By Tomi Oladepo
Historically, Africa’s marriage with the concept of democracy has hit many rocks and weathered mighty storms, yet it has managed to hold on for its dear life and perhaps remains the preferred sweetheart when it comes to governance. Concubines like corruption, election rigging and disregard for the rule of law, amongst others, have threatened to choke her out of the governance system for reckoning, especially when the people began to give up hopes for change, and she almost had no reason to stay. Alas, a beacon of light is in the horizon – citizen journalism?
It’s been quite a challenge to cocoon ‘citizen journalism’ into a rigid definition because of its relatively new birth. As a developing concept, it is wildly dynamic. For the purpose of this article however, we would limit our definition of a citizen journalist to a citizen who uses mass-audience-reaching tools such as the Internet and mobile phone technology to spread information and receive feedback, thus creating a platform for deliberation of sorts. Citizen is emphasised here because whoever these participants are, they must have a stake in what becomes of the governance of that society. Also, feedback is stressed above, because what differentiates citizen journalism from the traditional form is its concentrated participatory nature – a trait that lends it value to the practice of democracy. Therefore, in citizen journalism, the producers are the consumers, and the consumers are free to assume the role of producers as well. Citizens have become what Alvin Toffler coined as Prosumers.
In theory, citizen journalism can contribute a lot to democracy in terms of encouraging citizen participation in a manner that the power they wield would hold the government accountable to a large degree (whistle-blowers have made this happen). It also opens up a multiplicity of platforms and offers a degree of anonymity (on the Internet) that makes it easier for citizens under dictatorships to evade retribution while telling the world their story. Last among other advantages of citizen journalism to democracy is that it makes available channels to tell untold stories that ordinarily won’t make it to traditional media, hence giving a voice to the voiceless and making deliberation on issues that concerns citizens more representative.
However, I find that there is a gap between our utopic ideals expected from citizen journalism and what really goes down in practice. Moyo did a 2011 Study on ‘blogging down a dictatorship in Zimbabwe…’ His findings revealed that despite the Internet’s power as a tool in promoting people’s right to communicate, it is limited by two factors: unequal access to the infrastructure and liberal social movements that are somewhat elitist in their configuration – thus, not as totally popular or representative as democratic practice would have it be. In other accounts, limitations of citizen journalism include its susceptibility to hoaxes, thus raising false alarms or leading to wrong decision-making etc. and the free ability for governments to actually take up these same tools, such as the Internet to spread propaganda (as initially experienced on traditional media).
In 2000, during a media roundtable discussion on whether or not new media was good for democracy, Niyi Alabi lauded the role of FM stations and mobile phones in bringing about a peaceful transition in the Ghana elections. He was however cautioned against investing information technology with moral attributes, because just as they could be utilised by well meaning citizens as well as by dictators.
This just brings to the fore the idea that Africa’s democracy can thrive only in the advent of citizens who are actively ready to engage in governance, deliberate and come up with solutions among themselves and impact governance in their respective societies, no matter the barriers to freedom of expression. Active engagement in this case is not about taking to the streets and dethroning a dictator, only to have a worse one in its stead. It goes beyond that.
Tolu Ogunlesi, in his article about whether Nigeria needed the Arab spring kind of revolution said instead, “we need an educated population…freedom from the kind of thinking that condemns people to a helplessness in which they assume that transformation can only come from marching crowds, raised voices and standoffs. True revolutions prefer to happen a lot more quietly.”
Firstly African citizens need to improve on their attitude to governance, and imbibe the I-want-to-know-what-is-going-on culture. There is need for a conscious interest in the State and its goings-on. One of my mentors was giving an illustration one day, and he said that the moment he heard “if you want to hide something from a black man, keep it in a book”, he vowed never to stop reading. Initially, there was the excuse that news channels only serve us propaganda or whatever suited their commercial interests or political ambitions, but now there are alternative channels ready to serve the truly information thirsty.
Asides developing the need-to-know attitude, African citizens have to be ready to engage with one another and their respective governments. Democracy soars on deliberation – what do the people say they want? How can we make the government listen when we do not speak with the semblance of one voice at least, if not one voice?
Everyday, on Twitter, I see people ready to engage, thirsty for interpretation of new government policies, and proposing possible solutions through tweeting at handles (Twitter User-names) that represent different representatives of government. Some representatives are even ready to engage with the citizens. For instance, the Minister for Youth, Bolaji Abdulahi organised a “Twitter Townhall” meeting on the 8th of September 2011. Yet I see others who are quite content with being oblivious to what is happening around them until a bomb drops next door.
For citizen journalism to serve as democratic messiah in Africa, the new media infrastructure must improve. Happily, the rate of expansion of mobile telephony in Africa is one of the fastest in recent times. This also, coupled with the availability of internet-enabled smart phones, is aiding the spread of access to the Internet on the continent. It is still however dependent on citizens’ readiness to make meaningful contributions to governance. The citizens’ level of literacy also plays an important role here: this is where Africa is greatly lagging behind, as only about four countries are reported to be on course to meet the millennium development goals, which includes universal basic education by the year 2015. It is therefore important that while more efforts are required to make the citizens more literate to be able to effectively participate in citizen journalism, much depend on the literate communities in Africa to make their voices heard. What then are you doing for your country’s democracy?
Tomi Oladepo is a PhD student at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom. Her research interests include Africa, web 2.0 and democratic culture. Twitter: @tomi_ola
Alabi, N. (2000) ‘Ghana’, in ‘Are the New Media Good for Democracy?’ A report on International IDEA’s Democracy Forum 2001, ‘Democracy and Information Revolution: Values, Opportunities and Threats’ held in Stockholm 27-29 June
Moyo, L. (2011) ‘Blogging Down a Dictatorship: Human Rights, Citizen Journalism and the Right to Communicate in Zimbabwe’, Journalism 12(6) 745-760
Ogunlesi, T. (2011) ‘Do We Need a Revolution in Nigeria?’ Next [online] http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/Home/5664373-146/story.csp
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