African Media and ICTs: Friends or Foes?
By Kwami Ahiabenu,II
In most parts of the African continent, the media is assuming a very important position; influencing key decisions, facilitating change and providing voice for the people.
In sharp contrast, however, the media’s influence and stature in the ICT space is significantly insignificant –- dwarfed by other concerns such as politics, health and sanitation.
Undoubtedly, the continent’s media have a crucial role to play in the burgeoning ICT space but it is also quite obvious that they have a long way to go in becoming true power brokers, agent of change and influencer.
Currently, the media’s voice is hardly being heard, its presence is not visible and there is ample evidence pointing to its lack of influence in the ICT space.
What Is The Role Of The Media In The Information Society?
The media’s role in enabling ICTs for development is quite clearly laid out. And this is precisely because we cannot create an information society if the media is not playing a central role in serving as content generators, information disseminators, influencing policy formation, shaping public opinion, helping advocates for access especially in underserved areas and pushing for maintenance of service levels and ICT standards.
Generally the mass media can facilitate creation of awareness on the benefits of the effective use of ICT both at present and its huge potential in the future.
However, the media in Africa is currently not playing some of these set roles due to a number of reasons.
Essentially, media coverage on ICT over the years have tendered to be rather simplistic – mere news items that provide basic reports of events and speeches of government/public officials. There is hardly any in-depth analysis and or comprehensive coverage of the ICT sector and the evolving technologies and their implication on the world and on Africans in particular.
Aside, specialized ICT publications are rather few on the continent and most newspapers do not have a page or columns devoted to ICT issues. Radio and Television programmes are also quite rare.
This situation clearly does not lend itself easily to helping the continent’s media to assert their role in shaping the Information Society for Africa. This shortfall, notwithstanding, there are a growing number of print and electronic media and online outlets pushing ICTs content to its client base.
The Media & ICTs: Challenging Times
A number of complex multifaceted factors are at play if you attempt to understand the status of media in the ICT environment.
Indeed, if the news items found on the front pages of African publications are an indication of demand for such news items then ICT issues have not reached a high level of demand yet, not least when compared with political and socio-economic reports. Maybe the media need to look for political and socio-economic angles to ICT stories in order for them to receive priorities.
ICT content is almost and consistently relegated to obscure corners of inside pages of newspapers. Radio and Television coverage also follow similar patterns.
There is a growing perception of the fact that ICT content are too technical, thus media audience will find it difficult to read and understand. In context of this situation, most editors tend to avoid placing ICT stories in their publications. And the obvious question is why bother to find space for content your audience may not appreciate?
Furthermore, ICT content generation does not occur in the vacuum. That is to say, the ICT industry in Africa has a crucial role to play in helping the mass media generate such content. Presently, however such support from this burgeoning industry is still lacking especially in the area of information sharing and exchange.
Most journalism schools are still not teaching ICT journalism. This is at the heart of the scanty coverage of the ICT sector.
This is a serious problem because graduates of such schools are not ready to cope with the exigencies of ICT journalism when they come on the job. The schools teaching ICT journalism do not have an up to date curriculum which makes it difficult for effective teaching and learning. This situation is very true across the continent even in a more ICT centric country like South Africa.
Unfortunately, opportunities for on-the-job training in ICT are also unavailable. A reporter once remarked that, most editors would rather invest money in cars for news gathering rather than computers for the newsroom. Some newsrooms with computers tend to lock them up in editors' offices and it is not available readily for use.
Internet access is generally not available in some newsrooms and where they exist they are highly unreliable and too expensive for these media houses to maintain due to extreme high cost of bandwidth on the continent. Effectively, Journalists who want to undertake online research have to find time most often at their own expense to queue at cyber cafés, which by the way are now widespread across much of the continent.
Opportunities for online training for ICT Journalism are not wide spread even though a lot more online courses are now available. Penplusbytes, International Institute for ICT Journalism is one of the few organizations based on the continent working to fill the gap in ICT Journalism training needs through face-to-face, online discussion and it also maintain an online information resource on ICT Journalism.
It is quite clear that ICT is barely on the news agenda in the African media, though ICT Journalism apparently rapidly evolving. It is quite refreshing to note that African media are increasingly becoming aware of the roles they need and should play in evolving an Information Society and some media players are being proactive to ensure that this role is played effectively to propel the continent and its people into the information age.