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Control over State-Owned Media Equals Control over the State?

Hannah Bowen's picture

Demonstrations this week in Cote d’Ivoire prompt a number of troubling questions, including what it means to be a “state broadcaster” when who heads the state is in dispute. The influence of state-run broadcasters may be diminishing across much of sub-Saharan Africa, but their potential impact on fragile democratic institutions has been highlighted this week in west Africa. Who controls the airwaves may turn out to be instrumental in who shapes public perceptions, and through them, political reality – the protestors in Cote d’Ivoire know this, choosing of all institutions as the focus of their protest, the state-run television station.   

The Ivoirian state broadcaster Radiodiffusion Television Ivoirienne (RTI), still under long-time incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo’s control, has reported him to be the victor of the November 28 Presidential run-off election and urged citizens to accept the result and refrain from protests. This week, supporters of his main challenger Alassane Ouattara (declared by the electoral commission and accepted by the UN as the winner of the poll) declared they would not only begin using government offices, but also take control of RTI.

Control over RTI has become a flashpoint in the crisis precisely because information is both severely limited and crucial to building legitimacy, however tenuous, with the public. In the absence of a robust private media to report on the election controversy, the state-run broadcaster may effectively have as much power to declare the ultimate winner as the electoral commission formally tasked with doing so. Gbagbo’s regime has already amplified RTI’s role as a news source by silencing other voices; just days after the disputed poll, Reporters Without Borders noted that the National Broadcasting Council had banned local rebroadcasts of international radio and TV stations’ news programs.

It is hard to say how critical control over RTI will prove to be in the weeks to come. However, given the lack of competitive private media in Cote d’Ivoire (even on the most popular platform, radio, private stations have limited reach), RTI has long been considered a tool for influencing political outcomes. With few readily accessible, reliable sources of political news to turn to, Ivoirians face a great deal of uncertainty. In an already fragile state, effectively partitioned in half by competing forces, uncertainty is unlikely to lead to a peaceful solution. Both sides in the current Presidential dispute seem to recognize this, and want to impose clarity by presenting their side of the story via the most effective means of mass communication, RTI’s radio and TV broadcasts.

More broadly, the situation in Cote D’Ivoire raises larger questions about government participation in media. The definition of a “state-run” station is increasingly difficult to pin down, as many former state monopolies are partially privatized and/or face competition from private stations. Even in the US and UK, public funds support public broadcasters (and there is a long history of legislated subsidies etc. being used to support private media too). So the relevant questions are not necessarily about whether a state-sponsored station exists, but about its editorial independence, and how much competition it faces. Although we observe media environments across sub-Saharan Africa becoming freer and more competitive in general, government stations remain influential in many countries, and can become more so during times of crisis. Particularly in the least developed countries, where mass media is primarily limited to radio and some television, it is far easier for governments to limit access to information. In the lead-up to this year’s parliamentary elections in Ethiopia, for example, the government was able to effectively block out the main international broadcasters simply by jamming certain shortwave radio frequencies at certain times of day. Even when private stations exist, as they do to a limited extent in both Ethiopia and Cote D’Ivoire, they often do not have the reach or freedom to truly compete with government-owned media. In times of political crisis, then, it can be state-run media that call the shots.


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Photo Credit: Flickr user abdallahh

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