Journalism, journalists and media in West Africa

Capture023By Gbanabom Hallowell

Because all of West Africa share common political and social challenges, it is possible, to a large extent, to generalize the operations of the West African media.  Ghana and Nigeria for instance have provided many interregional training for a good number of West African journalists; as well, there is a growing cross-media employment network among West African media.  At least two Nigerian-owned newspapers operate in Sierra Leone; a dozen Sierra Leonean journalists live and work in the Gambia; Ghanaian columnists contribute to the Nigerian and Sierra Leonean media; and several West African media pull their stories from all around West Africa.  And although it is easy to determine that the media organization of one West African country is more advanced than another, yet the socio-political challenges facing the media in Guinea are not, for instance, different from those inundating the Nigerian media.

In determining which media among television, radio and print, have the highest presence, it is easy to say the radio, since many more people, all over West Africa, in urban as well as in rural communities, listen to the radio than read the newspaper or watch television—a large chunk of radio programs are not only done in local languages, but are equally free to access; however, politically speaking, the print media not only have ubiquitous presence, but also the tendency to create a legacy of information of affairs as conducted especially by political leaders for posterity to judge and for the wider international community to peruse.  So, in equal terms, the radio and the print media have the highest presences.  The arrival of the Internet and its several uses as media outlet has added more challenges to the democratic and human rights processes in West Africa.

Media landscape in West Africa faces challenge
The West African media are therefore equally inundated with challenges.  As political West Africa is transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, Journalists are expected to operate in an increasingly democratic and secured atmosphere, while exhibiting a high degree of professionalism in their reporting.  But this picture is not always so rosy everywhere in West Africa.  In many cases, if it is not the journalist abusing the profession, it is the authority abusing the journalist.  In March 2009, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) met in Accra, Ghana to discuss legal national and regional mechanisms they want to put in place to protect the media from political repression.  The meeting established that:

Many of the West African countries have repressive and unlawful legislation on media and freedom of expression. They are used by governments to silence journalists and citizens. Several journalists are jailed for defamation, false news, sedition and offence against the head of state among others.[i]

Open to this organization are the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the newly established African Court of Justice and Human Rights based in Tanzania.  True to MFWA’s resolve, the organization has recently sued the Gambian Government in the ECOWAS court, for the repression of the Gambian media, in what has been widely considered an unlawful jailing and torturing of Musa Saidykhan, a Gambian journalist with The Independent, newspaper in March of 2009[ii]. 

However, in addition to political repression, there are religious and cultural repressions as well, which are not usually given equal weights, but in many instances, can be more harmful to journalists, as in the case of Isioma Daniel, a Nigerian journalist in the This Day newspaper, who in 2002 dared to make a general comment about the prophet Mohamed, whom she said would probably have chosen a wife from among an expected group of beauty pageants for the first time contesting in Nigeria for the beauty of the universe award.  Instantly, Nigeria was gripped by a religious anger as Moslems and Christians engaged in a fratricidal conflict.  Daniel herself later described events that followed her going into hiding:

When I browsed through the Google news site I read the fatwa by the Zamfara state government through their spokesperson, Mamuda Aliyu Shinkaf. “Like Salman Rushdie, the blood of Isioma Daniel can be shed. It is abiding on all Muslims wherever they are to consider the killing of the writer as a religious duty.” I felt calm. It was then I realised that there was no going back to Nigeria. This was no longer a lie-low-until-it-all-blows-over-then-you-can-come-back scenario. Two hundred people dead; in the name of religion.[iii]

A second abuse I noted is that done by people in the media, whom much has been said about not always acting professionally, thus, not only endangering their own lives, but allowing others to cast aspersion on the profession of journalism.  Wherever in West Africa, governments and ordinary citizens have continually complained that the media have been acting recklessly—flouting the ethics of the profession, or not doing their homework well before disseminating news—and that in the process, decent people and institutions are regularly maligned.  In many instances, the international media, like the BBC, are considered more credible than are their West African counterparts.

Need for journalism training
It is important then that we say a word or two about human rights reporting in West Africa.  There are several reasons for which it is important that the West African media both increases and monitors human rights reporting.  Among the reasons are that (1) most of West Africa is experiencing transitioning democracies, therefore, the media constantly need to be vigilant in reporting the processes of democratization, (2) and, tied to it is the fact that much of West Africa depends on donor funding, to be used for the common good.  Are there issues of social justice both in terms of equity distribution and issues of corruption in the use of these funds and other national opportunities?  Through a journalism of civic, political, and socio-economic rights, the media are able to document and evaluate human rights performance.

Given that in all of West Africa and even beyond, the process of becoming a media professional is very relaxed both legally and professionally, there are many a time when, at least, one in every three reporters needs extensive training in understanding content materials, human rights and responsibilities, and the ethics of the profession.  And although there are growing numbers of media departments in West African universities, yet they do not usually provide the practical needs of practicing journalists who sometimes don’t have the requirements to enroll in such schools.  At times even, the professors at these universities have not themselves first been practicing journalists, thus ensuring only a heavy dose of theoretic disciplinary schooling for those who go through these media schools, and who eventually aim for high paying UN and other attractive places.

The backbone of journalism is the reporter.  In West Africa, many of those who become reporters are high school graduates or dropouts, with only the ability to construct ‘immediate’ sentences here and there.  It is these people that the bulk of the media training has to attract.  As investigative journalism has begun experiencing discourses in West Africa, both because repressive governments and citizens accuse people in the media of not digging too deep to be too sure of what they write about, and because the reporters themselves complain about legally impeded access to information, and about investigative reporting being expensive, the need for further and continuous on-the-ground training cannot be overemphasized.

[i] Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)’s network of lawyers meets in Accra.  March 31, 2009. (retrieved September 2, 2009).

[ii] Press Statement: ECOWAS Court dismisses Gambian government objection.  June 30, 2009. (retrieved September 2, 2009).

[iii] Daniel, Isioma, “I Lit the Match” in The Guardian.  Monday February 17, 2003. (retrieved September 2, 2009).

Capture GbanabomGbanabom Hallowell is the D.G. (Director General) Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) – Africa’s second public broadcaster. Founder and Executive Director, Save Heritage and Rehabilitate the Environment (SHARE). He has over twenty years experience in the media. Writer, Poet, Musician, Activist, Lecturer and Political Commentator. Author of Drumbeats of War (poems), My Immigrant Blood (poems), and Manscape of the Sierra: New & Collected Poems 1991-2011 and Leoneanthology: Contemporary Short Stories & Poems From Sierra Leone, The Dinning Table.

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