During the days leading up to South Africa’s first democratic election, Nelson Mandela stood before the International Press Institute Congress in Cape Town and declared that ‘a critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy’.
Nearly a quarter century later, a free press continues, as Mandela described it, to be “the vigilant watchdog of the public interest.”
The free press has helped topple dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, expose state capture in South Africa, and shed light on injustice in Sudan and Syria, North Korea, and Nicaragua.
Yet, this essential guardian of the public interest has been subject to frequent attack, particularly from those wishing to use it for their own political or economic gain.
Across the continent—and in some places around the globe—media outlets are increasingly under obligation to wealthy advertisers and corporate will, or wielded as instruments of unethical state leaders.
As a result, too often, large media organizations fail to represent the issues that most concern the communities they serve.
Worse, other communities, cut off from the radio or internet, have no access to vitally important information at all.
And when brave journalists attempt to defy powerful interests, they are sometimes met with imprisonment and violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise.
Despite this opposition, a number of individuals and organizations across Africa are persisting, wielding the power of the press to challenge injustice and champion their communities.
These community journalists report on the topics that media outlets bound to ad revenue often fail to cover adequately, making them an invaluable resource across the continent.
That is why the Ford Foundation is thrilled to partner with Bloomberg on the Community Media Fund, which aims to strengthen community media intended for provincial, urban, and rural lower income audiences.
These citizen journalists— located in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa—work to enhance access to relevant information, enable readers to understand business and finance principles, and empower their communities to support inclusive policies and practices.
Already, we’ve seen how grassroots organizations like these have changed and saved lives.
In Sierra Leone, for example, local women disseminated information about the Ebola virus through community radio networks. And in Nigeria, the South Saharan Social Development Organization created a radio station that lets citizens pose critical financial and budget-related questions to their local representatives.
These examples show us the path forward. There is, however, plenty more work to do. This year—with the help of the Community Media Fund—the Kenya Community Media Network will kick start development of a community media hub, which will provide technical support to citizen journalists.
They will also build a web-based platform for compiling and amplifying citizens’ voices on issues related to government accountability.
In Lagos, the Nigerian Community Radio Coalition will provide sustainability training to five newly licensed community radio stations across the country, and spread information on transparency in local governance.
And in South Africa, Sonke Gender Justice will continue to use community radio stations to promote gender equality, domestic and sexual violence awareness, and HIV/AIDS education.
In a world where ignorance and misinformation constitute some of the gravest threats to freedom, the importance of these programs cannot be understated.
These organizations—along with the seven others awarded Community Media Fund Grants—are especially needed in rural areas where community journalism may be the only source of reliable information or alternative views.
And more broadly, independent journalism remains an invaluable tool in a democracy: for holding representatives accountable, for enhancing financial and political literacy, for elevating the voices of the underrepresented.
We therefore have a responsibility to support, and defend, those who seek to fill the gaps and tell the stories not being told. Ultimately, community media is not only the ‘lifeblood of democracy’, but a necessary precondition for justice.
In giving voices to the voiceless—and information to the ignored—we can strengthen human understanding, push back against narratives that fuel intolerance, and disrupt inequality.
Each and every radio segment and educational article advances the inspiring democratic vision for this continent that Mandela described more than two decades ago—and brings us one step closer to a just, fair society.
Mr Walker is the President of the Ford Foundation