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No calm after the storm: Re-imagining the role of the media in Post Covid-19 Africa

The novel coronavirus disease is like a hydra. A hydra, in Greek mythology, is a serpentine creature that is endowed with several heads. When one head is cut off, two grow back in its place. “Harm,” as author Nicholas Nassim Taleb writes, “is what it [a hydra] likes.” The first head of this hydra, officially christened the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Health Organization, is the epidemiological crisis. From Wuhan, the capital city of China’s Hubei province, it continues its lethal journey across continents, sparing only Antarctica, overwhelming public health care systems and disrupting life and livelihoods all the way.

The second head emerges from the economic cost of the measures by governments around the globe to stop contagion. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects global growth in 2020 to fall to -3 percent. “This makes the Great Lockdown the worst recession since the Great Depression, and far worse than the Global Financial Crisis,” its research director, Gita Gopinath, warns. Accordingly, actors in the private and public sectors across the world are reflecting on how the Great Lockdown and its attendant effects will distress them. For the media, grand questions abound. How does this pandemic and the looming recession affect the industry? What are the implications of this for the media’s watchdog role, its place in Africa’s democratisation journey, the advancement of human rights, rule of law, good governance and African representation in the global ecosystem?

To answer these questions, we must have clarity of meaning of ‘the media’ and its continuously evolving role in society. That clarity is important because it helps us appreciate the post COVID-19 media eco-system in Africa in the proper context of the pandemic’s after-effects. Another important point to make is that ‘African media’ is an amorphous concept. The continent is barely homogenous.

There is no such thing as African media just like there is no Asian media but rather Chinese or Indian media; and no European media but rather British or German media. Therefore, a limitation that must be conceded to is that discourse on African media must be alive to geographical, economic and even political contexts of each polity. A broad-brush outlook of the media in Africa would be misleading because the pandemic affects different countries uniquely.

For the purpose of this discussion, the term 'media' refers to traditional media which includes newspapers, television, radio, magazines, et al. This distinction is important because the media as we know it today has become a rather loose term, and delineations that limit the scope of understanding of the media to the old tradition are contestable as information gathering, processing, dissemination get ever more liberalised and democratised by technology. Why then is this clarity of scope important? Precisely because the scope of the media as we knew/know it, comes with aspects of business models, organisational and structural limitations, constraints and possibilities in terms of its operations. Thus 'the media’ in this context means legacy media more than it means media in its now loosely definable form, although one doesn’t exist to the exclusion of other.

A scary future

In this distinction is embedded a crisis that causes us to worry for the future of the media in its classic understanding. The secondary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic portend even more difficult times for the media. Job cuts, retrenchment, austerity measures and downsizing of operations are a looming reality in newsrooms. This will, of course, only exacerbate the media's human resource constraints and at the heart of the matter, a business model being shaken by advancements in technology and audience tastes and preferences. That shake up in the business model has been underway for the last decade. The imagination of what happens next, considering the looming depression as predicted by IMF, is quite a scary one.

This vulnerability, compounded by an existential threat, has far-reaching implications for quality public debate and watchdog journalism on critical issues such as health, corruption, climate change, rule of law, human rights and good governance. In the grand scheme of things, democracy will not become stronger under the weight of a collapsing media. The few gains made in countries yet to attain democratic consolidation like Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, Zimbabwe, et al, will be eroded. Abuse of power by those who wield it (the state, corporate companies) may increase as the watchdog struggles for breath. Disinformation as a strategy by

shrewd politicians and companies will thrive in a society with weak media systems and low media literacy.

The distant fears of our generation, living in a post truth era, is now a reality within reach. Gloom is written on the wall. It is a scary future. If ever there was a time for us to pull together and do everything possible in our spheres of influence to save, first, the business of journalism before journalism itself, that time is now.

Media entrepreneur and scholar Alvin Ntibinyane Ntibinyane from Botswana’s INK Center for Investigative Journalism recently observed that, “Post COVID-19, major independent news organisations in big economies like South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria will be hard hit. Depending on how long the crisis persists and on individual cases, newspapers are going to lose between 15% to 55% in advertisement revenue in 2020. It could get worse.” Ntibinyane argues that whereas major independent newspapers in Nigeria have vibrant online operations and some generate more revenue online than offline with newspapers like The Punch, The Guardian and Vanguard seeing more traffic and increased online revenue, this growth in online numbers does not necessarily translate into good news for those watching and minding the bottom lines of these legacy media houses. Some of the online revenue growth is too small to make a dent.

Time for innovation

This, therefore, is time for innovation for both the private and public sector in the interest of salvaging the media as earlier defined to ensure that its normative functions in our democratisation processes are not ruined. Part of this will involve governments in Africa thinking anew and appreciating the role of the media (as exemplified by its classification as an essential service during this pandemic, by being part of the efforts to save journalism as a business that is at the heart of the democracy project. That may take the form of carefully thought-through and well-negotiated measures acceptable to the industry in a manner that does not erode credibility and independence of the media. Such measures could include tax waivers on aspects of the production process like newsprint and paper which can be costly expenses, payment of debts (advertising bills) owed to the media and better investment in public broadcasters or even lifting license fees for commercial television channels.

On its part, the media will need to further the conversation already underway in the USA and Europe on how best it can negotiate revenue sharing with tech giants like Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter that feed off their hard-earned and sourced content at no cost. These industry-wide conversations must happen as part of the media’s own survival agenda, even if it means bringing on board governments, regional bodies and even the African Union to bolster the media's negotiating power with these global giants.

At the micro level, it is and will be incumbent upon the media to innovate around their own business models, seeing for instance, how interventions like the hybrid model used by South Africa’s Daily Maverick (nonprofit and commercial under one roof), or the emerging trend of philanthro-journalism that is gaining momentum in southern Africa and parts of Nigeria, can help solve the survival puzzle.

To achieve anything meaningful in these proposed innovative approaches, the power of togetherness, collective bargaining and numbers will be critical. This is for two reasons: first, no one media entity is big enough to win this battle for survival alone. There is more to be achieved by walking this journey together with other colleagues and even ‘rival’ companies/publishers.

We should and can do this in the name of advancing Africa’s democracy project. Without a robust, vibrant and fearless media, Africa’s democratisation project will be adversely affected.

This article was first published in

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