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Media Strengthening: Taking Politics Seriously

Sina Odugbemi's picture

I have noticed over the years that groups working to strengthen media systems around the world concentrate their attention on donors active in international development. This is understandable for two reasons. Donors have money and you go to them if you want an initiative funded. Second, donors - either alone or collectively - have influence in many countries. Once in a long while, they are able to bring about change just by insisting on it and being prepared to fund the process of change.

But there is one big reason why donors alone cannot strengthen media systems, especially in authoritarian political systems. And that is power... the acquisition and retention of power. I remember once talking to a government minister in a major European donor country and pressing him to do more to strengthen media systems in the countries in which his donor agency worked. He replied: 'You know, I would love to do so and I do try. But media is so sensitive that it is the one issue that when I raise it with the presidents or prime ministers of many of these countries they become quite agitated and aggressive. It is a tough one, I tell you!'

And that is the crux of the matter. Efforts to strengthen media systems around the world must take politics seriously. For whatever change we seek can only be delivered - and sustained - by the domestic political  system. Suppose you want a public service broadcasting system insulated from direct party-political control. Donors can put money down to make the change happen but donors cannot deliver that change by themselves, nor can they sustain it by themselves. Only the domestic political system can do these things.

Which reminds me of the obvious cases in point. Many of you will know of the number of instances where a conflict is ending in Gogo Republic. Donors rush in to do all sorts of things, including setting up a plural media system (complete with independent public service broadcasting, liberal media laws and so on). Then as peace returns and domestic political elites take charge of Gogo Republic once again, counter-reform strikes. Public service broadcasters return to party political control. Journalists are muzzled once again...or killed one by one. And it is downhill from there.
Late last year, The Open Society Institute/Foundation published a monitoring report on television in Europe, particularly the young democracies there. The title of the report says it all: Television Across Europe - More channels, less independence. Why less independence despite the growth of formal democracy? The realities of domestic politics, that's why. To change those realities the place to begin and end is the domestic political process.

Now, how do we take politics more seriously? I hope to offer one way of doing this in a future post.

So long!

Photo Credit: Bill Lyons,2002 (WB)

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