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The role of the media in fragile states: can donors help improve the quality of journalism?

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30
Hero image description: Press conference with Kenyan Prime Minister Rail Odinga Image credit:Comsec/Rebecca Nduku Image license:Creative Commons


Elisebet Helander - Consultant, MA Global Media, SOAS

Fletchor Tembo - Research Fellow, ODI

James Putzel - Director, Crisis States Research Centre, LSE

Agnès Callamard- Executive Director, Article 19


James Deane - Head of Policy, BBC World Service Trust

Welcome by James Deane

James began by explaining how the media is a source of democratic accountability. It provides a ‘fulcrum for public debate’. It’s a way ‘that marginalised voices get heard’.

He suggested that one criticism of this position is that it’s a romantic view of the role of media – it is ‘airbrushed and highly normative’. The plan was to talk about this normative view, particularly in fractured states.

In states where the political environment is fractured along, for instance, ethnic, political, and religious lines, the media can exacerbate these fractures. James said that later on he hoped the panel would also discuss the definition of ‘media’.

Elisebet Helander

Elisebet began by outlining a paper she authored last year. This was a critical review of the Kenyan media system through the eyes of journalists. It involved a field study, based on interviews with 50 journalists in print and broadcast media.

The paper asked how the practice of journalism relates to the media system. The journalists each raised the issue of how media is compromised by politicians and owners. This depends on how much direct political influence over the media there is in each country – so, for example, in some countries, MPs own radio stations.

The media landscape is worsened by poor employment conditions and threats to journalists, as well as practices such as ‘brown envelope journalism’, which involve bribes to, for instance, encourage journalists to come to a press conference or offer support or allegiance. Elisebet explained that this takes place quite routinely in several countries, and Kenya has its share of it.

She has spoken to Kenyan journalists who told her that they have been paid to kill a story or not continue with it. Therefore the media, instead of championing democracy, can be part of the problem.

Elisebet went on to argue that it is difficult to avoid talking about ethnicity. Referring to it is unavoidable, but can be contentious. The policy of some papers is not to talk about it at all.

Ethnicity is also a useful campaign tool. The media will often relay what politicians say in campaign speeches, which can be focussed against certain ethnicities.

Another issue is that journalists have very little job security, and this has an impact on the quality of reporting. Worse than this, sometimes journalists do not feel safe.

But the media do have a responsibility to citizens, and therefore needs to be regulated better. This is often difficult to achieve because the market is so small, and highly concentrated. Journalists are also often forbidden to join trade unions.

And yet this has to be balanced against the fact that lifting censorship is almost a recipe for conflict. An open and inclusive mass media is elusive – tendentious reporting and rumour-spreading can heighten tensions. According to Elisebet, every Kenyan election involves this dynamic, which escalated after the 2007 election.

Agnès Callamard

Agnèsdiscussed the legal context of defamation laws in fragile states. A significant problem is that there is often a very poor context of democratic institution-building in such states.

To achieve the desired context, it’s important to have a good, independent regulatory framework. No African country has a good enough one at the moment, even South Africa. There are, for example, no objective criteria guiding the allocation of media licences.

Another weakness of the current system is the focus on pluralism at the expense of diversity. Thus we’ve seen the liberalisation of airways since 1990s. But it’s important to put far less focus on diversity. At present, there is a pluralism of ownership but no diversity of reporting, leading to media bias.

Agnès outlined how, between 2003 and 2008, the number of cellphone subscriptions in Africa rose from 11 million to 248 million, the biggest rise in the world. Fewer than 3% people in rural areas have access to landlines. 40%, however, have cellphone access, which means they can access SMS news, banking, and internet access (though this is still quite expensive). Though it is clear that during the next few years most people in Africa will be able to get internet access through their mobiles, this situation raises many questions, particularly around media diversity.

In the 2010 referendum on the Kenyan constitution the problems that the country had experienced in 2007-8 did not happen again. The majority of Kenyans did not want to see such violence again.

After the 2007 election, politicians were criticised by civil society organisations for provoking the violence, but journalists were not. Those who used state systems to put forward terrible ideologies were blamed. A number of MPs were charged with incitement of hatred, but nothing was done against the media.

The media itself has now invested a lot in, for example, a code of conduct; media owners have done likewise. Kenya should be studied as a great example of a country and a democracy that has done well in the context of a fragile state.

Do regulatory systems constitute the answer, then?

The first point to remember is that European media took a lot longer than 15 years to regulate.

Secondly, frameworks are very fragile in Africa.

James Deane asked whether Agnès was perhaps advocating a stronger level of regulation than might be acceptable that, for instance, in the US?

Agnès answered that she was talking about regulatory bodies. So in the US, the legal landscape has lower restrictions on hate speech but stronger on nudity for instance. In Africa, it will be possible to adapt regulation to circumstances and rethink if they don’t work.

James Putzel – LSE

James began his talk with two key points:

1.       We need states to guarantee rights

2.       Today’s liberal, OECD countries almost to a country did not develop with free mass media

Media can be used to promote peace or violence. Media can be constitutive of a state (such as in Uganda post-’86 (especially in the case radio)) or can lead to the unravelling of a state.

The media’s role in the development of democracy is problematic. There can be a contradiction between private media ownership (which means that it can be monopolised) and the role of media as a ‘third estate’.

The development of ethics of professional journalism is linked to the development of civil society. This is extremely important in order to develop standards of behaviour, and is very difficult for poor states to achieve.

Not all poor countries are fragile. Fragile states are those which are defined as particularly vulnerable to conflict; where non-state actors challenge the state’s authority; where there is a proliferation of arbitrary violence; where the state’s territorial reach does not reach its own resources; where rival authorities demand revenue; and where rival institutions and laws trump those of the state – where there are situations of ‘institutional multiplicity’.

But poor states can also be the opposite of this paradigm – they can be resilient states. Compare Zambia and Tanzania with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.

The difference lies in political organisation, especially the way elite interests are organised. States differ in terms of the type of executive authority they set up.

An executive authority has to have enough control to give incentives to elites – to protect property rights for instance, and punish those who deviate.

There is also the question of what sort of mechanisms exist to limit abuses of authority. There needs to be a balance to the executive within the political organisation or outside the political organisation (consider trade unions in Zambia).

So media is very important. When politics is contested as a zero-sum game, for example through ethnicity, the media is not able to play as constructive a role.

James concluded with 3 points:

1. The freedom of the media, like other rights, can only be achieved incrementally – otherwise there will always be a tit-for-tat struggle between people and state. The state needs to guarantee rights and order.

2. It can be legitimate for the state to curtail media if the alternative is for the state to unravel.

3. In the right conditions, the media can be a check on the state.

He also suggested 3 policy ideas:

1. It can never be appropriate for donors to promote media without understanding the country context. To do otherwise is to violate the ‘do no harm’ principle.

2. It is inappropriate to view the development of media as a measure of state performance.

3. Donors can almost always contribute to third-party enforcement in promoting the aspiration that independent media is a source of legitimacy, at least where there is reasonable pressure working towards incrementally improving the position of the media.

Fletcher Tembo

Fletcher began by describing the Mwananchi Programme, a DFID-funded programme in 7 African countries.

The Programme’s Theory of Change looks at how demand for good governance could be achieved. It focuses on actors between the citizen and state – media, traditional leaders etc.

It is important to challenge the idea that the media can create the public sphere.

The Kenyan experience might suggest, for example to observers in Malawi, that there could be something we cannot yet see that one day could blow up.

The growth of multiparty democracy has, in a way, meant less unity.  There is a need to embrace reality and see how it can work.

Fletcher then asked, where there are tension points, what can the media do? It is important to explore the need for a better evidence base – under what circumstances can the media make things better?

Out of that contextual analysis, we will then be able to design support mechanisms.

One problem is that there are many any actors currently promoting civil society values. There is also a proliferation of new media, and suspicion about other new technologies. Do SIM cards mean, for example, that the state can follow you?

Fletcher suggested that in fragile states, such as Southern Sudan, it is important to look for whatever small function of the state that is working well and build on it.

James Deane asked to what extent the media is a brake on a functioning state, and to what extent it’s an engine?

Fletcher replied that it’s not as simple as that. Some media in Southern Sudan is isolated and vulnerable; some is operating from Kenya or Uganda; and some is based around the Church.


Questions included:

Vernacular news media –

In Kenya, the questioner was actively discouraged from learning his vernacular language because it was seen as antithetical to nation-building. Donors have bought into this. It is important that media is developed that speaks in languages that aren’t English and Swahili.

The reason that Kenya boiled over was because there was no opportunity before to have the debate. There were many attempts to calm down the situation as well as to ramp it up.

Constitutional position of media:

Constitutional orders should allow voices to be heard. As long as you leave the state to define the agenda, it can also define the legitimacy of alternative discourses. States should allow the existence of alternative voices.

Thus the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation is deeply compromised; it has a history of stigmatisation because of its association with the state.

A further questioner added that it is good to have different voices, but if they start inciting and working against state-building, it is legitimate to silence them.

Citizen Journalism:

Should we support rather than regulate citizen journalism in, for instance, Southern Sudan or Somalia? The growth of Al Shabaab suggests that this sort of journalism is becoming more extreme.

Development of media as indicator of development

A questioner asked why James Putzel believed that the lack of progress in media freedom in Zimbabwe, for example, should not be held up as an indicator of the failure of state performance?

James replied that it is an indicator, among others. Zimbabwe is moving towards fragility. James Deane added that the independent media in Zimbabwedid used to work as a check on the government.

Media plurality

A questioner asked whether, if we have more choice of what to consume, will this strengthen the ‘echochamber’ of prejudice?

James Deane drew on Cass Sunstein’s argument that when people look to the media, it has the potential to fracture the public sphere. People talk to who they want to.

Agnès Callamard said that firstly, evidence suggests that more choice in fact increases communication. Secondly, we should not decide in London what people in Zambia should be listening to. We need to be far more sophisticated in how we approach the universality of this.

It is true that in Kenya SMS has been used for incitement to hatred. But nothing is ever going to be free of misuse – therefore we need independent regulators.

Another audience member argued that SMS in Kenya also had positive outcomes. The fragmentation of radio is in fact helping to reach a lot of people. TV is also doing this.

Media framework

The next questioner asked whether the systemic issues the workshop had identified had been addressed head-on.

Agnès argued that this was not about the state of media but the state of the state. It is important not to target only the media but to use journalists, codes of ethics, and regulators to prevent violence.

Another audience member suggested that not only do we need regulatory frameworks, but ones that work. She asked Agnès what sort of incentives need to be in place.

Agnès responded that she did not understand the argument. The state is in constant evolution – therefore it won’t always remain fragile.

James Putzel suggested that it is important not to take an idealised approach to media. We need a legal framework – even if no-one applies the laws, they provide a hook for people to grab onto and demand their rights.

But if elite organisations are also armed organisations, ot if they represent just one ethnicity, they should not be able simply to demand universal rights.

There is a certain amount of change that will only take place within the terrain of political organisation. This needs to be understood and maintained when we talk about media organisations or programmes.

Fletcher Tembo added that we need more nuanced ways of understanding how the media works in countries.

Agnès suggested that firstly, the construction of regulatory processes should accompany the democratisation process and the construction of the state. This is a major part of the process, and not an either / or.

Secondly, she argued that rights of course aren’t absolute – international law prevents incitement to hatred and war.

Summing up:

James Deane concluded by arguing that there has not been enough of a debate on this issue. He gave the example that James Putzel and Article 19 have not debated much in the past, or engaged with each other. It is significant that this is now happening. Donors and the development community should pay attention to media.


The independence of reporting and the health and openness of debate in the media are increasingly important factors in fragile states. After many decades of state or colonial control, there has been a swift liberalisation of broadcasting and general lifting of censorship, in pace with democratisation. However, neither regulation nor the institutional structure of the media system has kept up with the changes. It leaves room in the media for ethnic prejudice, incitement, slander, as well as bribery of journalists, all of which undermine political stability and peace. Recent research from Kenya, for example, suggests that the pluralist media system faces manychallenges in providing an open forum for debate based on objective and factual information, as the mass media are directly influenced by different interest groups to benefit their competing political campaigns.

The mass media in fragile states has not been given the attention it requires within policy research. Most donor efforts have been concentrated on the training of journalists and some media monitoring, but this can only have limited effect if the structure of media hinders the practice of high quality professional journalism.

This event consisted of a panel that explored the role of the media in fragile states, with a focus on the Kenyan experience and media development more generally.