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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of African Affairs > Releases > Remarks > 2006: African Affairs Remarks

The Media's Role in the Democratization of East Africa

William M. Bellamy , Ambassador
Remarks for the Conference on Role of the Media in Democratization of East Africa
Safari Park Hotel, Kenya
May 3, 2006

Thank you for your invitation to address the opening session of this conference devoted to the role of the media in the democratization of East Africa . The United States is pleased to sponsor this multi-day event, all the more so since it coincides with World Press Freedom Day -- which is today May 3 -- which is also being marked by ceremonies and events around the world.

Press freedom is one subject about which one would think there could be little debate. Who, after all, is opposed to press freedom? All of us here today can, I am sure, agree that a free press is as essential to our enjoyment of liberty and democracy as is the rule of law. We cannot be free as a society, we cannot be free as individuals, unless we have a free media through which we can express ourselves, and through which we obtain the information and ideas we need to be responsible citizens. Does anyone dispute this?

Sadly, the answer is yes, and some of you in this room may have had experiences to prove it. On this World Press Freedom Day, there won't be a great deal to celebrate in Belarus , where journalists critical of the regime continue to be jailed, or simply to disappear, and where the government continues to harass Belarus ' few remaining independent newspapers.

There won't be much to celebrate in Iran either where the closure of newspapers, the banning of new publications and the torture and deaths in prison of journalists this year mark a new low in that nation's repressive practices.

And there won't be much to celebrate in Zimbabwe where President Mugabe has systematically arrested, beaten, bombed and banned so many dissenting media voices that he has largely succeeded in hiding the scale of the economic pillaging and human rights violations he has inflicted upon a helpless population.

Alas, the list doesn't stop there. In every continent around the world there are governments that are today busy curtailing, or trying to curtail, press freedom. Their zeal and ruthlessness is in direct proportion to their fear - their fear of exposure, their fear of the truth, their fear of the populations they misgovern. Press freedom is indeed a powerful thing, even, to some, a fearsome thing.

Journalists are at risk not only at the hand of frightened regimes. According to the international watchdog organization Reporters without Borders, 2005 was another deadly year for journalists around the globe. 172 were killed, as were 30 media assistants. 119 were imprisoned. That is a high casualty count for non-combatants, for persons whose work is primarily with words and images, not guns and bombs. It used to be that journalists died accidentally in crossfires in wars like Vietnam . Today they die in the crosshairs of terrorists in wars like Iraq . Journalism has become a much more dangerous profession than it was when I was in university, fantasizing about going to the Columbia School of Journalism and maybe becoming another Ernest Hemingway.

Even in those countries where journalists are not risking their freedom or their lives, there are formidable challenges facing the profession. There is, for example, the question of quality control, or self-regulation. I know of no government, including my own, that is not from time to time distressed or even enraged by what it sees in the papers or witnesses on television. Sometimes this is simply because the media have got the story wrong, and thus wrongly maligned a public figure or a public policy. More often, governments are angry because the media got the story right when they weren't supposed to.

Our host country, Kenya , is a case in point. One of the first things that strike observant visitors to this country is the vibrancy of Kenya 's media, both print and electronic. But like any other developing country institution, especially one subjected to repression and state control for so long, Kenya 's media are fledgling. They lack the number of trained journalists and editors needed to ensure consistent quality. They make mistakes from time to time. They misquote, or misunderstand. But, with few exceptions, these are the errors of the well-intentioned, not the work of mischief-makers.

Sitting in parliament the other day, I was interested to hear the Kenyan Minister of Information quote Thomas Jefferson. It was the famous quote where Jefferson says given a choice between a government without media and media without government, he would unhesitatingly choose the latter. The Minister was trying to illustrate the Kenyan government's commitment to a free press even as it proposes to introduce legislation to regulate the press. I don't for a moment doubt the Minister's sincerity. But it is appropriate to ask, do you really want to regulate the press through legislation? Isn't this the thin end of the wedge, the beginning of a slippery slope towards governmental interference and eventual abridgment of press freedom? Most governments find the regulatory temptation a very hard one to resist. Wouldn't Kenyans be better off with a media that established ethical criteria and held its members accountable to a high standard of professionalism? Isn't self regulation a better course of action?

Let's hope that that is the direction in which Kenya moves. Let's hope that governmental intervention is designed not to dictate behavior but to encourage self-policing.

Let's also hope that we don't witness a repetition here in Kenya, or anywhere else for that matter, of the sorry spectacle earlier this year when masked gunmen invaded the offices of the Standard newspaper in the middle of the night, roughing up personnel, shutting down operations, confiscating equipment and burning newspapers. We were told later that this thuggery, there is no other word for it, was in response to a national security threat. I have not yet met a single Kenyan who believes this. Nor has the Kenyan government been able to explain what that threat was.

This is a delicate subject, and I don't wish to put our guest, the Foreign Minister on the spot. I know that he does not in any way condone those events, and neither do most of his colleagues in the government. I can only say to the others, those who cooked up this misadventure: the Standard is not a security threat; the media in Kenya are not a security threat; your political opponents and opposition parties are not a security threat; non governmental organizations, international organizations, donor states who sometimes disagree with and critique your policies and actions are not a security threat. The day you start treating them as security threats is the day Kenya starts moving backwards, towards the dark days of the past. That is not where you want Kenya to be.

Let me close with what is perhaps a little advice to governments who find themselves discomfited by media that are amateurish, or a bit unruly, or a bit obstreperous. Rather than think first about how to hit back or punish the media, think first about how to manipulate them.

As long as it doesn't involve the bribery or cash payments that are unfortunately all too common, there is nothing wrong with manipulation. Governments are supposed to try to make news, to try to portray their activities in the best possible light, to spin stories to their advantage. That is why governments have spokespersons and the worker bees that support them. Think about your image, ensure that every significant action, every significant policy has a public affairs dimension. Offer interviews, offer background briefings, offer access, offer inside stories. This is, after all, how Henry Kissinger, while presiding over one of the most unpopular wars in American history, had a normally critical American media eating out of the palm of his hand.

In other words, work with the media, not against it. Try to make the media your ally, but understand that it is normal, and even desirable, for this relationship to be one of mutual wariness or even suspicion. It's not the media's job to make governments look good, but it is the media's job to report whatever good news the government can generate.

It is my hope that some years from now we might again find ourselves here on World Press Freedom Day, noting that the number of journalists killed in action has declined for the fifth year in a row and the number of countries fully respecting press freedom has climbed for the fifth year in a row. But I am not enough of a gambling man to bet a lot of money on that.

However, I am willing to bet on this. The next time we meet, the role of the media throughout the world will have changed in dramatic ways. It has already started. In my country the great flagships of the American media, the major network TV evening news programs and the great daily newspapers are all taking on water. They are losing viewers and readers. To whom? To the Internet. More and more, Americans are getting their news and information, their ideas and opinions, from the Internet. As bloggers, they are becoming editorialists in their own right. As podcasters, they've become disc jockeys and broadcasters. And all of us are consumers, scanning and surfing the cyberspace. All of this changes fundamentally the way we interact with the media. It may seem remote to those of us in Africa today, but these changes are just around the corner.

Good luck to all of you, and thank you for your kind attention

 



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