West African media in a fight for survival

Media sustainability was highlighted as one of the critical areas of concern in West Africa. Pic: MFWA/CIMA Report on Regional Approach to Media Development in West Africa.

Media organisations in West African are struggling financially - with some battling to pay operations, staff salaries, service providers or even settle their taxes. This is according to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).

Dora Mawutor is the MFWA Programme Manager for Institutional Development. She says the dire financial status media houses find themselves in remains one of the biggest threats to media and media development in West Africa. “This issue is somewhat linked to the weak economies of African states and dwindling circulations,” said Mawutor.

This, she explains, leaves the media in a vulnerable state. “The situation has exposed the media to political and corporate capture.”

The foundation believes that without an industry focus on sustainability, media institutions will never move past their current weak and comatose state to bolster the region's fragile democracies. There is a lack of unity in the region - with everyone pulling in a different direction.

MFWA and the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) co-published a report titled Regional Approach to Media Development in West Africa, which outlined findings on the state of the media in the region.

In order to ensure the report was comprehensive and inclusive, input was sought from the heads of media regulatory bodies, journalism unions, press freedom organisations, experts, consultants and media support institutions from across Africa. The findings paint a worrying picture of the West African media fraternity.

Mawutor says media houses are working in silos, but that this approach will not work in the long-run.

Industry stakeholders came together during a recent media development forum hosted by MFWA and CIMA in Accra, Ghana, at the start of March 2019, to discuss the way forward. The report was the main focus of panel and plenary discussions, with media sustainability emerging as a critical issue for the media in West Africa.

Media houses in the region, like elsewhere on the continent, play an important role when it comes to setting the agenda for public discourse, creating platforms for citizens and authorities to engage, and as a watchdog over governments and public officials.

How can things be fixed?

While the challenges were clearly outlined in the report, media practitioners took the forum as an opportunity to seek solutions to the problems the industry faces.

Mawutor says donors are often more willing to invest in national-level projects than regional work. “The regional networks are struggling to execute their mandates due to dwindling funding - a situation that is making it more difficult for such networks to source funding as they are unable to recruit and keep staff who will help develop proposals, respond to calls and engage in other fundraising activities.” This, she explains, is a vicious cycle.

One suggestion from the forum was to develop strong industry foundations in regional media organisations by making the best of engagements with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Another popular approach suggested was to look at the human rights framework of the continental African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (OCHPR) and to make use of its legal instruments to protect press freedom.

For regional-wide media development the forum suggested:

1. Discussions to reach consensus about the frameworks or protocols that need to be put in place during high-level engagements with ECOWAS on press freedom and media sustainability.

2. The need to identify areas of improvement in engagements with regional and continental bodies such as ECOWAS and OCHPR through a study analysing previous interactions.

3. The creation of a regional platform to coordinate activities of all African media development organisations.

Participants also suggested expanding existing regional initiatives like the MFWA-hosted media-police dialogues to other countries and regions as well. By doing this, West African media practitioners hope that this will help develop a continental protocol on security forces and media relations, in a bid to increase the safety of all African journalists.

Industry stakeholders came together during a recent during a recent media development forum hosted by MFWA and CIMA in Accra, Ghana, at the start of March 2019, to discuss the way forward. Pic: MFWA

Journalism sustainability

The panel also looked for ways of keeping the region's media organisations afloat in the face of crippling industry-wide financial challenges. The need for regional collaboration between media organisations was highlighted, as each of these organisations faces the same threats to sustainability.

The panel encouraged the established press freedom organisations to support those who are still struggling to find their feet. One way to do this, the panel suggested, is to use joint projects that will build capacity and strengthen national-level media organisations.

Part of the recommendations touched on the special attention that must be given to promoting professionalism in the media in order to improve its credibility and to boost public confidence. A platform for journalists to report and respond to threats to press freedom from any country in Africa was also suggested.

Regional networks are in dire straits and need to be revived. The forum also discussed the need to expand projects to potentially be able to reach across borders and have an impact on all African regions, and not just those in West Africa, to better attract funding.

When reflecting on why the relationship between the region’s media and political leaders has been difficult, the report draws on the words of Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart. He writes that “proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten” and points to a cultural context where deference to seniors is important. This, according to the report, can account for many West African political leaders’ intolerance to criticism and low threshold for media pluralism, freedom of expression, and editorial autonomy.

"Proverbs not only enable interlocutors to express themselves with elegance, but also offer a way to employ euphemism and to thus avoid the direct, critical, and even adversarial approach that is is frequently presumed (and preferred) in independent journalism reporting," the report quotes.

Access the full report here.

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