Potentials of regional networks

Regional networks key to better media freedom in Southern Africa

Regional networks are key to fostering a culture of media freedom at a local and regional level in Southern Africa. However, to be effective it is crucial to factor in historical developments as well as changes in media and in the political landscape

Southern Africa is a mixed bag of countries with a varied socio-economic and political status. Some are also challenged by prolonged political instability – instability that may lead to outright conflict or have a destabilising effect on the whole region. On the list of potential destabilizing challenges, you find; fear of growing civil unrest in Northern Mozambique; post-election unrest in Malawi; political unrest and economic collapse in Zimbabwe, as well as xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

Overall, Southern Africa democracy indicators have regressed, including those to do with free media and freedom of expression – and fundamental rights are currently under severe strain.

This regression is unfortunately happening at a time when regional solidarity and networking has weakened, undermining the capacity of media advocates to coordinate actions that promote media freedom at a regional level. The timing could not be worse, with independent media being under increased pressure, including in Western democracies. With democracy in retreat, there is need for a regional network that places media issues on the regional and agenda. By now, there are important lessons from the past, which the future can gain from.

Pre-1991 was a period of fragmentation in regional and national media advocacy with no cohesive regional networking on media and freedom of expression issues. Much of the media support then was focused on media capacity building, constituting mostly of trainings. Regional media networking was limited to developments such as radio listener clubs. There was little if any media coordination and networking at a regional level.

Southern Africa’s socio-political focus was on political issues that surely had to be dealt with, including apartheid in South Africa, the HIV-AIDS epidemic and an economic crisis. Namibia had just attained its independence in 1990; Mozambique was struggling with a civil war that had spread to Zimbabwe; and Angola was caught up in civil strife.

With regional priorities centering on democratisation, peace building and stability, media freedom never really made the cut.

However, in the midst of all this, the 1990 UNESCO conference on media development in Namibia resulted in the Windhoek Declaration. It is a seminal document that addresses media freedom coherently, touching on rights, policy issues, and obligations of various national actors. The Windhoek Declaration set out principles on media freedom, including the importance of media and freedom of expression to human development as well as the need for democratic media policy. 

Winds of change

The 1990 Windhoek Declaration became a source of inspiration for media actors in Southern Africa, who breathed life into the declaration by mobilizing for media reforms at a regional level. At the same time, political changes were sweeping Southern Africa in the 1990s, including the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, and focus shifted to issues of media freedom.

With those political changes came a more tolerant political leadership and thus an environment conducive for independent media in Southern Africa. Almost all Southern Africa countries witnessed an increase in independent voices and more vibrant media.

In 1991 media actors in Southern Africa also set up the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), whose mandate was to set up infrastructure and institutions that would promote media freedom, democratic media policies, print, broadcasting plurality and independence, media sustainability, and media professionalism. MISA’s initiatives resulted, among other things, in new schools of journalism, development funds, voluntary media councils and community radio stations around the region. The media momentum was used to spread solidary, strategical media advocacy and media freedom policies on both a national and regional levels. 

Decohesion in media networks, changing political space, and new challenges of media

Despite the successes of the 1990s, the political governance within Southern Africa has not improved qualitatively today, regardless of regular elections and change of leadership in some countries. A huge deficit remains in democratic practice, evidenced by undemocratic electoral practices, corruption, and attacks on media actors. The wave of democratisation that started in the early 1990s is being pushed back, and Southern Africa has seen increasing attacks on the media and a regression in media growth. Much of the region is slowly but surely going back to state controlled and state sponsored media houses regaining or consolidating their dominance. Critical and independent media have in some instances been co-opted by political and business interest groups. The advent of online media and citizens’ growing access to mobile phones appear to be the new front of resistance to undemocratic practices.

The decline in trust between media and state actors has stalled constructive dialogue on media policy reforms. At the same time, the MISA led regional media network has collapsed with only a few MISA chapters still functional in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. MISA Regional Secretariat is incapacitated with no staff or resources. I wonder if there is a link between the decline in influence of regional networks and the regression of media freedom and reforms in Southern Africa?

Rethinking the future of Southern Africa regional networks

Today, as regional media players discuss regional networks, there are many important aspects to consider. One is the MISA model, which depended too much on its head office and left its chapters vulnerable: when the center fell, many national chapters collapsed with it. In the future, there is no need to recreate the MISA model, but for the still existing MISA chapters to reach out to similar groups in the region and create a network of media advocates. Another aspect is that regional networks must consider the changing trajectory of international development aid which is increasingly going into human development, including economic sustainability, environment, and climate change. There is little if any direct support for media development that is not tied to other types of development. Southern Africa media advocates are challenged by having to come up with new approaches to tap into development funds that do not focus on media. A third important reflection is that future media networks need to be more inclusive, especially considering the role of youth-led online media groups that are pushing for influence within spaces occupied by traditional civil society organisations. Past regional networks, including the MISA model, were to some extent exclusive to the MISA chapter and close associates. A lean regional networking structure is needed. One that is inclusive; focuses on a few common and key issues; represent local actors at different forums; carries out relevant research; and brings actors together when necessary.

Yet these aspects are not all. People working to improve the regional media networks today have many important questions to consider: how democratic and innovative are media networks? Do such networks have the trust of the broader media sector, civil society and governments? Who really cares about what media networks do and how does the work of such networks impact on civil society? How do the networks ensure that they speak to issues affecting society and that they have the mandate to speak on behalf of local actors? How relevant is the agenda of media networks and media advocates to the daily struggles of the people of Southern Africa, and what linkages exist between the media reform agenda with for example climate change, migration, digital media, and the rights of women?

Reflections on these issues and dialogues on media networks will result in a more people-centered agenda. The discussion on media regional networks is taking place at a time when the international community is focused on pressing global issues like migration, climate change, terrorism and civil strife. These issues must be made glocal; that is combining the local and global interests and perspectives. Questions must be asked whether the orthodox media advocacy work is still bankable and if not, how can it be entrenched within the glocal development and governance agenda of Southern Africa. There is a need to consolidate on the agenda of reform at a regional and Africa level. There is a need to enhance solidarity in an era where media workers are under threat, even more so through abuse of internet policies and other non-legal threats. Zimbabwe imposed a total shutdown of the internet during 2019, and this is likely to be repeated in other countries. A regional approach on policy and practice around cyber security and internet freedom must be developed.

Considerations towards regional media networking

While world politics is fragmenting, South African political elites are strengthening their networking, sharing information and solidarity. At the same time media advocates appear to have lost capacity to influence political powers. Strong networks that demonstrate solidarity are necessary when civil society organisations, media advocates, and journalists are under threat. Networks must be reformulated to accommodate the voices of women and youths and be more inclusive of emerging issues, among them notable youth radicalization as a result of frustration with a lack of economic opportunities.

There is also a need to reflect on cross border issues affecting the region, including migration, resource exploitation, and the dominance of telecoms, some of which are also becoming content producers who cosines with the political elite and control social narratives through media and telecoms cross ownership.

Elections are increasingly becoming an area of contestation between governments and the media. In 2015 media houses were shut down and journalists were beaten in Zambia. Tanzania is suffocating the media through bad laws, and in Zimbabwe the media is in a love-hate relationship with government. In Lesotho journalists are shot at, in Mozambique journalists are killed and beaten. Reflecting on how to protect the media must be a priority. Safety and security of journalists remain a challenge in the region, and this calls for regional networking, solidarity, and mechanisms for protection that are beyond national borders.

It is important that Southern Africa develop and champion new models of journalism in an era where legacy media is declining. Not only are the media bleeding jobs, a growing demand of new skills in newsrooms are challenging the current media work force.

In the dialogues about future regional networks, it is important to gain strength from the past while taking note of the demands of the future. The reversal in adhering to principles of media regulation is happening, and this need flagging at a regional level. There is a growing move towards statutory media regulation and Southern Africa leaders rarely face condemnation at regional level for media violations because regional solidarity and networking has collapsed. Media advocates must mobilise to defend media rights and freedoms and offer cross border support to peers facing repression.

29 May 2019, the non-profit foundation National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and International Media Support (IMS) hosted a meeting of Southern Africa media actors in Johannesburg, South Africa. Key participants included journalists’ unions and associations and media advocates. The main agenda was to review the status of regional media networking in Southern Africa and identify opportunities to strengthen such networks.

IMS has been involved media development in Southern Africa for more than a decade. Most recently IMS and local partners have implemented a media and election programme in 2017-2019 in Zimbabwe, which has been the main focus country.