By Harriet Anena
The African media industry must work hard to restore its reputation and integrity, Mr Trevor Ncube, a leading media entrepreneur on the continent, has said.
“We have broken the trust that the public had in us,” he said. “Our reputation, good people, is in Intensive Care Unit.”
Mr Ncube was speaking on Wednesday, 26 November 2014, to hundreds of journalists, journalism students, media managers, civil society actors and other members of the public at the inaugural Media and Politics in Africa Annual Lecture in Kampala. The lecture was organised by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) with support from the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF)
Mr Ncube is the owner of South Africa-based Mail & Guardian weekly as well as Alpha Media Holdings, publishers of four newspaper titles in his home country of Zimbabwe.
“Nobody will take us journalists seriously for as long as there is a perception that some among us are paid by politicians and businessmen and women to write certain stories.”
The lecture was the first in an annual series running under the theme of “media and politics in Africa”. The purpose of the lecture series, said ACME’s Director of Programmes Bernard Tabaire, is to “offer a higher-level platform for Ugandan media practitioners and friends of the media to reflect broadly on the intersection between media and politics on the continent, and to contribute to the resurgent cultural and intellectual life of Kampala”.
Ordinary person’s story
One of the reasons newspaper sales are declining, Mr Ncube said, is that journalists have failed to tell stories of the everyday struggles and triumphs of ordinary people. “Sometimes I worry that African media spends too much time reporting the stories of the big men and women in politics rather than telling the stories of the common people,” he said.
The 2010 recipient of the Nation Media Group Life Achievement Award for his work in media on the continent, Mr Ncube said the failure to tell the ordinary person’s story “raises the fundamental question about our relevance” as media.
He said “chasing the African big men all around even when they are cutting ribbons” does not cut it.
A campaigner for free expression in Zimbabwe, Mr Ncube said that in a democratic dispensation freedom of expression is important not just for the media but for the public as well. He added that new media communication technologies had helped expand these freedoms.
“There is a time we used to boast that we give voice to the voiceless,” he said. “What nonsense. Everybody is a voice by the cell phones that they have in front of them; they can tweet, they can Facebook.”
He further said WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have become the “new political rallies. They have become the new meeting point. They have become the new stadium”.
Mr Ncube, who was awarded the International Publishers Association Freedom Prize in 2007, said: “The day African media is able to mock, to caricature, to insult, to make fun of politicians especially presidents, will mark the dawn of maturity of both our media and our politicians and I look forward to that day.”
Gay rights and morality
In a wide-ranging lecture , later characterised by robust questions and comments from the audience, Mr Ncube did not let the touchy issue of homosexuality go unremarked upon. He said the “African prejudice against gays and lesbians shocks me to no end”.
He wondered if Africans, who endured slavery and discrimination for centuries, attained political freedom so as to oppress minorities.
President Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law in February 2014, drawing applause from majority Ugandans and condemnations from sections of human rights campaigners and pro-gay activists, especially from the western world.
Although the Constitutional Court struck down the law in August 2014 on grounds that Parliament passed it without quorum, MPs are working toward enacting a new law.
He asked the media not to be champions of discrimination. “The media’s role in this sorry saga should be to expose all forms of bigotry, educate and provide leadership to our homophobic, prejudiced, ignorant political leaders and not be cheerleaders.”
Overstay in power
Turning to presidents who overstay in power, Mr Ncube, a fellow of the African Leadership Initiative, said: “It is not healthy for any leader to stay in power indefinitely as this invariably subverts the independence of institutions.”
He singled out Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who have been in power for 34 and 28 years respectively.
He added: “We do our profession a disservice if we view our role as apologists for politicians.”
Mr Ncube also spoke of the opportunities and challenges new media presents to journalism. The Internet has made it possible for African journalists to operate with greater freedom yet, he said, it also has added barriers to meaningful journalism.
“The stuff that you find, the nonsense that is not verified, the claims, the allegations, make my heart bleed in terms of what we are putting out there as journalists.”
He said the media needs to be brave, organised and to “use our networks to build an infrastructure of independent, credible media voices that strengthens freedom of expression for all and not just for us and our colleagues”.
As the co-chair of the African Media Initiative, a continent-wide organisation that focuses on strengthening the media’s viability and enhancing its professionalism, Mr Ncube knows something about the state of the media business in Africa today.
It largely comes down to profit. If media houses are not self-sustaining, journalists will be easily compromised. “The (best) defence for press freedom is profitability,” he said. “When we don’t make profits, we are going to be bought. We are going to be compromised.”
Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer