Apr 9, 2010

Empowerment through Information

If you’ve been alive for the last decade and more, you have doubtless heard about African leaders who refuse to relinquish or share political power. The rule rather than the exception is that many African countries are what George Ayittey calls vampire states – “a government hijacked by a phalanx of bandits and crooks, who use the instruments of the state to suck the economic vitality out of the people to enrich themselves, their cronies and tribesmen. All others excluded.”

So, if we know all this, why do these vampire states continue to flourish? I boil it down to the lack of empowerment of the African people.

To borrow the words of Ayittey, “empowerment requires arming people with information, the freedom and institutional means to unchain themselves out of the vicious grip of poverty and oppression.”

Information

A free and independent media is critical in ensuring the free flow of information. State controlled media has no inclination to expose corruption, human rights violations, and other crimes committed by the state. In fact, it’s easier to plunder and repress people when they are kept in the dark. The media needs to be taken out of the hands of the government. There can be no effective checks and balances when the government is a prominent player in this field.

Furthermore, to protect freedom of speech, we need to develop stronger constitutional and legal safeguards. In Zambia, while freedom of speech is guaranteed in the constitution, the relevant language can be broadly interpreted. To illustrate this, libel cases can be pursued in either civil or criminal court, and defamation of the president is explicitly a criminal offence. See a case that arose in March 2010 on this very matter. Unfortunately it doesn’t take much to defame the Zambian president; it’s a very broad brush.

Independent radio has given a voice to millions of Africans. These radio stations operate in rural areas and reach the masses through their own languages. This is an advantage over newspapers in urban areas which primarily reach a smaller segment of the population and are predominantly in English or French. These stations have the ability to mobilise people for social change, as well as community involvement. Unfortunately, as is the case in Zambia, these community radio stations carry little political coverage, as the government uses libel and security laws to discourage it.

Criticism is a necessary evil in politics and civil society as a whole. Governments cannot continue to work in darkness – striking deals to auction off public property to cronies and so-called investors at less than fair market value, buying arms to be used against their people, borrowing concessional loans for white elephant projects, etc.

I have to add a caveat to this. A free and independent media does not translate into a platform for launching personal vendettas against government officials for personal slights – it goes beyond that. This is about keeping a populace informed, offering objective insights, and provoking critical thinking and intelligent discourse. This is why editorial and management independence is vital.

Conclusion

In almost every African country, there is a need for further legal and institutional reform to entrench the commitment to media freedom, and to prevent government interference and censorship. It is critical for the success of our societies, and to move towards sustainable progress.

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Update: April 11 - After I posted this, I had a rather heated exchange with a Zimbabwean friend, and he is of the mindset that access to information is not necessarily a positive trigger for political and economic progress for Africans. To put it simply, he asks - "do Africans really care about what their governments do?"


He has a point. We are so used to electing officials who are supposed to represent our interests, and our involvement in the political process pretty much ends once we step out of the voting booth, purple thumb evident. So,  if confronted with the wrongdoing of government officials through an open and transparent, what would we do? 

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