(en) African Communications

sage (jesse@tao.ca)
Thu, 6 Mar 1997 01:04:11 GMT


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Title: AFRICA-MEDIA: Continent Battles to Communicate with Itself

by Gumisai Mutume

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 21 (IPS) - Picture this scenario: somewhere in Southern Africa a person spends two whole days manually sending out a bulletin to about two dozen subscribers by fax.

Often the line breaks down and the process starts again. Eventually all the pages go through and then the phone calls start pouring in. ''The fax is blurred, we did not get page three of the document could you please re-send the whole thing?''

At the end of it all, a phone bill of some 150 U.S. dollars is the tab for the effort.

This is the stark reality of communications between African countries. Torn apart by colonial boundaries and still living with the ties to the former colonial administrators in Europe, decades of independence have yet to see Africa making contact with itself.

Even the flow of news about Africa remains dominated by agents that are not homegrown. African countries are still battling to counter northern perspectives and exchange resources among themselves. Countries within the same sub-region hardly know what is happening across the border.

''We knew very little about each other,'' said David Lush of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). ''For instance newspapers in Botswana were relying on Reuters for a story on Namibia and if there was no war or famine in Namibia, then no news about Namibia appeared in the papers.''

Lush is part of a unique news exchange programme between independent newspapers in the region, known as 'MISANET', which kicked off in 1994. Some 14 newspapers pool their stories into bulletins of about 200 stories per week. The service has opened up the possibilities to circumvent the communication bottlenecks in southern Africa.

''As a result, there is a flow of regional news ... we are beginning to break down the information voids that have kept our countries ignorant about each other,'' Lush told a workshop organised by the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg this week.

''We have achieved in two years more as an independent initiative than government initiatives on the entire continent have over so many years,'' said Lush.=7F

Southern Africa is also home to another revolutionary communications project. SABANEWS links 11 state-owned broadcasters in the Southern African Broadcasting Association (SABA), which has become a vital way for the stations to share news.

But elsewhere on the continent such initiatives are struggling.

The Pan African News Agency (PANA) based in Dakar Senegal, which was set up primarily to report Africa from an African perspective has failed to meet its mandate.

The agency, set up by the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, has been dogged by financial problems. Three years ago African countries committed themselves to support a recovery plan for the embattled agency with a 4.3 million U.S. dollars funding pledge.

Only 3.6 million U.S. dollars has been received according to Amadou Mahtar, head of marketing at PANA. The organisation is now considering privatisation as its only salvation.

''In southern Africa the political environment is such that it allows these dreams and aspirations,'' said Nigerian Debo Adesina of the Guardian newspaper. ''It is difficult in Nigeria. We are battling against a lot of odds ... leadership ... intolerance.''

Adesina said that even sending a simple E-mail remains out of the reach of the ordinary Nigerian, and networking on the World Wide Web is for now, a pipedream. ''Our biggest problem is lack of political will''.=7F

Jared Okungu of Kenya's 'The Nation' newspapers said that there are efforts to set up similar initiatives like SABA in East=7F Africa.

But he noted that Africa's biggest problem is that the media focuses more on the international scene than events at home. Vast areas of the continent remain under-reported and ignored except in times of crises.

The 1990s witnessed a dismantling of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War. The prospects of a new world order brought new challenges for countries of the south, which had to reconsider how they told their own story.

All of a sudden, new issues took the spotlight -- moves towards democratisation, structural adjustment, good governance, human rights, gender, all became issues of debate and had to be placed on the news agenda.

Given this climate, it is important, Okungu said, that Africa communicates with itself and its media must begin to report on Africa for Africans.

''It is shameful to be here and see that in South Africa there is very little information about Africa. They have lots of news about South Africa and then move to South Korea and Australia,'' Okungu said. (end/ips/gm/pm97)

Origin: Harare/AFRICA-MEDIA/

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