rights to express themselves or access information. Such infringement on these basic human rights has been recorded in some West African countries such as Togo during the 2017 political and constitutional crises. Although this is not aimed at targeting journalist’s in particular, it directly affects the activities and performance of journalists and the communication industry
Mitigating challenges and curbing excesses within the media industry in West Africa.
Fund raising to finance the activities of journalists: As earlier mentioned, the inability of journalists to fund their initiatives negatively plays down on their output in the industry. They either rely on politicians and end up compromising journalism ethics or delay in publishing information unlike the social media or publish less investigated information. To address these issues, journalists are encouraged to work hard and devise means and ways of acquiring money for their reportage and other activities. The availability of funds will also enable them do their work effectively and get well investigated information out fast enough to match the pace at which social media users do.
Social media friendly and techno savvy journalists: Journalists need to engage and interact on social media platforms. There is urgent need for journalists to make good use of social media platforms to get the populace access information they publish as most people have turn to rely on social media platforms for news and happenings than listening to the radio or watching news on television. Journalists should be very versed with recent technology – programmes and gadgets to meet up with the changing trends in the communication industry.
Exhibition of professionalism and respect for the stipulations of constitutions on journalism: Adherence to media professionalism and ethics will keep journalists out of trouble. This will pave the way for defence systems for journalists in cases of aggression. Proper branding and identification of journalists on duty is very important as it assures their security. Journalists can only avoid branded materials and identification when reporting on dangerous and other sensitive issues that may result to harm on their part.
Effective cross border collaboration: Challenges confronting journalists in the sub region are common and so media houses should create solid networks across borders and work together to protect themselves and promote effective journalism. Journalists in West Africa should unite and collaborate to fight for their rights and security. For example if there is a story that can jeopardize the security of a journalists in his or her country, the story can be sent to journalists in other countries for publication. The publication of that information in another country will end up reaching its target readers, create the required impact and results in that country and the entire region.
Avoidance of statements and publications that can fuel violence: In as much as governments and organisations such as the Media Foundation are fighting for the rights and security of Journalists, media practitioners should avoid instigating violence, falsehood, hate speeches and character defamation etc through their publications. The deployment of this tactic will only end up frustrating the campaign to protect journalists and promote freedom of expression and access to information. “Journalists should learn not to abuse the freedom of expression and security they are clamouring for by doing whatever they want and how they want’’ echoed the Ghana Minister for information. They should always remind themselves of the ethics of the field. He added that West African states are and will definitely continue to initiate and implement measures to protect the media industry but journalists should not causes leaders to question their credibility.
The footprints of Gambia and Ghana: The Gambian Minister for information stated that his country and ministry in particular is currently working with the ministry of justice to establish media reforms in favour of journalists and freedom of expression and access to information. He also indicated that his ministry is building a strong media family that will ensure the security of journalists in Gambia. Other countries in the sub region such as Ghana are also working hard to protect journalists and ensure freedom of expression and access to information. These initiatives he added will hopefully encourage other African countries within the sub region to follow suit to revitalise the industry.
Exchanges and working visits: In a bid to avoid journalists being targeted for reporting on sensitive issues or covering manifestations and other violent incidences, Journalists from other countries could travel to countries in crisis to assist in reporting on the situation although their security must be taken in to consideration. This way, the security of journalists in the crisis infested country will be safe from attacks and aggression during and after the incident.
It is worth noting that even though this work is based on journalism practice in West Africa, the challenges confronting the media landscape in Africa cuts across the entire African continent. Hence, well-coordinated and concerted efforts are needed to revitalise, promote and project the media and journalists in Africa for the industry to assert its indispensable role in development, democracy and good governance in Africa.