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Review of Africa's Media: Democracy and the Politics of Belonging


By David Kerr

Africa’s Media: Democracy & the Politics of Belonging. Francis B. Nyamnjoh. Zed Books, London & New York, Unisa Press, Pretoria, 2005, 308pp. ISBN 84277 582 0 HB; 84277 583 9 (pb) £18.95

Africa’s Media is a timely book, bringing together several debates about the media which have been bubbling over the last fifteen years. The sub-title of Nyamnjoh’s book is important. This is not a country-by-country, factual survey of the media (of the type popular in the 1960s and 70s). It is unashamedly polemic, focusing on media’s relationship with African democracy; as such it makes no claim to be geographically comprehensive.

The Introduction and the first two chapters set up the general argument, with examples from various parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The next five chapters use Cameroon as an example illustrating the major arguments presented in the early part of the book. Only in the final chapter does the author try to broaden the argument again.

Nyamnjoh’s central thesis is that the Northern model of multi-party, liberal democracy, which has been applied to most African countries during the last decade and a half, is culturally inappropriate. It ‘blindly emphasizes individual freedoms in a context where actors are also and obviously more committed to group freedoms and solidarity networks’ (250).

Nyamnjoh sees the impact of multi-party democracy on African media in mostly negative terms. During the 1970s and early 1980s almost all African governments kept a tight reign on the media, supposedly for the sake of national unity. This was achieved by ownership or control of the broadcast media as an ideological ‘hyperdermic’ inoculating the citizens against national disintegration, while print media, whether private or government-owned, were tightly controlled through regulatory practices. Too often, as the Cameroon examples show, government control quickly descended into repressive totalitarianism, and introduction of pluralistic media policies in the 1990s was almost entirely cosmetic.

The reforms that Northern donor agencies insisted upon in the early ’90s as a price for continuing budgetary support, had their biggest impact on the print media, which began to proliferate, supposedly as a manifestation of pluralism. Nyamnjoh’s major point is that the private print media do not normally comply with democratic ideals of journalism as champion of truth and fairness. Too often ‘media practitioners [use] liberal democracy simply as a smokescreen behind which to articulate hidden ethnic, regional and sectarian agendas, while presenting themselves as victims of repressive laws and authoritarian governments’ (79). The most terrifying example of media influence on community loyalties, came not from newspapers, but from radio. The 1992 broadcasts by Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda was a major factor in the ethnic violence against Tutsis and ‘moderate Hutus’.

Not all of Nyamnjoh’s analysis is pessimistic. Although he sees the potential for African community loyalties to be manipulated by the media, he also sees the vigour in African community ‘ora-media’, which provide a useful counter-narrative to official government microphones. Particularly in chapter 7, Nyamnjoh celebrates such African traditions of rumour as radio trottoir and other forms of creative community communication, within which he includes political cartooning. He makes the point that rumour often serves as ‘the undoctored counter-truth of citizens questioning life at the margins of state power and skewed indicators of news-worthiness’ (217). He is also quick to point out the way internet communication sometimes interfaces with African ora-media, though he doesn’t pursue this point with detailed examples.

Africa’s Media provides an excellent anatomisation of the problems faced by African media in their relationship to a democratization process, which has some indigenous imperatives, but many others that are imported. If there is anything to criticize, it might be the attempt to trace possible solutions to the dilemmas the author raises. Nyamnjoh relies heavily on media scholar and policy-maker, Cecil Blake, who recommends self-regulation as a solution to both the heavy-handed regulations of government and the irresponsibility of private or community media.

Although this recommendation makes sense, the problems it has to address seem too weighty for a speedy application. The truth is that the struggle to achieve an indigenous African democratic media, which can interact on a relatively equal basis with global communication networks, is bound to be a long one, requiring capacity building and strategic alliances. Africa’s Media gives a thorough account of some of the players in this process, but only marginally discusses others. In particular, there is a need to examine the role of NGOs in both encouraging and co-opting African counter-media. There is also scope to discuss ways the informal counter-media referred to in Chapter 7 may develop creative alternatives to the Northern media bequeathed to Africa in the colonial and post-colonial periods. That, however, would probably require another book, one which, according to the evidence of Africa’s Media, Nyamnjoh would be very well qualified to write.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 91-93]

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