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Donor Assistance to South Africa’s Media: Does it Really Help?

Experts discussed the role development aid plays in fostering a vibrant and independent media in South Africa 20 years after apartheid, and in other countries in southern Africa as they grapple with repressive and violent governments.
Titled ‘The Role of Media Development in Democratic Transitions: the Case of Southern Africa,’ the discussion on July 25 was sponsored by Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA).
The core of the discussion was a review of the study ‘South Africa’s Media 20 years after Apartheid’ by Libby Lloyd, a radio and print journalist who is now a consultant on media policy in South Africa. (Please see the July 18 posting on this blog). The discussants included Dave Peterson senior director of the Africa Programme at NED, Amadou Mahtar Ba (CEO, Africa Media Initiative) and Jerri Eddings (programme director, International Center for Journalists). The moderator was Reed Kramer CEO of the AllAfrica Global Media. 
Presenting her study via Skype Lloyd said that freedom of the media and freedom of expression in South Africa did not emerge only by signing a new constitution in 1994. Media freedom had evolved in the post-apartheid era in the face of many challenges.  One such challenge was distrust of the media from the apartheid days when it was a preserve of the urban, white minority. Today, constitutional freedoms allowed journalists to work without fear and the media facilitated citizens engage in noisy debates. Although that was a hallmark of democracy, the question was whether the media helped promoting other rights of citizens enshrined in the South African constitution.
Lloyd said threats to journalists remained. Politicians taken to task by the media were known to turn against journalists. However, freedom of expression and access to information was protected by the constitution and also by a number of landmark judgements by South African courts. There were impediments to exercising these freedoms such as the proposed Bill to restrict access to State information which has been sent up to President Zuma for his signature.
Another danger confronting South African media Lloyd said was the “over-concentration” of media organisations in the hands of few owners. The problem, present mostly in the print media, was similar to the situation during the days of apartheid. This was the result of budget cuts and drive for profits, which had led to “conformity of opinion and benigness” in editorial policy.
Speaking of the role development agencies played in funding media organisations, Lloyd said that due to the withdrawal of foreign funding the media was less diverse today than it was 20 years ago under apartheid. At that time foreign funding helped to promote a range of anti-establishment, independent newspapers, she said. Of them only one remained in publication today. 
However, the few instances of dedicated, targeted media support had contributed to “islands of excellence” in investigative journalism in the on-going struggle for social justice, Lloyd said. She also drew attention to stories written about South Africa by international news agencies like Reuters and AFP, which catered to audiences other than South Africa’s. She emphasised the importance of South African media writing stories for its own audience with a pithy phrase: “Until lions learn to write, the story of the hunt will come from the hunter.”
She concluded by stating the importance of developing models of donor funding where the output was not only independent of the development agencies but were perceived as such too. This would dispel suggestions that the media was serving foreign agendas and contribute to make the products more credible.
Dave Peterson of the NED responding to Lloyd’s statement that development agencies preferred to fund programmes where the impact was more easily measurable than it was in media projects, replied that measuring impact was a problem in all programmes promoting democracy. He said, in certain ways measuring the impact of funding the media was easier because it could be done by analysing circulation, size of the publication, reader responses and the content and quality of the product.
Peterson’s presentation, which was largely an overview of NED’s assistance to media organisations in southern Africa, also served as a commentary of the state of media freedom in those countries. Speaking of Zimbabwe he said it reminded him of South Africa under apartheid. He said the public was afforded a degree of access to information and permitted limited criticism of the government. However, ZANU-PF dominated the media space, he said.
Peterson said a challenge facing the media in southern African countries was colonial era press laws, financially sustaining media institutions and restrictions of access to information. However, the internet, including Ushahidi had emerged as an important alternative media platform by expanding the access of the public to information.
In conclusion Peterson said that media was not only a vehicle that promoted accountability and the delivery of civil services but had intrinsic value in furthering the values of democracy.      
Amadou Mahtar Ba of the Africa Media Initiative said that while it was true that colonial era laws that circumscribed media freedom, African countries were trying to change their constitutions to “open up” by including laws for media freedom.
Mahtar was however sceptical of the benefits of foreign donor funding in improving the domestic media in African countries. He said funding to assist African media was not really helpful because many of the media organisations in Africa were not professional. It was important these organisations operate professionally from governance and disclosure perspectives. Disclosure by the media organisations was important for the public to identify the owners of these organisations, so they could interpret  the slant of the news that was being disseminated.
Jerri Eddings of ICFJ said that the financial viability of news organisations was important. If the media organisations were unable to generate sufficient revenue journalists working for them would be corrupt and underpaid. She said it was important to take advantage of modern technology to cut costs and thereby generate revenue to help organisations function more professionally.
The presentations were followed by Q&A.