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Is There a Media Divide Between Mideast Tremors and Sub-Saharan Africa?Posted by: admin on Thu, 2011-02-24 16:19
Adapted From World Bank's CommGap Blog
The mass protests across North Africa in the past few weeks have highlighted a major difference between North and Sub-Saharan Africa - access to media and communication technology. This may be critical in determining whether long-serving leaders south of the Sahara face the same challenges Qadhafi is now battling.
Hannah Bowen, InterMedia Project Manager
This week, as mass protests continued to sweep across North Africa and the Middle East, observers keep asking, “Where will be next?” Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, currently under siege, has campaigned throughout his long tenure for African unity, arguing that the similarities tying the continent together outweigh the differences. The events of the past few weeks have highlighted differences between North and Sub-Saharan Africa, however, including one which may be critical in determining whether long-serving leaders south of the Sahara face the same challenges Qadhafi is now battling: access to media and communication technology.
This issue of basic access to media and communication technology was strikingly evident in Zimbabwe on Saturday, when police arrested nearly 50 people who had gathered to watch videos of international media coverage of the events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt. As reported in the New York Times, the gathering “allowed activists who had no Internet access or cable television to see images from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt” and was intended to start a discussion on the implications of these events for Zimbabwe.
The fact that access to international news is harder to come by in Zimbabwe and many other Sub-Saharan African countries is related to the myriad other differences (particularly economic ones) that may prevent popular opposition to long-serving leaders from coalescing. The average Zimbabwean has far fewer options for getting news than the average Egyptian. Local media are tightly controlled by the state, and international news is fairly effectively blocked as well. Granted, Zimbabweans still find many ways to get uncensored news from around the world, including short-wave radio, low-cost satellite dishes and decoders that receive free-to-air programming from South Africa, and DVD (or VCD) recordings such as that shown at the gathering last Saturday. But the costs (time, money, effort, risk) are high, and beyond the means of many citizens.
In addition to limited or difficult access to news, many in Sub-Saharan Africa have fewer communication tools in general than their neighbors to the North. Leaders need not worry about shutting down internet access to prevent the mobilization of opposition forces in places where fewer than 10 percent of the population uses the internet anyway, such as Ethiopia, Togo, or Angola, according to the most recent estimates from the International Telecommunications Union. While low-cost mobile phones are fairly widely available, governments’ hands are in several countries deep enough into the entire telecommunications sector to cast doubts on the privacy of communication over mobile phone networks. Outside of organized political parties, there may be limited communication infrastructure to support mobilization of public calls for change.
These differences in the media and communications environments will not necessarily keep long-serving leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa in power any longer than their North African or Middle Eastern counterparts. The barriers to gathering and sharing the types of information that fuel popular movements are by no means insurmountable, but they do help to explain why the current wave of protests has been slow to cross the Sahara.
One of the things I found most interesting during a visit to Kenya this month was the active debate in Kenyan media about whether the “domino effect” would travel to neighboring Uganda. The answer? Not yet, and probably not anytime soon, for a variety of political, conomic, historical, and social reasons. Voters in Uganda went to the polls February 18, and (according to the electoral commission) reelected long-time incumbent President Yoweri Museveni with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Few experts outside his government would argue that President Museveni, after 25 years in power, genuinely enjoys the deep approval of 70 percent of the population. Local media are already questioning the results, and opposition parties are calling for peaceful protests, but there is little hope that any real change will come about.
Another dynamics that is different in this case, compared to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, etc. is the lack of attention and support from outside of the region. While prominent international media outlets (including Al Jazeera, CNN, and others) have closely documented - and helped to build solidarity for - the public movements in the Middle East, there has so far been only bare-bones coverage of the Ugandan election – certainly not enough to focus global attention on Ugandans’ choices (or lack of choices) in the presidential polls.
When we think of the catalytic role of media, it can include this aspect – the sense that the world is watching, and will be forced to react in one way or another. For Ugandans, that feeling seems to be missing. Other long-serving leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa may also be calculating whether global media (or their own citizens via social media platforms) will draw external attention or support for calls for change. For now, the coverage of political events in Uganda, Cote d’Ivoire, and elsewhere suggests that global media will not be tipping any dominoes in Sub-Saharan Africa anytime soon.
Photo Credit: Internews Network (on Flickr). Radio technician for Internews
Network in Abéché, Chad installing a radio tower.
An edited version of this article appeared on World Bank's CommGap Blog