'How do media interface with the Governing of African Public Space?'

'How do media interface with the Governing of African Public Space?' This was the subject of a panel, which I moderated at the recent CODESRIA General Assembly in Yaoundé in early December 2008. Of the three papers presented two discussed the role of media in the recent Kenyan election and one the media performance in the run-up to Zimbabwe’s national elections 2008.

The papers were not only topical, they all raised issues of major concern about the media and how it impacted on the outcome of these two contested election results. One paper discussed the ethnic discourse used by media before and after elections in Kenya. Arguing that the “mega-ethnicity “seen in 2007 was of a larger scale than had been seen in any previous elections it analyzed the usage of language to depict oneself and the “others”. It was also noted that modern campaign machines such as songs, advertisements and SMS allow for a much more brutal language than conventional newspapers.

The second paper on Kenya discussed the role of media as both an arena and actor in the public sphere. It was argued that in Kenya the media played an active role in fuelling the conflict between the contending parties. Rather than presenting a balanced view of particular events the newspapers used the language of battle to recreate conflict and drama. It was also noted that not only did journalists align themselves with particular political arguments, they also allowed themselves to become manipulated by politicians.

The paper on Zimbabwe discussed the dichotomous nature of media outreach in the Zimbabwean society with different distinct sites for formation and communication of public opinion.   Trying to answer the question if Zimbabweans are talking on each other from different platforms the paper reflected on policy implications for media structure and content.

The notion that urban and rural populations in Zimbabwe are divided media-wise resulting in different voting patterns was however contested in the following discussion. Reference was made to radio, internet and mobile telephones which today are presenting countervailing public space. “People are subjects also in the rural areas” as one participant said.

In the summary I noted the central role played by media in todays’ political contestation. The question whether media should be entrusted to regulate itself or not is difficult and has recently been set to a test in Kenya.

CODESRIA, or the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, gathered a record number of over 500 social scientists from Africa and abroad for its 2008 General Assembly in Yaoundé, Cameroon. We at the Nordic Africa Institute join in welcoming the new Executive Secretary, Dr. Ebrima Sall, a former research coordinator at NAI and most recently Research Director of CODESRIA, and the new President of the Council Professor Sam Moyo of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Zimbabwe.

On a personal note I am happy to report that the already good cooperation between NAI and CODESRIA will move into a more formalized stage during the coming year. In February 2009 we expect to receive Dr. Ebrima Sall in Uppsala for continued discussions.

Carin Norberg
Director of the Nordic Africa Institute

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