Sometimes, in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where there is conflict, the guns will be quieter at certain times of the evening – when the BBC news comes on the radio.
This is what BBC Africa editor Solomon Mugera has been told. “Everyone wants to hear the news. And maybe some of (the fighters) have been interviewed that day,” Mugera says.
What this anecdote says is that Africans, like anyone else, like to see themselves and their interests represented in their media. And thanks to rapid economic growth and the concomitant improvement in infrastructure, African stories are now being told more widely and with more depth.
“There’s a rapidly growing awareness that people need to report Africa at every level. Access has really opened up and this makes it much easier, especially when it comes to TV,” says BBC Africa bureau chief Peter Burdin. He reported on the 1994 democratic elections in South Africa and recalls how the international journalists were dependent on the SABC studios at Auckland Park. “Now we just go to our TV room and we’re on air. We can do it from street level,” he says.
Better technology means a more nuanced story. “There’s a great desire to tell the African story properly. Before, we only had the resources to report local news, which in Africa’s case meant negative news. Now we can present a much more accurate, rounded idea of what’s happening,” Burdin adds.
And who better to tell that story than Africans themselves, says Mugera. This is why the BBC last year launched a TV brand extension of its radio show Focus on Africa. The show has ‘quadrupled’ the number of stories they can send from Africa, says Burdin. Focus on Africa has proved very popular, says Mugera. The BBC don’t have any verified figures yet, but even countries like Cameroon and Burkina Faso, where English is not widely spoken, have asked for the service.
The BBC is established in Africa, with over 40 correspondents and four bureaux on the continent. But they aren’t the only international players here. CNN has three dedicated Africa programmes, including the award-winning Inside Africa. Al Jazeera produces the groundbreaking investigative show Africa Investigates. And China Central Television (CCTV), China’s state broadcaster, embarked on an aggressive global expansion campaign in 2011 and launched news channel CCTV Africa, based in Nairobi.
And then there are Africa’s own homegrown media moguls. South Africa’s Koos Bekker, group CEO of Naspers, remains by far the wealthiest. And his media multinational’s print division, Media24, is Africa’s leading publishing group – though its footprint outside of SA is still relatively shallow.
“We launched a few magazine titles in the rest of the continent a few years ago, but withdrew given the distribution – and print infrastructure. That being said, we believe this market will still develop and continue to explore opportunities, as they arise,” says Media 24 CEO Esmaré Weideman.
“Two of our magazine titles, DRUM and TRUE LOVE, are operated under licence in Kenya. Kickoff’s web- and mobi sites also have a significant following on the rest of the continent. SoccerLaduma, the biggest weekly paper in South Africa, also has a presence outside the borders. On the digital side, News24 launched in Kenya and Nigeria last year and is gaining promising traction.”
On the rest of the continent, Nairobi and Lagos seem to lead in terms of quality and innovation. Major players include Nation Media Group (NMG), which has interests in newspapers, television and radio stations and a significant presence in East and Central Africa. NMG was started by Muslim holy man the Aga Khan IV in 1959. Its flagship newspaper, Daily Nation, is Kenya’s biggest. Kenya is also home to Royal Media Services (RMS) and Capital Media. RMS has an extensive radio network and produce Citizen TV, Kenya’s fastest growing TV station, which broadcasts in English, Swahili and other local languages. Mugera, who is Kenyan, says they are very popular because they realised that what Kenyans wanted was Kenyan content “and they went flat out to provide that content”.
Lagos and Abuja are home to major network bureaux, as well as a thriving film and TV industry, known as Nollywood. And Nigeria has one of the most influential newspapers in Africa, ThisDay, which made an ill-fated foray into South Africa in 2004. Charismatic ThisDay founder Nduka Obaigbena recently revealed plans to launch an international TV news station this year.
South Africa remains a leader in the media on the continent, but the products of these media groups (mentioned above) are gaining in innovation and quality. Says Weideman: “These and numerous other brands are definitely up there with South African media brands. There are, of course, also numerous examples of innovation in the internet space in Africa and the rise of the African tech-hub boom is helping to establish new brands to be reckoned with.”
Africans have embraced mobile technology and there are now more mobile subscribers in Africa than in the United States or the European Union. Burdin says social networks are now crucial to the BBC’s relationship with its audience – and to how media is no longer always the voice of authority. “We need to be linked up to Facebook so we can pose questions and solicit case histories – like, have you been the victim of a con artist? It’s an intimate, close relationship with the audience, a partnership. Everyone with a Twitter account is a journalist now and the days of the broadcaster telling you what to think are over.”
Even so, there are still a mere 15 million Africans with internet access. Radio remains the most prevalent medium on a still largely rural continent. The BBC alone reckons on an audience of 80 million across all its radio services. The SABC’s Ukhozi FM claims to be the biggest station in Africa, with a listenership of 6 798 000 (RAMS, December 2012). Mugera says of his native Kenya, “In 1998 when I joined the BBC, you could count the number of FM stations in the capital – and in many capitals of Africa – on one hand. In the early 1990s to the mid-1990s, the number of stations exploded. It remains the key mode of broadcasting in Africa.”
Yet, despite all this liberalisation and increased connectivity, there are still grave challenges to media freedom in Africa. Somalia last year was one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, and 49 journalists have been killed there since 1992. South African media tend to criticise the government for threats against media freedom, but this country is still a beacon of hope to the rest of the continent, says William Bird, head of NGO Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), which conducts media freedom-related projects all over the continent.
Bird says that active censorship is a problem, particularly in the form of insult laws. Apart from danger to life and limb that governments pose to journalists, one or two defamation suits can result in the closing down of an underfunded newspaper, even if it wins the case.
“At any one time, the Mail & Guardian is facing about 12 different lawsuits. But they have backers who understand what they’re trying to achieve. Media in other countries and even little media in South Africa don’t have those deep pockets,” says Bird.
It’s not always a problem of direct censorship, either. “Journalists are badly paid and don’t have their own cars. Newspapers can’t afford to run cars. So when government calls you up and says: ‘We will take you to this event and pay for you and feed you’, of course you will take them up on this offer. And this compromises your independence,” says Bird. Brown envelope journalism is often the norm in many parts of Africa, he adds.
The vital role of social media during the Arab Spring has been much commented on and debated. Similarly, in Mozambique, social media were used to organise food riots that broke out there in 2010. The government appealed to cellphone networks to cut their services and the two networks (one of which was Vodacom) capitulated, blocking all text message communication. Says Bird: “(Social media) is not outside of government control. But it’s important. All over Africa there are brave and frankly crazy journalists all finding ways to tell their stories.”
News about Africa made in Africa is becoming more important to the rest of the globe, as the world looks for investment opportunities in rapidly emerging markets. Foreign interests are increasing, along with European immigration, after the financial crisis. The African story is one of “vibrancy, youth and humanity”, as Burdin puts it, and the successful media players will be those who can tell it well and on multiple platforms.
Image: BBC Focus on Africa host, Komla Dumor