Online media no solution for social problems

Sage Gayala

Censorship, manipulation and other ills also affect the internet

It is fashionable to say that print media are finished and that online media are the future. With the web, we hear, everybody will have access to all the information. Everybody will have freedom of expression. Journalists will be freed from censorship, editorial pressure and bribery by advertisers. All Africa’s media problems, it seems, can be solved simply through the use of new technologies.

I edited the online newsletter Africa News. Africa News was intended to inform on matters pertaining to the DRC, for the citizens of the DRC. It was to be free, accurate, important and independent.

Regrettably, we were disappointed in our hope. It turned out that the social problems that plague the media in the DRC were also to plague the internet-based Africa News. This happened with regard to all the objectives we had tried to fulfill: public access to information, freedom of expression and an end to corruption. This is therefore a sad story.

Firstly, public access to information.

Did the citizens of the DRC have access to the important reports in Africa News? They clearly didn’t have it to the print version that we started out with. We were poor and only able to print 700 copies, for a city, Kinshasa, of 8 million inhabitants. We didn’t get many adverts, because, in the DRC, advertisers want the entire newspaper –not just one or two pages. Without giving up all your space, you simply can’t survive in print. This is why most DRC newspapers are paid for entirely by advertisers, politicians, and businesses, who dictate the content.

We tried to get money for the newspaper from sales to the public, as any self respecting newspaper would do. But the practice by street vendors in my country, who simply photocopy newspapers and sell them on at a cheaper price, put paid to that.

For us, who wanted to be journalists and publish real journalism, it was a battle we could not win.
This is why we thought going online was the answer. There would be virtually no production cost, en we would be able to spread our message everywhere. We could go daily, whereas we had been a weekly.

What we hadn’t realised, or not realised sufficiently, was that the citizens in the DRC don’t have the money to access news on the internet. Internet café’s are expensive, and so is the airtime on your mobile phone. Obtaining good quality news was an endeavour most citizens, battling to stay alive in a desperately poor, conflict-ridden environment, didn’t have the time or even the energy for.

Soon, Africa News became an online medium for the elite, and for some individuals in the African diaspora. Rich, influential people read Africa News. As a medium, we started to serve an audience that had specific interests: politicians who wanted to know what other politicians were doing. It took us a while to understand, but the tragic fact was that, instead of helping to develop the democratic process in my country and empowering citizens, we started to enable people in the elite to do what they do best: use information against each other.

They fed us information, just like they do to the myriad of print and broadcast publications in my country. They were not interested in in-depth social reports and commentaries. Why should we even battles to produce such reports, if ordinary citizens would not have access to them anyway?

The audience we now had was certainly interested in investigations- but only investigations of the type that would ruin an enemy.  Soon, we were faced with the choice whose propaganda we were to use, and whose we would discard.

Then, there was the terrain of press freedom.  We thought we would be freer, less subject to the repercussions faced by our colleagues in print, and even more so, in TV and radio. We would publish under our own names. Especially in my case: I myself was not in the DRC so my name could be used easily. This would add value to our reports, in a context where many journalists use pseudonyms as a matter of course. (The use of pseudonyms, though born out of necessity, is bad for veracity and accuracy. The writer with the pseudonym often ends up writing what he likes, without any factcheck.)

Unfortunately, we lost the battle here, too. All reports that touched in one way or another on important financial and other interests of individuals in our circles of power, were intercepted by the secret services. As soon as I would post an article in Ottawa, I would receive a phonecall from Kinshasa. ‘It seems you posted something that means trouble. Please take it off again or something will happen to us here.’ The more we tried to publish a relevant Africa News, the more we would get such phonecalls. This did not only happen to Africa News, but also to other online media edited from abroad.

One morning, 14 february 2009, an online news site that was partial to the DRC government, announced that ‘With regards to the case between senator Okitundu and the publication Africa News: the publications’ director, Achille Kadima Mulamba, has been sentenced to exclusion (from directing a news medium) for a period of 18 months. This verdict also rehabilitates President of the Senate, Leon Kengo wa Dondo, with regards to the same case.” (http://www.digitalcongo.net/article/56552).

This news item was followed by a number of other messages that reached us. Each of these messages gave us to understand that all associates of the news site in the DRC itself were to feel the full rage of those in power, and that, in the end, we would also lose our partners, team members and supporters.

The third element, of corruption and manipulation, was already dealt with briefly under point 1. It is a well known fact that the press in the DRC is generally not worthy of the name press at all. Powerful people simply tell journalists what to write and pay them. This is how most journalists earn a living. There is hardly a journalist in the DRC who gets paid by the publication he/she works for, on the contrary: the publication usually expects the journalist to bring in some money –from a source. Only if money is brought, will the story be published. It’s an advertising industry, rather than a press.

Would an online medium escape from this scourge? No, it didn’t. It was edited from Canada, but how could we monitor the behaviour of the reporter on the ground? We could not, from Ottawa, doublecheck what was reported. Nor could we ensure that our reporters would behave differently from what was the norm all around them. Sometimes we were not able to pay them, sometimes we were. But it is almost impossible to safeguard and protect an individual from the general corrupt and manipulative media environment.

At the very end of our short existence, one of our principal collaborators was suddenly elevated to a political position. This meant that, even though we were still free to write what we liked about a range of issues, there were –all of a sudden- issues that we could not touch. The independent voice of Africa News was silenced.

It seems therefore wrong to simply assume that new technologies can solve the paradoxes and complexities of African media. Before we come with solutions, we should ask ourselves what the problems really are. African media don’t exist outside African societies: they are part of them. Both share the same limits, realities, difficulties and challenges. It would be shortsighted to assume that a transfer of technologies could achieve independence and freedom of, and professionalism and best ethical practice in African media. A lot more has to be done in order to achieve that, in societies, in traditional media and online. The internet is no panacea, especially not when most people don’t have access to it at all.

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