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If You Want a Better Media System in Your Country…Build a Movement

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Far too many of the people and organizations working on strengthening media systems in developing countries focus on how to secure funding from donors, preponderantly donors in the West; and they still mostly do the easy stuff, like organizing training seminars for journalists. Too few of them are taking on the real challenges of bedeviling media systems in many transition countries and far less developed ones.

When you focus on donors you have to do what donors are willing to pay for, reality be damned. And when you focus on donors, you have to worry about short term ‘results’, the ‘evidence of impact’ and so on. It is all too tempting to do only what is easy to count and measure. And donor priorities change all the time: the ministers change, the officials change, the lingo changes, the demands change. It is almost always a dizzying ride. Yet the problems facing the media in developing countries, the lacks that prevent them from playing their classic roles as watchdogs, public forums and agenda-setters, are persistent and long-term. Their rhythm is not that of fickle donors.

In a sense, this blog post is a tribute of sorts to Silvio Waisbord, professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, Washington DC.  I recently had to travel to Europe to give a talk on media and governance. As I prepared, I contacted a few friends in the field to assess current thinking and insights. Silvio sent me two articles he had published and they deeply influenced what I said in the talk. They can be found here and here.  In what follows, I draw from the two articles and add my own thoughts as I go along.

In every transition or developing country, governments and power elites take domination of the media system exceedingly seriously. Each media system is, in other words, a zone of political contestation. This shows up in a variety of ways, including:

  • Media laws and regulations that undermine the plurality and independence of media systems;
  • Commercial pressures on media enterprises, for instance, via control of access to advertising, importation of newsprint and other materials and so on;
  • Bullying of media owners by threatening other  businesses they own in order to make them do the bidding of the regime;
  • Media deregulation only to trusted friends and allies of the regime, so that the media system looks plural when it really isn’t;
  • Raw, brutal anti-journalist violence (witness the latest report of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  • The total rejection of the norm of media independence by populist and authoritarian leaders, and so on.
That list is far from exhaustive. Now, suppose you want to do something about any of these pathologies in any particular country, what you face is a major governance reform effort…yes, a governance reform effort.  A media system that cannot help citizens hold leaders accountable is a manifestation of the entire governance system, warts and all. It is not a thing peculiar unto itself. To do something about it, you have to:
  • Conduct a frank power/political analysis;
  • Figure out a feasible path to reform;
  • Worry about the wise sequencing of the reform efforts;
  • Build a coalition large/strong enough to overcome the blocking coalition; and
  • Be willing to sustain the struggle for as long as it takes, staying politically astute all through.
It all adds up to a formidable row to hoe. Here are four insights from one of Silvio’s articles, and it contains a fascinating case study regarding the movement that was built to secure the legalization of community radio in Uruguay in 2007. According to Silvio, to be successful, what he rightly calls a media policy movement, must:
  • Build a strong coalition of civic organizations;
  • Use a mix of advocacy and legal  strategies; and
  • Find key allies in government (the ideology of the ruling party, he says, is a key factor in whether or not the movement is successful).
And he is right. Which is why although I believe that  outsiders like international development donors or media NGOs can help (with support , with technology and some pressure on regimes), ultimately, improving media systems is the work of powerful coalitions of citizen groups in each particular country context.

Sadly, there is very little focus on that at the moment.

Foto by European People's Party via Flickr

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Submitted by Anonymous on

Bravo! You are right on, Sina.
Best regards,
Marguerite Sullivan

Submitted by D.Rai on

Why am I surprised, yet highly pleased to see this post on the WB site? Such a good, well presented argument- discussed in the media circle for such a long time without resulting into something concrete. This has been the debate about donor-led media for a very long time, however, only secondary to the politics/ leaders- led media.

There a few murky areas that I think need to be taken into consideration though:
- what if the civil society organizations are highly dominant/inclined to one or various political parties that are pushing for their agendas through media?
- Economic constraints of journalists - what if the entire media scene is so weak that reporters do not get paid for months on end, and they would have to resort to donors and be their mouthpiece even for survival?
- What if active citizenship exists in such a miniscule level that citizen led movement is again mired with the agendas of donors?

Thank you Sina.

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