Research Communications

Watching the Watchdogs: Former journalist explores how African media can play a stronger role in emerging democracies 

By Jim Phillips

Yusuf Kalyango can remember three different times--in 1977, 1983, and 2000--when his father, a farmer and trader in the African nation of Uganda, was arrested and jailed by three successive governments of that country.

Despite the brutality and harsh treatment the elder Kalyango received at the state official hands, however, his son notes in a new book about African media and democracy, he “still pledges his unwavering support for the Ugandan regime,” holding no grudge against the leaders “whose security men threw him in a military prison without charges or trial.” For Kalyango, director of Ohio University’s Institute for International Journalism, such tolerance and even affection for a blatantly oppressive system “defies logic and common sense.”

That same sense of bafflement came back to Kalyango during research for his book, African Media and Democratization: Public Opinion, Ownership, and the Rule of Law. In the course of interviewing thousands of Africans about their perceptions of government and the media, he writes, he discovered that “Astonishingly, almost three-quarters of citizens with less than a college diploma, and who endure authoritarian governments, agreed that their regimes are legitimate.”

Yusuf Kalyango (Photo by Ben Siegel)

At least some of the blame for this perceptual disconnect, Kalyango concludes in his book, can be laid at the feet of the African media–many of them state-controlled–which he believes must begin to do a more professional job of independently presenting the issues of development and democratization to the public.

“There is something about democratization that has not been explained to (Africans),” he suggests.

Kalyango is uniquely qualified to examine the interplay of media and democracy in his home continent. A former longtime journalist who has worked for media outlets including CNN International, he can speak firsthand of the ways in which regimes in eastern and southern Africa have made it hard or dangerous for journalists to do their jobs. Since entering academia, he has added the rigorous techniques of the researcher to the practical experience of the reporter.

“Yusuf Kalyango really has the content down pat. He knows his way around these countries from a journalistic perspective, but he has all the academic skills to communicate the ideas. He’s got a great combination there,” says Steve Howard, director of African Studies at Ohio University.

At the core of Kalyango’s book is a set of in-depth interviews, involving more than 3,300 people in eight African countries–Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. He asked questions meant to find out how a scientifically selected cross section of people in those countries perceived the legitimacy of their governments, how trustworthy they found their available media sources, and how those perceptions played off each other. He also conducted six focus groups in each country, trying to gauge public attitudes, as well as doing a quantitative analysis of some media content to determine what issues they were covering and to what depth.

Merely doing this level of intensive research in these countries makes Kalyango’s work something of a path breaker, as it spotlights nations that usually don’t get much attention in academic media studies.

Kalyango’s findings varied from country to country, but generally speaking, he discovered that while many Africans he spoke to didn’t seem to have great faith in their media, they also don’t seem to demand enough from their local news providers. If a radio program, for example (radio is still the dominant form of the media in the region he studied), makes a great show of criticizing official corruption, many listeners will be satisfied that it’s doing its journalistic duty–but won’t have been given the information, or the inclination, to follow up on what they’ve heard by demanding change from their politicians.

“As long as the radio has talked about it, they’re happy with that,” Kalyango says. “But the radio needs to tell them, ‘We’re not just talking about the issues.’ What they do on radio, very, very well, is to just criticize, and that’s the end of the story.”

Where African media could do a better job, in Kalyango’s view, is explaining what true democratization means–the rule of law, an uncorrupted judiciary, and government responsiveness to the popular will. Too many of the people he interviewed, he suggests, seemed to feel that “democracy” is alive and well when the people in power hand out “goodies” in the form of government jobs and favors. Too many Africans, he says, are also ready to equate democracy with just holding elections–even if the people elected ignore the needs of their constituents.

“They think that democracy is about going and having an election, and putting a person in power, and that’s where democracy ends,” he explains. “Democracy is the day of the elections.” What a more professional and independent media might help to promulgate, he suggests, is the notion that “democracy does not end on election day.”

What more viable media could do for Africans, Kalyango argues, would be to help citizens “connect the dots” among issues of development, education, democracy, the press, and other civil society, such as not-for-profit advocacy organizations, and more.

International media outlets such as CNN and the BBC provide a more independent news alternative for some Africans, Kalyango notes, though they tend to cover mainly issues of interest to a worldwide audience, and ignore domestic African issues.

“The BBC is huge in Africa,” he says. “But (Africans) also recognize that the international media are only recording conflicts in Africa.”

The obstacles to improving African media are daunting, Kalyango admits. Many reporters are badly underpaid, leading some to accept payoffs from sources who want certain stories to run–what Kalyango calls “brown envelope journalism.” Journalists at state-run media outlets are often constrained by their bosses in what they can report, while those at private outlets are constrained by shoestring budgets.

Many African journalists, Kalyango says, “are actually doing the best they can … to hold government accountable,” but “the way they do it is not the best way,” in part due to lack of training.

What would help? Better pay for reporters would be a good start, according to Kalyango, along with better professional training, and more commercially supported independent news providers.

“The universities do not have well-equipped schools or instructors,” he says. “And we need to have journalists who are significantly better paid than they are right now. Without that, I think, they will still be compromised and corrupted, because they still have families to take care of.”

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.