GRAHAMSTOWN - African journalists should hold public office holders accountable for their actions if they are to remain relevant, media experts and activists have said.
Addressing the Highway Africa conference underway here, Herman Wasserman, the Rhodes University Journalism School’s deputy head, told hundreds of African journalists that commercialisation and generalisation have seriously affected Africa’s media landscape.
“If media loses trust and accountability then it has lost what it represents and we have seen that in the past few years,” Wasserman said. “Accountability does not only mean how media speak the truth but also how it listens to it.”
Highway Africa is the biggest annual conference for African media practitioners and has since its conception been held in South Africa.
The 17th conference is running under the theme “Speaking truth to power — media, politics and accountability.” Over the years the conference has been at the centre of Africa’s debates on the interface of journalism and new media.
The event has journalists, civil society activists and academics deliberating on African media’s role in holding political authority accountable and also how journalists themselves are accountable through codes of conduct and regulatory frameworks.
Other sessions at the conference will focus on social media and how ordinary citizens have used the various platforms to further freedom of expression as well as to hold governments and corporates accountable.
Sizwe Mabizela, Rhodes University deputy vice chancellor (academic and student affairs), said African leaders have for a long time sold bottled smoke to their supporters before the media’s passive eyes.
“There are many stories of hopes raised and unfulfilled,” Mabizela said.
“When we start to speak the truth to power, we will be able to tell a new interesting story about our continent, then we will have a continent which is at peace with itself, a continent in which greed and corruption are nothing but a rare abnormality and a media that is able to tell the truth without fear or favour.”
Gitobu Imanyara, a human rights activist, lawyer and former Kenyan MP, said the credibility of African media has severely been compromised by poverty and intimidation, forcing news consumers to rely on western media outlets. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s latest report says at least 1 000 journalists have lost their lives in the line of duty since 1992.
“We must regain our values, we cannot afford to lose our mission,” he said.
In Africa, battlelines are normally drawn between private and public media leading to persistent public outcries.
Peter Horrocks, BBC Global News director said media effectiveness cannot be separated from a “functional democracy”.