Celebrated Kenyan anti-corruption activist and public intellectual, John Githongo made some revealing remarks in his keynote speech to the 9th East Africa Communications Association in Nairobi last week.
Speaking to delegates from 11 countries about “Freedom in the digital age”, Githongo noted that “After the end of the Cold War, governments withdrew from the media” but “in the last 8 years”, that has changed; “Governments are back” investing in the sector.
According to Githongo, “Governments are back because they have to define the narrative” and assert or reassert their power and influence.
Indeed, following the collapse of the ideological war between the West─the United States of America and Europe and the East─the Soviet Union and its allies in 1989, African governments liberalized the media sector in the decade that followed.
This liberalization led to the opening up of independent media houses and FM radio stations across the continent while the west gradually cut back funding to their varied media outlets that promoted their worldviews across the world and in Africa.
However, the way western powers “are back” in the media and the way China is joining the contest in Africa, is different from the way African governments “are back”.
While western powers like the United Kingdom, Russia, Turkey, and China are investing billions of dollars in traditional media in Africa─like television and radio stations and recruiting Africa’s talented journalists, governments on the continent “are not investing in the [traditional] media, they are investing in [their] disruptions”, according to Githongo.
By “investing in disruptions”, Githongo means that continental governments are funding “armies” of Twitter and Facebook post writers who pretend to be “independent” influencers, ghost bloggers, and anonymous propaganda websites, etc.
And the reason African governments are doing this is because, unlike in the past, where state television and radio would control the narrative about what the president and his officials did or didn’t do, in today’s digital age, ordinary citizens, through social media, tell the story before the state does; and therefore, the state is trying to disrupt this flow of information to regain the narrative.
And as I argued last week, this trend follows the increasing capacity of governments to block news outlets; whether internal or external that they don’t like. But because these western powers and China come with bags of money to sooth the minds of “local” regulators and because they have also invested heavily in their channels, they are likely to have more influence than our local media that is poorly resourced; ideologically sightless and self-censoring.
In other words, while western powers and China are involved in the struggle to control continental and global narrative─of who is good, virtuous and better among these competitors, governments in Africa are interested in controlling the local narrative and silence dissent.
For the West and China, it’s a competition to win hearts and minds on the continent; for African governments, it’s controlling local populations and promoting the “good” image of government and leaders.
So far, the Chinese have invested $6.6 billion in the media, including investments in entities like Africa Now, China Global Television (CGTN), China Media Group and China’s Pan-African Network Group (PANGA) based in Kenya and Konka Group with offices in Egypt to partake to the regional television market, etc. This is in addition to investing heavily in telecommunications and telephony technology on the continent, in which, as the Financial Times reports, Huawei and ZTE have established telecommunication networks across the continent. Transition Holdings, a Chinese company, control at least 30% of the phone market and since media is increasingly being consumed on phone, you can trust the future belongs to those who control telephone technology and content production.
Besides China, Russia spends $1bn every year on the media; Turkey $1.4bn every year and UK just inaugurated a $38m studio in Nairobi, Kenya─the largest outside the UK. And, of course, the United States still operates its Voice of America radio and television and there is even talk of reviving the defunct State Department’s Information Agency, etc.
Meanwhile, African governments still seek to influence the outside world through lobbyists whom they pay exorbitant fees and western media─they accuse of being biased and ideological!
Remember, none of the African state has any media outside its borders and talk of investing in “Africa’s media to tell Africa’s story” has remained as elusive as talk of “Africa finding solutions to Africa’s problems”.
To Githongo, “The reason [the] Chinese, Russians, UK and Turkey are investing in [the] media is because they have a strategy. Africans don’t have a strategy”.
Beyond lack of a strategy however, there are more reasons why Europeans, Chinese, Russians, and Turks are funding traditional media on the continent, as Africa’s leaders fund short-term and sometimes uncoordinated Twitter and Facebook “influencers” and anonymous “news” websites.
The first reason is the objective; since, even having a strategy without what it intends to promote or achieve would be meaningless.
Countries like China, UK, Turkey and Russia are investing in media because they are outward looking, seek global influence and power and have clearly defined economic and strategic interests to secure on the continent.
In other words, these states not only recognize the soft power media wields to win heart and minds but also know that controlling the airwaves on the continent is one of the best ways they can achieve their articulated goals.
In fact, these states have even defined the general message or narrative their media are wiring stories around: the Chinese, for example, promote their involvement in Africa as a “brotherly partnership” intended to get “win-win” outcomes while the British present their involvement as one of “mutual benefit” and “promoting universal values”.
In part, that’s why these countries also fund cultural exchanges, offer scholarships to Africans to go study in their countries, fund trips to their countries for our officials and build cultural centers on the continent.
This trend directly relates to two more trends: China’s “Roads and Belt initiative” that constructs infrastructure all over the place and the many “Cooperation summits” Africa’s leaders are invited to. These include the China-Africa Cooperation Summit; Tokyo International Conference on Africa Summit, US-Africa Summit, EU-Africa Summit, etc.
To the Chinese and the west therefore, controlling and seeking to “own” the world takes synchronizing deeds and words (media Content) and writing and airing beautiful stories of: “We are good; well-intentioned and promoting mutual and beneficial relationships; NOT seeking to ‘colonize’ or exploit”.
African states, on the other hand, have neither strategically defined what they seek to achieve globally nor have they, collectively, appreciated the power of the media to pursue African Union’s Agenda 2063.
Secondly, most African governments are involved in the struggle for “regime survival” to be concerned with influencing global or continental minds. As a result, they fund media outlets that do public relations for the ruling party or groups.
Thirdly, unlike ‘developed’ nations, most African states haven’t yet defined national interests and most conflate interests of the ruling party with those of the nation. Since elites in these nations lack consensus on these “interests”, they can’t promote or fund a united voice beyond their borders.
Fourth, in most African countries, the role of the media internally and externally, hasn’t been properly articulated and determined beyond general statements read in liberal textbooks written from other contexts. Even when conferences are held about the media, say, in Rwanda, it’s discussed from the textbook understanding of the media – rather than from beliefs of local actors about what the media’s role should be and why.
Articulation of the role of media internally and externally normally unlock the media’s potential and open eyes of officials to fund professional, independent, strong and sustainable media houses.
Finally, in most African states, most priorities are funded by donors; donors don’t fund media outlets; except “capacity building”! Until African states take serious the power of the media and invest in it, they cannot influence much in the world.
In the end, it’s plausible to conclude that while China and the west are investing to win over, “own” and control the world, Africa’s leaders, as it were, are investing to protect their jobs and, externally, be controlled by outsiders!
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