5 Oct 2010

Media and civil society in #Tanzania - too close for comfort?

A debate has been rumbling recently in the blogosphere about whether the relationship between civil society and the media is becoming closer than should really be the case. As the director of an NGO that could be reasonably accurately described as a media organisation, how could I possibly hold back from engaging in such a debate!

The post that drew this discussion most particularly to my attention was from Pernille Baerentsen’s After Africa blog, asking the question: How much should international NGOs push the media to provide a certain kind of news? (Some other key links are listed below.) Pernille uses Twaweza’s DaladalaTV project as an example, a project that promotes public debate in the back of a commuter bus-turned-TV studio. Though she likes the programme, she complains that HIVOS, the Dutch NGO behind Twaweza, makes unlikely claims about the agenda being set by Tanzanian citizens.It is certainly the case that many NGOs (whether international or national – and most national NGOs are anyway largely dependent on foreign funds) have sometimes found attracting media coverage for their research and advocacy work to be challenging, and have shifted towards engaging the media directly in various kinds of partnerships. Whoever pays the piper picks the tune, as they say, so the content of such programmes is undoubtedly determined by the NGOs. Is that an infringement on the editorial independence of the media?

Arguably it is, and just for a moment, let us agree that perhaps in a perfect world the likes of HakiElimu, Uwazi, Policy Forum and TAMWA (and Daraja) would have to compete for the attention of impartial editors just like everyone else. But it’s not as simple as that.

We don’t live in a perfect world. More specifically, in Tanzania talk of editorial independence generally raises a few laughs. That cherry has already been popped. First, private companies, politicians, and yes, even NGOs, engage in more or less regularised practices of “brown envelope journalism”, paying for positive news coverage. Second, both private- and state-owned media have their own set of political and business interests to protect. This affects what they are willing to cover and fundamentally undermines their watchdog role. Third, low revenues and the need to keep costs down means that media houses are reluctant to spend money on more expensive forms of public interest journalism. All of this is far more damaging to a healthy media sector than NGOs buying airtime for public debate programmes that almost certainly wouldn’t happen otherwise.

And let’s look beyond Tanzania, as we shouldn’t forget that these are international challenges. Looking at media ownership issues, even the BBC (publicly owned) has trouble standing up the British government at times, while the Murdoch and Berlusconi empires demonstrate the dangers of private media ownership becoming too concentrated.

Also internationally, NGOs are emerging as part of the solution to these challenges. The slashing of newsroom and investigative journalism budgets in the UK and US have led to the emergence of independent organisations – ProPublica in the US and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK – that conduct independent investigative journalism and sell it on to traditional media outlets. They raise funds from donors in much the same way as NGOs in Tanzania, and have produced some impressive work. They are both NGOs. The Guardian newspaper in the UK is an older example – it is owned by a trust and reinvests all profits, effectively another NGO.

What I hope these examples demonstrate is that issues of media funding and ownership are complex. There is no perfect model, no perfect solution. A healthy media sector depends on having first a legislative and regulatory environment that prevents the worst abuses on all sides and second a level of diversity in the media that prevents any one voice, or any one type of voice, from becoming too dominant.

Let’s bring those two ideas back to Tanzania. The Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) does a pretty good job in difficult circumstances to regulate the media, though the legal environment could certainly be improved. But more relevant to the topic at hand is the question of diversity. NGO-run media (which is perhaps the best description of Daraja’s Kwanza Jamii newspaper) is the most obvious way that NGOs add to media diversity, by adding a new type of media ownership that is broadly similar to the (UK) Guardian. But even the kind of partnerships operated by DaladalaTV, HakiElimu, TAMWA (perhaps Tanzania’s closest equivalent to ProPublica), etc. are filling gaps and adding to diversity of content. And a very similar case can be made for social media as well – it may not be perfect but it adds to diversity in a pretty positive way.

Yes, NGOs need to take care not to overstep and undermine the media. But surely Tanzania’s media is healthier with the contribution of NGOs than it would be without.

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