When President Jimmy Carter opened the Africa Regional Conference on the Right of Access to Information in Accra on February 7, 2010, he explained why the Carter Center had organized the conference. The main reason, he pointed out, was that with regard to access to information 'Africa has lagged far behind'. South Africa was the only good example he cited. Yet this is at a time when the transparency revolution is sweeping through the rest of the world. For instance, since 2000 an average of six countries per year have passed Freedom of Information Acts, and 80 had done so by 2008.
"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
- Winston Churchill
An informal expert meeting on media and development hosted by the African Union Commission (AUC) and the European Commission (EC) in Addis Ababa, March 23-25 agreed a range of practical proposals in support of African media. Participants representing journalists, media owners, media development practitioners, journalism schools and self-regulatory structures in Africa highlighted the important role the AUC can play in promoting media freedom and independent journalism in Africa.
The consultation attended by some 35 participants was the first time the African Union discussed media development with practitioners and marks an important step towards creating a strategic approach of the African Union Commission to media development.
Stereotypical images of the developing world include overpopulated and underserved urban slums, backward agricultural and fishing communities, environmental abuse and degradation, and political and social instability. Although many of these portrayals are most certainly products of serious photojournalism or efforts to render explicit social ills around the world, numerous warnings have been issued against perpetuating these pictures in our heads and using them in development work, more generally.
News broadcasts, documentaries, and more recently, social media, often reduce developing countries into images of shanty towns, garbage dumps, denuded forests, dead coral reefs, and of course, people who have been beaten or killed through military and police brutality. Charitable fundraising efforts also use evocative images, from children suffering from cleft lip to those with distended bellies. Many have argued that these images take advantage of the poor and downtrodden, reify exclusion of subaltern groups, and raise awareness (and funds!) at the high cost of damaging the development process.
This past weekend’s launch of the iPad has had me thinking more and more about the future of information because I’m not entirely convinced that we should go in the direction that Steve Jobs is taking us.
Or what I really mean (since I have every intention of getting an iPad) is that I’m not convinced that that’s the ONLY direction we should go.
Let me step back for a moment and briefly explain what the media gurus believe is in our future.
We live now in the age of Web 2.0 and the next BIG thing on the horizon is being called Web 3.0 or the “Semantic” Web. In other words, we are heading, we are told, for a web that has “meaning.”i
A few weeks I had a chance to return to Nicaragua for a brief visit. The Fundacion Chamorro invited me to talk about the role of the state in processes of media reform. As usual, I learned a great deal by talking to old colleagues and new friends about ongoing efforts to strengthen media democracy in the country.
What’s going on in contemporary Nicaragua shows the potential of smart media aid to be effective, if it dovetails with local needs and promotes wide-ranging efforts. It’s not just what donors think is important. It is what local activists with vast experience believe is necessary (and Nicaragua, to put it mildly, does have substantive experience with reform). It’s not simply about targeting one set of challenges. It is taking a broad, multilevel perspective on the challenges of media systems.
“Public sentiment is everything, with public sentiment nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed”.
Last week, the field of communication lost one of its most eminent figures, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who died on March 25 at the age of 93. A German public opinion scholar, Noelle-Neumann has had a powerful influence on the study of public opinion and political communication worldwide. Her most notable contribution, the theory of the Spiral of Silence, has made a lasting impression on the field.
If there is one historical personage that all finance ministers – or treasury secretaries – need to know, he is Jacques Necker (1732-1804). He was the finance minister of France in the 1780s. He was credited with popularizing the phrase ‘public opinion’ (opinion publique). What was his central insight? He noticed that the attitude of the French public to the king of France determined whether or not they purchased the treasury bills issued from time to time by the king. It they had a favorable opinion of the king they bought his bills; if not, they did not buy his bills. In other words, the financial health of the kingdom and the power of the king depended on opinion publique.
Necker pointed out that the same was true of the finance minister. He was clear that the finance minister ‘stands in most need of the good opinion of the people.’ He pointed out that fiscal policies needed to be pursued with ‘frankness and publicity,’ and that the finance minister must ‘associate the nation’ with his plans, including the obstacles he had to surmount. Necker practiced what he preached, launching a systematic management of public opinion. In 1792, he declared:
A reader's response to the blog post “Open Government”: Open to Whom?:
"Excellent post! Investing in ICTs is fundamental to open and transparent governance.
I am particularly struck by the following lines, "For their part, government officials complained about the lack of recordkeeping and archiving, particularly of the digital variety. Even with the best of intentions, officials may not be able to make information available amid weak information management systems; some of the interviewees pointed out that information about existing programs goes missing, and with it lessons learned -- along with the public’s opportunity to hold agencies accountable."