John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Guest Post: Press Freedom and Development in Africa

by John Campbell
January 31, 2012

Journalists carry placards along a street during a protest to mark World Press Freedom day in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos, May 3, 2010. (Akintunde Akinleye/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Asch Harwood, CFR Africa program research associate. Follow him on Twitter at @aschlfod.

The National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and Internews hosted an excellent discussion on “Can media development make aid more effective?”, which I was able to catch part of via a live stream on the CIMA website. You can watch it here.

The speakers’ discussions of the impact of media on economic growth, political stability, and governance were of particular interest to me. Two of the speakers, Tara Susman-Pena and Mark Frohardt, presented an invaluable tool they helped build, the Media Map Project, where you can “explore, interact with, and analyze data on media and development.” It is a one-stop shop for all the data you could hope for on press freedom, and worth checking out.

In addition to presenting the Media Map Project, Tara Susman-Pena discussed some statistical work (PDF) showing a correlation between a free press and political stability, good governance, and economic growth. A freer press, by increasing transparency, can have a positive impact on “development.”

This got me thinking about how press freedom in Nigeria, or lack thereof, has impacted, political stability, governance, and development in that country. The Nigerian press is considered generally free. (Freedom House gave it a “partly free” rating.) There doesn’t appear to be any significant systematic oppression and the country has a multitude of newspapers, television channels, and radio stations, as well as relatively high levels of Internet and mobile phone penetration (recent raids on CNN and BBC notwithstanding). A few western news outlets have correspondents stationed in Nigeria, and Diaspora-run news services based in New York and London, like Sahara Reporters, have mobilized their connections at home to report breaking news (and often have information that cannot be found in the Nigerian or international press).

Bigger challenges to press freedom revolve around elite media ownership, underpaid and under-trained journalists, and concentration of media in Abuja and Lagos. Nevertheless, compared to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, at the very least, Nigerian coverage is thorough enough to conduct open source analysis, which has made our media-driven Nigeria Security Tracker possible.

But what about the political stability that should accompany press freedom? Recent fuel subsidy strikes and major attacks in Kano as well as daily violence by Boko Haram have put the country on shaky footing.

The third speaker, Brookings senior fellow Daniel Kaufman, provided the answer–more transparency accompanied with impunity will not “deliver the goods.” Media freedom, while necessary, cannot guarantee stability without other important conditions. For example, Kaufman singles out the rule of law, which arguably is weak in Nigeria.

This has implications for the impact of social media, which, by virtue of its role as an alternative means to communicate and transmit info, often gets credited with enabling uprisings around the continent. Without other essential conditions, such as the rule of law, media freedom, even when enhanced by social media, cannot alone deliver better governance. But it clearly is a necessary component.

h/t Daniel Morris

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Maduka

    I keep on wondering why Western donors tend to be reluctant or don’t do a good job of informing local populations about how much they are spending and what they are spending the money on. Or even on how effectively the money has been spent.

    It gives rise to the perception that there are ulterior motives for aid.

    Secondly, all kinds of aid have been tried in Africa for forty plus years. Aid simply does not work. Period.

    Media freedom makes governments more accountable to their citizens and should be encouraged. But aid does not and should be discouraged.

  • Posted by Zainab

    I found the following interesting : “…a correlation between a free press and political stability, good governance, and economic growth. A freer press, by increasing transparency, can have a positive impact on “development…”

    and also: “The Nigerian press is considered generally free… There doesn’t appear to be any significant systematic oppression…”

    In considering free press and the obstacles surrounding the operation of a free press in Nigeria, it seems so much emphasis in this article and elsewhere generally is placed on government influence, censorship and clampdown on reporters. Little (if any) emphasis is placed on self censorship by journalists and reporters i.e. reporters willingly restricting themselves and compromising objectivity, balance and fairness in journalism.

    Based on some research in which I compared the media in North and West Africa: Egypt and Nigeria respectively, I found out that in Egypt, as many other Arab countries, though there is both government censorship and self censorship by journalists, it was government censorship which was more prevalent as the media was (during the Mubarak era and to a lesser extent, in the post-Mubarak era) subject to a lot of restrictions.

    In Nigeria however, there is relatively more media freedom especially in the past 13 years of democratic rule. Most Nigerian reporters/journalists however identify self censorship by journalists as the major problem the media face, which is influenced by factors, some of which you have rightly pointed out in this article such as: elite ownership of media/economic interests, societal forces (ethno-religious biases & sentiments), poor remuneration & incentives for journalists. For these reasons, the media especially the press tend to tilt towards some of these factors, and these biases, sympathies or sentiments are reflected in their reports: it is a well known fact that certain newspapers in Nigeria represent certain interests: whether regional, sectional, business elites (the interests & views of their owners and their political allies) and so on. This much is attested to by many journalists.

    However, social media is providing a platform for alternative view points by ordinary citizens challenging such mainstream media views which have been co-opted by these forces mentioned above. Thus you find even government officials reading Sahara Reporters and other Citizen Journalist news sites, blogs etc and preparing rejoinders for controversial articles hosted on these.

    Thus Kaufman’s statement and the overall conclusion of the article that media freedom, even when enhanced by social media, cannot alone deliver better governance aptly sums up the situation. In the end, the media just like other aspects of our national life are simply a reflection of the Nigerian society: its fractures, ills and divisions.

  • Posted by aharwood

    Hi Zainab,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment.


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