African Media Grows as Western Papers Cut Back
By Adelia Saunders, MediaGlobal Correspondent in Paris
MediaGlobal | February 12, 2009
The demise of the news industry has been predicted with eerie frequency lately, and journalists and editors in Europe and North America have reason to be alarmed as news organizations trim budgets and shed staff. But in contrast to the grim outlook of their counterparts overseas, many African journalists are optimistic about the future of the press.
"If you take the media in East Africa, it's business. I mean, before the crisis they were doing fine. They were booming," Albert Rudatsimburwa, director of Contact FM, Rwanda's largest private radio station, said in an interview with MediaGlobal. With little competition from free newspapers and online media, he noted that "papers, relatively, sell more in East Africa than they do in the western world."
In 2007, Kenya's newspaper circulation increased by 45 percent, and while advertising revenues fell in North America, they were up over 13 percent in Africa and the Middle East, according to data compiled by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), an NGO with headquarters in Paris. Larry Kilman, WAN's communications director, cautioned that data on the African news media is difficult to collect. However, what statistics there are suggest that, despite considerable challenges, the industry is gaining speed.
"[If] you look in countries like Kenya, in Ghana, South Africa, the news organizations are profitable, big prominent companies, very well diversified—there is the potential for success," Timothy Spence, Press Director of the International Press Institute (IPI), a Vienna-based network of journalists, told MediaGlobal.
While the current global financial crisis will likely erode some of the private sector investment that underpins independent media everywhere, it isn't likely to derail the steady growth of the news industry in countries such as Rwanda, where the non-state-run, profit-driven media is still young. "There is still so much room left that the impact is not the same," Rudatsimburwa said.
"The media all over the world are challenged right now financially. But Africa—the reason I say I'm bullish is there's a tremendous market there, there's a huge demand for news," Spence said.
Most statistics reflect that this demand for news is increasing worldwide. But while more people are reading newspapers, many of them in Europe and the United States are doing it online, free of charge. And with advertising revenues down, profits for radio, television, and print news media are falling.
Magazine sales in France are beginning to suffer, but the magazine industry "is in good health compared to the daily papers, which have suffered terribly in the last fifteen or so years," said Jean Miot, former editorial director of the French newspaper Le Figaro and former president of Agence France Presse (AFP), at a news conference in Paris last week.
France's top dailies saw their circulation drop more than three percent in 2008, and the French government has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to boost its struggling newspaper industry.
"It seems natural to me that the state should intervene in the crisis of the press and decide to aid—to save—the press," Miot said. He cautioned that too much government support can "suffocate" independent media, but insisted that France's news media needs an infusion of government funding to survive. "I like the words of Albert Camus," he said. "'The press is the conscience of a nation.' It seems completely natural to me that the state should defend this fundamental tool of democracy."
But should France's government aid extend beyond its borders? A strong media can help lay the groundwork for political stability and economic growth, and France has considerable foreign policy interests in the western and central African francophone countries, where media tends to be less developed and less profitable than in the primarily English-speaking east.
"France should aid in the development of the press, particularly in Africa," Miot told MediaGlobal. But he added that this former colonial power must tread lightly when it comes to supporting "independent media." In France's former colonies, "all intervention of the [French] State is considered new colonialism," he said.
As a media owner in Rwanda, a country keen on distancing itself from its French-speaking past, Rudatsimburwa says the best thing France can do is get out of the way of private sector investment in Africa.
"My point of view is they claim to build an independent media, but in fact it's a vicious cycle, because they don't give you the tools to become independent," he said. "If you have an independent media dependent on aid, how much is it independent?"
The currencies shared by many of West and Central Africa's French-speaking countries have a fixed exchange rate with the Euro, and colonial-era economic deals require the majority of their foreign currency reserves remain in the Bank of France. While this arrangement ostensibly ensures greater economic stability, some economists say the lack of nationally set interest rates and currencies sensitive to local economic conditions has deterred private investment.
Without new businesses buying ad space and businesspeople eager to read the day's news, financial backers have little reason to put their money behind the media.
"In Francophone Africa you have a very shy private sector. It's not a real business and it's not really open. It's not something that you would like to invest in," Rudatsimburwa said.
Considerable challenges remain for journalists in many parts of Africa. Along with a lack of funding, political pressure from regimes hostile to an independent press can make reporting difficult, even deadly. Last week's murder of a Kenyan journalist has been linked to his investigations into alleged corruption. According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least six reporters were killed in Africa last year. Another 25 were jailed, the majority of them held without charges.
But while they face problems unimaginable to many Western reporters, a new generation of African journalism students has a rapidly growing industry to look forward to.
"Despite all the obstacles, politically and financially, there is an enthusiasm that you do not see in the classroom in Europe or North America," said Spence, who trained journalists in East Africa before joining IPI.
Most Rwandan graduates of journalism schools still pursue more stable careers as press officers for government ministries or aid organizations, Rudatsimburwa said. He had to leave the country to hire nearly all the reporting staff for his radio programs. "I had to go to Kenya to get people for my English news, and I had to go to Burundi to get people for the French news," he said. For Rwandan students, "it's still not worth looking for a job in that field because they still don't feel that they will get to the level that they want—it's not just the salary, it's the environment."
But all that is changing. "Step by step now people can go to a journalism school and come out and find a job that is at [their] level," he said. "But that is brand, brand new. Private radios only started in 2005 or 2004—so everything is new."
© 2009 MediaGlobal news service at the United Nations.
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