The Media, Accountability and Civic Engagement in Africa

2002 Occasional Paper
By Tettey, Wisdom J.

At the beginning of the 1990s, a confluence of internal and external factors produced significant conjunctures in the political landscape of Africa. The most significant result of these developments was a revival of democratic optimism, not only across the African continent but also around the world. One of the areas where the democratic changes have spawned visible changes has been in the media landscape. There has been an unprecedented increase in the number, type and diversity of mass media on the continent.1 The last decade has seen the emergence of various private newspapers and radio stations which offer alternative views on issues, even though some countries, such as Zimbabwe, refuse to ease state control of the electronic media. In Ghana, for example, there has been an increase in private radio and television stations from zero each in 1993 to 13 and two respectively, in 1999. Between December 1998 and March 1999, the Kenyan government awarded eight radio licences to a number of private broadcasters. The Nation Media Group has also been granted a television licence. The number of private newspapers on the continent has also shot up significantly (See Ogbondah 1997:276). These developments stand in stark contrast to what prevailed prior to the 1990s. In the 1980s, for example, all but nine of Africa’s 90 daily newspapers were controlled by governments whereas the electronic media were firmly in the grips of the state (Sandbrook 1996:82). ‘In Francophone Africa, the independent press only started in the 1990s, 30 years after the independence of various states was won’ (Kasoma 1995:540). This expansion and plurality in the media has led many people to believe that one of the critical ingredients of a democratic polity is beginning to take hold. They share the view of democratic theorists like Milton who asserted that a free press advances the cause of democracy by performing watchdog functions over governments, and thereby preventing the latter from appropriating to itself excessive power with which to abuse the citizenry and the political process. The media perform this function by monitoring the activities of governments and taking them to task for any transgressions (Gurevitch and Blumler 1990:270).