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Fragile States, Fractured Media Systems: Double Trouble?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Happily, improving the lot of fragile states (no matter how they are defined) is an item that keeps racing up the agenda of international development. Sadly, however, when there is so much to repair to be done it is not always clear where to start. Donors bring their own priorities; experts have their own preferences. A new policy brief published by BBC Media Action, the international development arm of the BBC that focuses on improving media systems in developing countries, makes the case for fixing broken media systems in fragile states. Entitled Fragile States: the role of media and communication, the report is the work of James Deane, a well-known expert in the field. The report can be downloaded here.

I believe that the work is an important contribution to the policy debate. In what follows, I offer a quick sense of the argument.

Why media matters in fragile states

  • Media systems can help create or help undermine sustainable political settlements in fragile states.
  • Specifically, the media can either intensify or help to transcend the dangerous politics of identity.

Top media sector trends in fragile states

  • The sector is expanding rapidly everywhere.
  • Access to satellite TV and mobile phones is growing substantially, with potentially transformational impact.
  • Yet media systems are fragmenting, and media markets are fracturing, often reflecting the fractured state of politics in these political communities. Every group in contestation with others wants its own megaphone.
  • The youth in these states are committing to ICTs and social media in a massive way, thus changing media consumption patterns.

The case studies

  • The media of Afghanistan and the challenges of transition.
  • The media of Somalia: a force for moderation?
  • Media and elections in Kenya
  • The media of Iraq: 10 years on

All the case studies are illuminating.

How do you build shared identity in fragile states?

For me, this is the heart of the matter. There are three suggestions in the policy brief, all based on lessons from what is happening on the ground:

  • UN sponsored radio stations in several fragile states have shown the value of non-partisan discussion forums.
  • Public service broadcasting, that is one that is independent of the state, can be a powerful tool of nation building –this is the BBC model --- if contextual factors cooperate. Unfortunately, that is a big if.
  • National public conversations built through partnerships with and among local broadcasters have also been known to generate positive effects; again, this is if domestic political realities permit.

The big, unanswered question that the brief ends with is: when will the international donor community step up support for creating the right media systems in fragile states?
 
The answer is, sadly, still far from clear.
 
Photo Credit: Internews
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Comments

Thanks, Sina, for this discussion. From experience in Iraq and Afghanistan with both UN and INGOs it is clear that donors, by and large, are not willing to fund the exhaustive processes of regulatory and legal reform that underpin successful interventions in the media sector in post-conflict countries. These involve intense (and expensive) behind-the-scenes discussions with a wide range of stakeholders, from law and policy makers to media and law faculties to professional and citizen content producers and editors. The politics of coordination is complex, particularly in post-conflict environments where media is sectarian, partisan and a reflection of multiple national and international agendas. Results cannot be expected within a one or two year project cycle so there is a tendency to stick to old-school media training projects that are random, amateur and frankly self-serving (eg three day training in investigative journalism in a country where there are no freedom of information laws and an expectation that retaliation by those being investigated will be brutal and unpunished). Moreover as donor countries retrench economically and rethink their own transparency protocols, how likely is it that they will be willing to fund effective programmes that provide sustainable platforms for professional scrutiny by a local Fourth Estate on the impact and whereabouts of development aid?

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