While independent journalists are bastions in support of good government, “independence” is not always an available choice. In Nigeria, for example, in a highly competitive job market that underpays and has little respect for journalists, many sway their coverage according to explicit and implicit political pressures and are sometimes expected to take bribes. One member of the media explained it this way:
“If there’s a cholera outbreak from contaminated water sources and the Ministry of Water Resources is doing an event, reporters will cover the event and not bother about the cholera outbreak itself. This is not because they don’t care; [editorial choices] have mostly become economic decisions. The Ministry will pay for the event to be covered, that is how the system works. You aren’t supposed to pay for news but you can pay to make news.”
In a media landscape like this one, where economic and editorial decisions are in conflict, international donors can provide vital financial support to independent media organizations, empowering them to hold governments accountable. But as my team at Reboot detailed in a report published this summer, providing strategic support requires a holistic approach, beyond program funding.
Because of its flourishing media ecosystem, Nigeria is a powerful regional case study for how funders might take such an approach. Even though Nigeria formally ended state-owned media monopolies when it deregulated broadcasting in 1992, the government maintains informal control of the news through political patronage, corrupt practices, and direct threats and violence. This is true both at the federal level as well as subnational; state and local governments, to varying degrees, use these tools to bend media coverage.
Examples can be found across West Africa, such as in Ghana, where we learned that the practice of purchasing coverage is so widespread it has entered common parlance under the word “soli,” or solidarity money. In this landscape, independent media struggles to be truly independent.
Nevertheless, the rise of the digital age is democratizing coverage control in West Africa. Citizens are breaking news and analyzing stories through social media. Their voices are transforming media—upending the traditional media models and inspiring new ones—and demanding that media uncover corruption and hold leaders accountable. This citizen-powered media landscape has in turn pushed the government to become more responsive to public discourse, potentially driving more citizen engagement.