By Dr Tafataona Mahoso
IN previous instalments, I used the example of Western media’s coverage of the 20-year US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan to illustrate the transformation of journalism in the digital age.
Digital technologies do not just increase the speed of ‘news’, but they also tend to make people assume that only the information capable of being transported through digital means becomes worthwhile news.
This amounts to the transportation theory of news.
The truth is that it becomes too expensive for most media outlets to gather ‘news’ which is not readily availed through digital technology.
But this limitation does not render irrelevant what lies beyond the reach of digital technology and its infrastructure.
If a new radio station in Chivhu has no capacity to send a team of reporters to Kanyemba or Muzarabani, it does not mean that the people in those areas lack the news to share.
It may only mean that their technology is not linked to the Chivhu station’s gadgets or that the equipment is not compatible or that the majority in Kanyemba and Muzarabani are according to the digirati – just PONAS (people of no account) because they have no Google accounts.
This new situation arises because conventional ‘news’ and ‘news gathering’ have become too expensive for most small news organisations.
So they resort to rampant downloading or to gossip and rumour or to talk shows based on a small clique of linked people ‘calling in’.
These developments do not necessarily mean that investigative journalism and current affairs are less important than in the past.
The challenge is that it has become expensive and it pays less to pursue investigative journalism, analytical reporting and current affairs.
What is going to happen therefore is that governments, corporates and donors with the means will sponsor news gathering in the name of capacity building.
So, the question now is whether or not we are ready for donor-funded news gathering.
Zimbabweans have experienced the output of sponsored newsgathering and news selection for quite some time now.
Studio Seven in Zimbabwe is one long-standing example of sponsored news gathering.
One of the glaring effects of this sponsorship of Studio Seven by the US Government is the disguising of Voice of America as just Studio Seven. The other effect is the gross distortions characterising coverage of the effects of the US sanctions decree against Zimbabwe called the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA).
It had to take efforts of the entire Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to kick-start publicity through proclamation of 25 October as Anti-Sanctions Day in order to get the media to start some factual reporting on the matter.
The Herald for October 4 2021, for example, tried to correct some of the Voice of America/Studio Seven over the last 20 years.
How Donor Sponsorship Started with Media Literature
Consistent with the ideology of neoliberal reform associated with former British Primeminister Margret Thatcher and former US President Ronald Reagan, the first wave of sponsorship of neoliberal research and writing on media started as a reaction against the media research work of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
By the mid-1990s, Western-sponsored donors had completely replaced UNESCO in generating studies of the media in Africa especially.
In 1993, Adewale Maja-Pearce warned Africa about the behaviour of Northern donors and their African media clients at a meeting he attended in Brussels, Belgium.
Maja-Pearce entitled his warning: “The Popular Front for the Liberation of 20 Million Ecus.”
He summarised the gist of his Index on Censorship (Volume 22 No. 4 of 1993) article as follows:
“The dependency which brought the African journalists to Brussels dictated their silence.”
Now the Ecu was the European Currency Unit, the forerunner of the Euro.
The North Atlantic powers employed their ‘development aid’ agencies to summon selected and pliant African journalists to Brussels under the guise that in Brussels they would be taught all about ‘Press Freedom and Democracy in Africa’.
As a result of that meeting or ‘workshop’ the chosen African journalists would be way ahead of those not chosen to attend, because they would know and be able to practice ‘Press Freedom and Democracy in Africa’.
To make the chosen Africans jump at the invitation to be retrained, the North Atlantic powers dangled the promise of 20 million Ecus (now Euros).
Maja-Pearce warned Africa then by making the following observations about the peculiarities of this “Press Freedom and Democracy in Africa” conference.
The first thing he noted was the skewed invitation and attendance list.
The entire SADC region of 14 countries was represented by one South African and one Mozambican.
All of East Africa was represented by one dubious delegate.
And the number of European organisations attending outnumbered that of African organisations and countries, even though the conference was for Africans and about Africa.
The second peculiarity was the dictated disbursement and administration of the supposed chest of 20 million Ecus.
Who was going to liberate this money?
The African clients were simply told that the French NGO, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), had won the unfloated tender to administer the funds and to coordinate all applications and projects.
RSF would determine terms of reference for the project proposals and manage the media defence fund to be used to rescue those African journalists instigated to engage in mischief against their countries and arrested or prosecuted for their mischief.
Third, the data-base which would be created from all the African projects would be housed at the RSF in Europe, not in Africa.
How can the Africans involved in this scam continue to shout slogans about the free flow of information?
Fourth, none of the chosen Africans at the Brussels meeting dared to complain, lest he or she would not be chosen next time.
Therefore, the first wave of “private” donor funding of the media was meant to eclipse the work of UNESCO and to influence academic thinking about the media in the South.