How African governments use advertising as a weapon against media freedom
SEE ALSO :Actis to build Sh11 billion warehousesHOW DID WE GET HERE? The 1990s saw the adoption of multi-party politics in many African countries. This led to relatively liberal constitutions in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana among others. Since then, most African governments have grown anxious about their inability to control the local news agenda, much less articulate government policy. For governments in countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Zimbabwe and more recently Tanzania, controlling the news agenda is seen as a means to stay in power. Views that compete with the state position are often cast as legitimising the opposition agenda. This is part of a much broader strategy for political control which Africanist historians and political scientists have called the “ideology of order”. This is based on the premise that dissent is a threat to nationbuilding and must therefore be diminished.
SEE ALSO :Stalled Sh18 Million Mogotio tanneryAs a result, the media is controlled in subtler ways and its violence is softer. It’s against this background that I interpret the withdrawal of government adverts from the commercial media in Kenya. CONTROLLING MEDIA BUDGETS In Kenya, the decision followed a special cabinet meeting which agreed that a new newspaper would be launched to articulate the government agenda more accurately. The government also argued that the move was part of an initiative to curb runaway spending by lowering advert spend in Kenya’s mainstream media and directing all the money to the new title. A similar move was made in South Africa last year when the government’s communications arm announced that it would scale down government advertising in local commercial media. Instead, advertisements would be carried in the government newspaper Vuk’uzenzele. The decision withdrew an estimated $30 million from the country’s commercial newspaper industry. The South African government also claimed that the move was made to reduce government spending. But critics have argued that the decision was made to punish a media outlet that’s been particularly critical of President Jacob Zuma’s presidency. In both countries the decisions have hit at a particularly hard time for the media industry, providing governments with the perfect tool with which to control the press. WILL A FREE PRESS SURVIVE Commercial news media is going through a period of unprecedented crisis. The old business models are unable to sustain media operations as audiences adopt new ways of consuming news. More than that, mass audiences are growing ever smaller. Newspapers particularly haven’t been able to adapt to the changing profile of the old versus the new newspaper reader. The effect has been that newspapers are no longer as attractive to advertisers. As such, they have to rely a lot more on state money and patronage for survival. To sidestep state control commercial media in Africa must rethink their business models and diversify their revenue streams. It won’t be an easy road but non-state media must also work hard to disrupt this re-emerging narrative of “order”. Nation states cannot revert to the dark days when government policy was singular and alternative viewpoints were silenced or delegitimised. The writer is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism, University of Central Lancashire. The article was originally published on The Conversation.