Africa Needs an Al Jazeera
By Philip Fiske de Gouveia
From Foreign Policy, June 2005
Philip Fiske de Gouveia is director of the Public Diplomacy program at the London-based Foreign Policy Centre
Africa has been at the front and center of this year’s upcoming G-8 summit. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has apparently made it his personal mission to deal with this “scar on the conscience of the world.” In a welcome move, world leaders have agreed to cancel $40 billion of debt owed by 18 developing countries, most of them African. An additional 20 countries may qualify for debt relief if they satisfy standards of good governance.
But debt relief is not enough. Nor are conventional efforts to deal with Africa’s numerous problems. To help tackle the traditional bugbears—the lack of foreign investment, low education standards, widespread disease, endemic corruption, poor infrastructure, and frequent conflict—politicians must now address a key variable in Africa’s plight: its media.
African countries cannot hope to democratize or prosper without a free press that informs the public, analyzes government policies, and raises concerns if segments of society are marginalized. In the Middle East, new media outlets have begun to become powerful catalysts for political and economic progress. Independent media that constantly hold African leaders’ feet to the fire will help sustain reform efforts throughout the continent. In short, Africa needs its own Al Jazeera.
It may seem strange to identify the Arabic-language channel as a model to be replicated in Africa, but if freedom is indeed on the move in the Middle East, Al Jazeera can claim a good deal of the credit. The station’s broadcasts, which are available across the region, pressure governments to open up. In just nine years of existence, Al Jazeera has received hundreds of complaints from regimes not accustomed to scrutiny. Now, Arab governments realize they must justify their actions to millions of television viewers. That’s why leaders such as Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi criticize Al Jazeera, yet eagerly jump at the network’s interview requests. As a consequence, even hawkish American conservative Richard Perle recently conceded that Al Jazeera is playing an important role in encouraging the spread of democracy. Indeed, if a democratic Iraq is to be the first domino in a line tumbling across the region, the United States will need Al Jazeera to spread the good news.
Today, the media market in most African countries is a mix of state-controlled broadcasting and a limited, often self-censored, press. To remedy this problem, a partnership of African governments, entrepreneurs, and nongovernmental organizations, with the support of Western donors, should establish an independent, indigenous, multimedia, multilingual, pan-continental broadcasting network—owned and managed by Africans. Such an entity, broadcasting on television, radio, and the Internet, would push secretive governments toward greater transparency, foster economic and political ties between distant parts of the continent, and report honestly on events and trends affecting Africans. Had such a network been on hand to counter the malicious violence-inciting Rwandan media in 1994, the killing might not have assumed genocidal proportions. One wonders, for example, how the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region might have played out differently had the African journalists reporting on the ground been able to sooner to capture and broadcast television pictures of the tragedy.
To be sure, tremendous obstacles stand in the way of establishing a pan-African broadcaster. There will be no shortage of African governments that aim to harass such a network. Some Western countries, such as the United States and Britain, may see such an entity as a threat to their carefully crafted communications and public diplomacy strategies. And a truly African network would have to navigate a number of complex issues, including language, content, distribution, funding, and regulation.
These obstacles can be overcome. As Arab governments have learned, it is almost impossible to prevent people from watching satellite television or listening to transnational radio. There are also a number of private, Africa-based initiatives already under way whose expertise could be incorporated into a larger effort. Some, like the Africa Together Vision (ATV) project, are already investigating the feasibility of a pan-African TV channel; others, such as AllAfrica.com and Inter Press Service have become unofficial pan-African news agencies.
What’s more, an African news network would be affordable. Al Jazeera was established with an initial grant of $140 million. The BBC World Service, broadcasting in more than 40 languages, runs on an annual budget of around $425 million. In the context of the $40 billion of debt recently written off by developed world governments, the sum required to create a pan-African broadcasting company—perhaps $300 million—seems modest. To date, Western organizations such as Internews and the BBC World Service Trust have worked hard to train African journalists. It is time to take the next step. When they sit down to discuss African aid and debt relief next month, the G-8 leaders should take a moment to talk TV.