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close this bookThe Courier N 159 - Sept - Oct 1996 - Dossier: Investing in People - Country Reports: Mali ; Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentFreedom of expression: the heartbeat of democracy
View the documentCampaigning for free expression in the SADC region
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View the documentStructural adiustment, the environment, and sustainable development

Campaigning for free expression in the SADC region

by David Nthengwe

The Media Institute of Southern Africa

Officially launched in September 1992, the role of the Media Institute of Southern Africa is primarily that of coordinator, facilitator and communicator in the promotion of media freedom and diversity, (as envisaged in the 1991 Windhoek Declaration). MISA operates in 11 of the 1 2 SADC countries and is currently investigating setting up a chapter in the twelfth-Mauritius- which joined the Community 1995.

The chapters are serviced by a regional secretariat based in the Namibian capital, Windhoek. The secretariat is accountable to a policy-making governing council of elected representatives from each national chapter, while funding for MISA and its projects is channeled through the MISA Education and Production Trust, overseen by a board of independent trustees. The organisation is currently almost entirely donor-funded, with UNESCO, NORAD, SIDA, the KU, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, IBIS, and the Australian and German governments being the main contributors. Other income is generated through the sale of subscriptions to MISA publications and services.

The Institute's main work is in the field of advocacy; highlighting violations of media freedom and free expression, and exploring ways of ensuring that these fundamental freedoms become entrenched throughout Southern Africa. In 1994, MISA became a member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) network in a bid to increase international awareness of media freedom violations in Southern Africa. Membership of IFEX has enabled MISA to distribute as well as receive information on media freedom issues in a quick and relatively cheap way via the Internet.

'Action alerts'

In 1994 and 1995, MISA issued via IFEX and its own electronic mail network, the MISANET (see below), more than 190 'action alerts' relating to media freedom infringements in Southern Africa, and effective campaigns against some of these violations have resulted. In August 1994, Lesotho journalist, Rabuka Chalatse, was shot by soldiers while covering a demonstration. An alert issued by MISA triggered a swift response, and within 24 hours, funds had been raised to pay for emergency treatment which saved the young journalist's leg. In November 1995, Angolan freelance journalist, Mario Paiva, had his life threatened by people who, it was alleged, were state security agents. MlSA's alert prompted protest from throughout the world, and resulted in several governments offering Paiva sanctuary in their embassies in Angola. The threat against the journalist was subsequently lifted.

MlSA's advocacy work has also shown that democratisation does not necessarily result in guaranteed media freedom and free expression. In Zambia, for example, which had a multi-party election in 1991, arcane laws inherited from previous regimes have been used against the private media in particular, and free expression, in general. As this article was being written, Fred M'membe, the Editor-in-Chief of Zambia's privately-owned daily 'The Post', and two of his colleagues, were starting an indefinite prison term for contempt of Parliament. The sentence was passed not by a court of law, but by the Speaker, under legislation inherited from British colonial rule. Their 'crime' was to comment on criticism made in Parliament of a Supreme Court decision which declared unconstitutional, laws requiring anyone wishing to stage a demonstration to obtain police permission first.

Five months prior to his arrest, M'membe received the MISA Press Freedom Award, which is presented annually to individuals or institutions considered to have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of media freedom in Southern Africa. M'membe was the third recipient of the award.

Free flow of information essential

As the Windhoek Declaration points out, 'the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press' is essential to economic development, as well as for the growth of democracy. Accordingly, MISA argues that the free flow of information is vital to the development process. Effective communication within SADC-a 'development community'- has been hampered by the region's poor postal and telecommunications services. MISA considers that these logistical barriers to the free flow of information are a form of censorship. In a bid to break through the information voids which have kept Southern African media workers and their audiences isolated from each other for so long, it has made particular use of advances in information technology, including, most notably, the Internet.

Over the past two years, MISA has been linking member organisations up to electronic mail (e-mail). This allows members throughout the region to exchange news, photographs and other information. To date, 25 MISA member organisations are linked to this network, called the MISANET, although further growth has been hampered by members' unfamiliarity with e-mail, and the lack of local technicians to train people and provide user support. Nonetheless, computerised communications have proved to be an appropriate technology, and development of the MISANET remains a top priority. By making some services available to non-MISA subscribers, MISA also intends to generate income and thus reduce its current dependency on donor funding.

Focus on training

The coordination of training and material support to independent media is another area where MISA looks to develop media freedom and diversity. The region's independent media sometimes operates in politically and economically hostile environments. Its survival-and thus the sustenance and growth of media diversity-hinges on these organisations becoming highly professional, well-managed concerns.

Working through training institutions based primarily in the region, MISA coordinates workshops and other training programmes aimed at improving the skills of media workers, particularly in the fields of management and finance. Workshops in strategic and financial management, project management, advertising, marketing, sales and subscription management, ethics, subediting, and computerised design were staged during 1994 and 1995. For 1996, training is scheduled in economic reporting, project management, photography, advertising sales, circulation and sales management, computer-aided design, developing world and financial and strategic management. Instruction will also be provided to media workers without formal training. Meanwhile, research is to be carried out into setting up a media ombudsman for Southern Africa, printing press initiatives, media training needs, and the difficulties faced by women media workers in the region. The last-mentioned is in line with MlSA's policy of encouraging gender awareness and equality within the Southern African media.

Private and community-based media organisations face constant problems securing adequate finance. As businesses, they often do not qualify for donor support, while banks are reluctant to lend them money. Therefore, MISA is looking to set up of a Media Development Fund to which independent media can apply for loans, credit guarantees and grants. A study is currently being conducted into the feasibility of such a fund, which MISA hopes to have up-andrunning by early 1997.

Broadcasting in Southern Africa is still largely state-controlled. Moves by some of the region's governments to 'deregulate' broadcasting have been erratic, and many private broadcasting licenses granted in the process have gone to organisations or individuals closely linked to the authorities. MISA is now drawing up a policy aimed at seeking the effective liberalisation of broadcasting legislation covering public, private and community broadcasting throughout the region.

As part of this process, MISA will, this year, stage a conference on broadcasting and community media, to coincide with its Annual General Meeting-which has become one of the largest gatherings of media workers on the African continent.