The Role that Technology Plays in Shaping Journalism in Africa

Some years ago, communication in Africa was next to impossible. It has even been called the ‘Dark Continent’ always associated with sickness, poverty, power outages and almost a non-existent telecommunication system.

 The main source of communication was fixed landlines either at home, public or in the office and the traditional snail mail.

In Kenya, for instance in the 80’s one had to book a call through an operator, which was then called a ‘trunk call’. Sometimes the ‘trunk calls’ had to be booked a day or two in advance depending on the availability of the lines.  As for mail, people used to hand write and/or type letters using a typewriter. The letter was then stamped and posted and received through the post office. Often it could take days for a person to receive through their box number (if they had any) and respond back the same way.

Journalists working at that time used a notebook, a pen and a tape recorder to collect stories. It made the news gathering process slow making it difficult to beat deadlines.

While people still use these traditional methods of communication, advancement of technology in the 20th Century has shaped the way we communicate. Today, Africa is now the second most connected region by mobile subscription in the world with over 600 million subscriptions, beating Europe and America.

Information Transformation

Technology has revolutionalized the way people communicate today especially in Africa. Mobile phones have made it possible for people to communicate anywhere and anytime. People use it to send, receive messages, bank, take pictures, record sound and videos and access the Internet, and send emails as they would on a computer.

Having access to information has meant that people can choose what type of news they want to consume. The Internet has made it possible for people to connect with the rest of the world instantly. One just needs a computer or mobile and an Internet connection.

Infact, the trend shows that in Africa, people prefer to use their phones to receive and send information.

Statistics show that by 2014, cell-phone use in Africa will grow to an estimated 100 percent. This is due to the fact that the cost of owning and maintaining a phone has reduced drastically, increasing the phone penetration in Africa.

What does this new development mean for journalists today?                       

Technology in relation to journalism

The digital revolution has meant that people can choose what type of news they want to consume. It has also meant that people can also be part of the news gathering process and do not have to depend entirely on the media as the main sources of information.

All one needs to do is to log on online through either their mobile phone or computer and browse the information they want to read.  They can either choose to read the whole story or part of it and even participate by leaving a comment.

A while back newspapers and radio served to be the main source of information and enjoyed the monopoly. One however had to wait for the morning paper to read yesterdays news and the flow of communication was one way.

Journalist and media houses have had to contend with new times. The new powerful tools at the journalists disposal has made it possible for information to be collected and distributed to larger networks giving readers different options.

On the other hand, the consumers of news are steering away from the old traditional media; creating their own news and dictating the kind of news they want to read.

For journalists, reporting on stories was limited to the media houses they worked for. They used expensive equipment such as cameras, video cameras to capture their stories.

Today however, most phones are equipped with a still and video camera, audio and Internet. This capability meant that anyone with access to a phone with these capabilities could be part of the news gathering process.

This gave rise to what is called ‘citizen journalists’ a term used to refer to ordinary people reporting on any story of interest and sharing it on the net.

There were fears that with the proliferation of citizen journalists, professional journalists would not have a job. As time went by and new media platforms arose, research has shown that journalists will always be there – they just have to adapt to the new reporting methods

Other labels that have come up include ‘civilian journalism’, ‘user generated journalism’ and ‘participatory journalism’ which are collective terms used to refer to digital content that is produced and shared by ordinary people aside from the professional journalists.

Most African countries have seen an increase in mobile and internet connection.  Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa are currently the biggest mobile phone markets in Africa. Nigeria is has 100 million mobile subscribers, making it the largest mobile money in the continent.

Kenya’s mobile phone subscriptions have risen to 29 million due to cheap calling rates and introduction of fiber optic cables. It also enjoys a wide network coverage. South Africa on the other hand, which has a population of about 40 million, has the largest fixed line broadband market in the continent.

From the examples above it clear that the future for Africa is mobile. An increase in mobile subscription, data availability and internet access contribute to this increase. There are currently 8.5 million internet users and around 7.9 million of these accesses the internet through their phone.

With the above facts in mind, how then has technology has played a role in shaping journalism in the continent? I will look a brief history of the African press.

 A brief History of African press

According to Barton (1979) and Faringer (1991), Egypt had the firstnewspaper in 1797followed by South Africa and then Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Most of these newspapers were government owned and operated by Europeans since most African countries were then under colonial rule. In East Africa, the Europeans, Indians and Africans owned the newspapers.

Politicians ran the African press the Asians own printing presses while the Europeans provided advertising.

The first newspaper in East Africa was the East African and the Ugandan Mail in 1899. While the Standard (then called the East African Standard) was started in Mombasa in 1902.

Research show that radio has been the widely most used from of communicating in the continent.

After most African countries achieved independence, most of the media houses continued to be under the control of politicians, most of them owning a stake in most of the public broadcasters.  This meant that they could only report on what was favourable to them.

Community radio and media has been set up to steer away from this kind of reporting and new media tools such as Facebook and Twitter has made it possible for people to participate in the news gathering process.

Using such new media tools, the public demands transparency from their governments and even air their views as seen with the case of The Arab Spring.

Social Media 

One cannot talk about technology and not talk about social media. Over the past three years, the world has seen the power of social media. The Arab Spring is perhaps the best example to illustrate this fact.

Ordinary people took it upon themselves to report on what was going on the ground. As seen in the case of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, the digital revolution has made it possible for people to self-publish on the web either through blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter among others.

The digital revolution has provided new communication platforms which gave people opportunity to say ‘what is on their mind’. Although Facebook and Twitter weren’t set up with political activism in mind, they have proved to play an important role in relaying information to a group of people and was successfully used in Egypt and Tunisia to mobilize people to action and change.

For journalists, this has meant that they are in the spotlight. Sometimes what they report in the media comes under scrutiny and can make or break the journalist.

Citizen Journalism

Citizen journalist or CJ’s are non-professional journalists reporting and producing stories. Most of them produce stories that are not reported by the media houses because they either do not consider them newsworthy or do not have a correspondent on the ground to cover the story for them.

They use mobile phones, audio recorders, pen and paper as well as computers. They are driven to tell stories because they feel a sense of responsibility and not because they will get paid for what they do.  The power of citizen journalism was illustrated in Arab countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to report on what was happening on the ground and captured powerful footage that the media used compliment their stories.

In countries where the mainstream media was controlled by the government, citizen journalists were at the forefront in reporting about what was going on around them.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) In Africa

It is safe to say that online journalism in Africa is growing at a tremendous rate due to the reducing cost of electronics such as mobile phones and computers and even electricity.

The fiber optics cable has also contributed to the availability of information because it has meant people having cheaper access to the Internet.

Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) have also increased in the continent so have mobile service providers.

Just ten years ago, the cost of making a mobile call very high and even owning a mobile phone was a privilege – reserved for the elite. Today however even in the remote places of the continent, communication is possible due to the affordability of the mobile phones and the good reception.

Kenya

Kenya has seen a tremendous increase of mobile phone subscriptions. In 2000, there were only 127,404 mobile phone subscriptions. Today more than 54% of the population has access to a mobile phone.

Most of their phones can not only send and receive messages but access the Internet.  

While Internet and mobile penetration might seem lower in some countries, studies show there has been a steady increase Internet users.

Since the inception of mobile broadband in 2009, most people prefer it to the fixed broadband subscriptions.

CASE STUDIES

A number of organizations have come together with brilliant ideas for citizen journalism. It seems that from the case studies, most of the organizations want to work with people with some knowledge of reporting and have access to mobile phones.

One of the projects that have been successful is Voices of Africa. It is a Netherlands based organization based in the Netherlands that trains reporters across the African continent on the effective use of mobile phones for reporting. 

The reporters are given with second-hand mobile phones, which they use to report on almost anything.

Some of the content produced has been picked up by leading media houses and used to compliment their stories.

Frontline SMS

Most of the messages are sent to a group of people that have subscribed to the service. It has proved to be effective in that one does not need Internet access to receive the message.

This has proved effective in the area of health and has been used by doctors to disseminate information to their target group. Subscribers can also respond to the message regardless of their location making it important for information gathering and dissemination.

With all this changes then, what is the role that technology plays in shaping journalism in Africa?

Technology and Journalism

The 20th century has media types experiencing what they call convergence. It refers to the coming together of different mass mediums into one platform. 

This digital revolution means that journalists and media houses at large will have to conform to the new trends of reporting. The world now is experiencing a ‘multiplicity of media’, which gives the consumer of news the power to share and even report.

The recent trends discussed above show that citizen journalists will work hand in hand with the professional journalists and the former has actually made mass media more responsive to customer needs.

Additionally, modern journalists have to acquire new skills in order to be versatile, produce in-depth stories, enrich their stories by linking it to other stories and make it available online.

New media has made it possible for people to watch and even create what they want and ‘self broadcast’. No longer does communication flow in one way. 

All these trends prove that since most of the news is captured digitally, it is obvious that it will be shared online.  Infact hard copy newspapers have felt the pinch over the last couple of years and have had to migrate online.

However, this does not mean that they will be done away completely rather they will compliment the online issues.

This online shift has led media houses to team up with mobile service providers to come up with a subscription services for news via Short Messaging System (sms). People who subscribe to these services receive updates as and when they appear.

Subscribers can also send a text or email to report on traffic or an incident as and when it happens.

The BBC sums it up very well, ‘The changing nature of news offers a diversity of voices, sources and choice…and lets anyone join in global and local conversations’. The new media is indeed shaping journalism.

According to The New Market Leaders book by Fred Wiersema, in order for media companies to ‘survive and thrive, they need to attract valuable customers now and in the future’.  Media houses are now diversifying in order to survive as businesses.

What does this mean to the journalists in Africa? They also have to look for ways to diversify and acquire skills necessary to keep up with the digital age.

Challenges

While the future of journalism in Africa is bright due to the convergence and multiplicity of media there are however some significant stumbling blocks. Apart from access to technology, training and infrastructure, there is also the issue of restrictive governments.

In Tunisia, there are laws in place that limit the freedom of expression even on the Internet. ISP’s are required to release the names of the users to the government on a monthly basis. In addition, the country has a single telecommunications network that is government owned and all traffic passes through it.

Tunisian online journalist Toufik Ben Brick was beaten up criticizing the government while two journalists from Sierra Leone were arrested for was termed as ‘illegal online activity’.

Senegalese journalist Daniel Bekoutou life was threatened after he wrote a story about the former Chad president Hissene Habre titled ‘Hunting the Dictator’. This is perhaps why only 1 percent of the country’s population are internet users.

According to Tanya Accone, executive producer of MWeb Africa, the Web enables African journalists to ‘access free information, to tap into experts anywhere on the globe, and the capacity to monitor alternate reporting and perspective on a variety of issues’.

She states further that one of the major need for African journalists and media consumers is ‘regional and pan African information.’ People know more about the western countries more than their own continent.

However, things are changing now thanks to technology, which encourages people local content. This has proved to be beneficial since people like to read about what they can relate with.

Infact most of the local content is read by people living in the Diaspora. For instance, 20 percent of the South Africa’s Sunday Times online newspaper launched three years ago,  is accessed by people living outside of South Africa.

Tanzanian based self-taught online journalist Majaliwa Nyenzi started a website also proved to be a portal whereby users could get firsthand information on all the aspects of life in Tanzania.

New media has fostered a culture of debate giving people an opportunity to air their views. It aids in getting to know the issues the readers are concerned with which are not accommodated in the traditional media.

Other challenges online journalism will face is the cost of building and maintaining the websites. What will make it succeed is skills infrastructure, marketing and advertising support. 

Another challenge is that most of the new media is character specific. If a journalist was to report about an event in real time on Twitter, they have only 140 characters to work with and with SMS 160 characters

They need to mould the Internet tools to suite their specific needs and device technical solutions to overcome these challenges.

Another challenge online journalists have to face is that most of the work is not paid for. Most of those who do what they do for the love of it will have to do most of it without the prospect of being paid.

Nigerian internet pundit Hank Eso believes that ‘despite the vast incursion of web pundits and presumed journalists, the field of journalism is (still) well and active’. 

He mostly writes for free to ‘promote dialogue and understanding and to express his freedom of expression. I am at liberty to decide when to write, what to write about, how long and with what regularity’.

The Future

It is safe to say that ‘the web is a way of life which we can no longer escape’ so journalists and media organizations need to embrace the Internet and take advantage of the opportunities it presents.

Even with the new technology, the basic tenets of journalism will remain; honesty, accuracy and fairness.

While some countries have registered a tremendous growth either through mobile telephony, access to internet and internet speed some countries such as Chad are almost totally invisible while other countries battle with freedom of expression.

In conclusion then, it is safe to say that both traditional and new media will not disappear, infact they will work hand in hand and cater for their specialized target groups.

Journalists will therefore have no choice but to bring themselves up to speed and experiment the new technology since anyone with a mobile device that has access to internet has the ability to make news.

The journalist has to ensure that the information they provide is credible, legitimate and valid. We live in a time of what is termed as ‘participatory media’, which allows for comments and reviews of a news item by the consumers.

Journalists therefore have to ensure their stories are credible and give their readers content rich articles.

 Africa is indeed rising!

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