Journalism in the Shadow of Power

The following observations and comments are based on experiences in several African countries and, more recently, on the print media in Zambia.

The following observations and comments are based on experiences in several African countries and, more recently, on the print media in Zambia. At the same time, credit is due to those journalists, editors and media owners who have taken it upon themselves to resist direct and indirect pressure to provide inferior media products. Their professionalism and courage deserve praise.

It is neither a secret nor a surprise that governments prefer a favourable reflection of their work in the media. This is achieved by various approaches. Almost always, state-owned news outlets are made to toe the line, also when officially referred to as “public media.” The composition of boards and editorial policy ensure that no stinging criticism of government is brought to the public’s attention. Upon applying for a job at state-owned media organisations, journalists have been told that they need to be “deaf and blind”. Despite this, state-owned media organisations frequently attract a country’s brightest and most competent journalists, often due to a prevailing positive reputation and better pay than in the private sector. These professionals agree to be confined by narrow and one-sided editorial policies, resulting in self-censorship. This situation leads to a systemic obstruction of a country’s most far-reaching and potentially powerful manifestation of the Fourth Estate.

Government control over private media organisations or individual journalists can be exerted directly, e.g. in the form of laws against defamation or libel or even direct threats against investigating journalists. Critical media outlets can be curtailed by withholding licenses or advertising revenue. In other cases, media owners are politically connected and thus censor their outlets accordingly.

But often governments resort to an indirect strategy. Time and again, ministers of communication, government spokespersons or other political actors make strong demands on the media and journalists in general, with regard to purported performance standards. Calls to be “objective and balanced” or “accurate and factual” are frequent occurrences. While these demands appear justified and fair on the surface, without further qualification, they actually represent a deficient understanding of journalism and the role of the media in a democracy. Whether such calls are due to ignorance or the intention to tame and confine journalism cannot be reliably determined. They can also manifest an attempt by governments to set the agenda when the media are moving towards effective self-regulation and thus away from government control.

As a result, two types of articles fill the pages of purportedly serious newspapers. These are either “he-said-she-said” articles, or political gossip without substantial meaning for social or economic development. In the former case, news items are centred around utterances of individuals who are assumed to be politically relevant. Such pieces usually begin with a summary of the individual’s statement, followed by lengthy quotes and are concluded by another summary of the same meagre substance. Such articles are void of contextual or background information, not to mention interpretation or critical reflection. In the latter case, at a closer look, such pieces have only entertainment value, as more or less well-known political actors try to score cheap points by populist or scandalising remarks or by taking a verbal swipe at an opponent. Unfortunately, many serious news media seem to see value in publishing such comments or outbursts. It can only be assumed that the motivation for this editorial approach is either driven by business considerations, i.e. attempting to increase circulation, or the wide use of mere quotations represents a form of defensive and submissive strategy against the backdrop of feared legal or political repercussions.

Free media are a cornerstone of a democratic society. Publishing news and information on topics relevant to national development is a key task of media organisations. On this basis, citizens can form opinions and positions, which translate into political and economic activity as well as voting behaviour. Regarding the functions of the media as a government mouthpiece or a one-way street is neither sufficient nor adequate, even if a benevolent government is in place. The media must provide a forum for debate where different views and convictions are presented and argued. The media should be critical to provide a “marketplace” of ideas for political, social and economic advancement. This function is a necessary foundation for the complex process of shaping political decision-making in pursuit of the common good. In an open and pluralistic society, different views exist on which goals to set and how to pursue them. How should scarce resources be allocated to the myriad of human needs and wants? Which interests should take priority over others? From whom should be taken and to whom should be given?

The media provide the most important forum to shape and voice public opinion. Free interaction between political decision-makers and the media is key in charting a good course for society. A free society, democracy and free media are interdependent. Research has shown that a stable political environment, functional democratic institutions as well as a free, viable and professional media landscape reinforce one another.1

Against this background, it is unfortunate that the understanding of the role of the media and the responsibilities of journalists experience a rather narrow interpretation by many powers that be – and, by extension, unenlightened other opinion leaders. It goes without saying that professional standards of journalism call for thorough and high-quality work. After all, social media provides enough opportunities for self-appointed experts and overly sensitive or angry citizens to voice unqualified opinions. The traditional mainstream media need to play a different role.

A news item must be well-researched, pointing out different sides to the story without omitting relevant facts. BUT: While this has to be clearly distinguished from facts, the provision of context, interpretation and opinion regarding news items is very much part of professional journalism. A professional journalist is typically an intelligent and well-informed individual. Someone aware of their duty to society and democracy, which goes far beyond mere “he-said-she-said” reporting. It is very much a part of “informing the public” and certainly of professional journalism to provide context, background, interpretation and also appraisal of news items. And such components of journalism should not be confined to the opinion columns. Such work is vital to making the media a lively forum of information and ideas and providing the checks and balances needed in a society. This is “educating the public” in a comprehensive and much-called-for way.

But what about objectivity? It is undoubtedly an illusion or a misconception that an individual media organisation or a single journalist can be entirely objective and balanced, even when confining themselves to very narrow reporting. Some form of bias will always occur from seemingly small things, such as the selection of news items, the order of facts presented or the contents of a summary. And bias – informed and intelligent bias – is very much an inherent part of the story when it comes to the intentional contextualisation, interpretation and evaluation of news, as mentioned above. Bias will always be there, and the call for “objectivity” attempts to invoke self-censorship, especially by intimidating inexperienced journalists. This attempt is hidden behind a seemingly justified and noble call.

But in reality, it is an effort to establish command over the media and thus deprive the Fourth Estate of its critical role as an independent actor in a free society.

Against this background, the understanding of “objectivity” in a societal context and how to achieve it needs to be refined. The debate must consider much more an often-neglected component: Media Literacy. The path to comprehensive education via the media has more than a supply side. It should be taken as a fundamental truth that “not everything written in the papers is true.” But what follows from this neglected insight? It follows that the consumers of media products also carry significant responsibility. And only the acceptance of this responsibility makes a consumer a citizen. Get your news from different sources, be aware of the background of a news source, actively look for tendencies or biases and analyse them. In short: do your own critical thinking and reflection. Engage with others – especially with those from other camps – in discussion and debate to get an approximate understanding of the complex phenomenon called “truth.” That is the responsibility of a member of an open and democratic society. And this responsibility is the other side of the coin of good journalism.

Agents or proponents of government control of the media might mention that such informed behaviour on the side of consumers of media products is wishful thinking, that it is not possible among an often disadvantaged and not well-enough educated or exposed populace. While there often is a great need for improvements in the education and social sectors, the important question in this context is rather why media literacy and critical thinking are hardly ever part of the curriculum or agenda. Instead of empowering people in the broad sense of the word, journalists and media organisations are hindered by powerful political interests to play a comprehensive role in providing citizens with a broad and diverse platform for news and debate. And attempts to gag the media camouflage as seemingly justified calls for professionalism and objectivity.

So, what needs to be done? Apart from reworking education curricula and increasingly moving away from having pupils and students merely regurgitate what the teacher or professor has said, it is essential to look at education and empowerment in a broader context. Which discussions and discourses are going on not only in the classrooms but also within families and the wider community? Are there enough opportunities and encouragement to practice critical analysis and form informed opinions? And are governments promoting such opportunities? Also, a key aspect in this regard are the practices within membership-based organisations, such as associations, political parties and trade unions. Is there a culture of open debate and democratic governance? Or are members treated merely as voiceless financial contributors or as “foot soldiers”, under instruction from the leadership?

Looking at the other side of the coin, media organisations and journalists also have their role to play. Are there effective organs of self-organisation and interest representation in the media industry? How independent are these bodies? Professional journalism, in the sense outlined in this article, is a complex and demanding task. What support are journalists getting from their employers? Are they paid well enough to abide by the standards of their profession and not depend on hand-outs which come with “strings attached”? Are there sufficient training opportunities?

Research across the continent has shown that “The practice of journalism is an area of concern. The quality of journalism seems to be dropping due to poor working conditions, job precarity, poor training, low pay, and weak representation through professional and labour unions. These factors push journalists to abandon key social stories and to extort money to cover stories.”2

Furthermore, which culture is prevailing in the newsrooms? Is there open and critical internal debate? And how do media organisations deal with external pressures? It is reported that “…African news media are sometimes forced to abandon stories that focus on marginalised and minority social groups in favour of those more likely to resonate with advertisers and dominant political interests.”3 So, how independent, determined and courageous are media houses to not only act as sounding boards of one-sided or hollow and vain political statements, but rather fulfil their role as critical, outspoken and independent members of the Fourth Estate?

Unfortunately, some members of the media fraternity, at times, choose to parrot government calls for objectivity and professionalism without further pondering or qualification. Whether such calls are due to subservience, opportunism or lack of reflection is difficult to tell. Good journalism needs to step out of the shadow of power.

1 Fesmedia Africa, African Media Barometer, An Analysis of Trends in AMBs for 28 Countries over 11 Years, pp. 8-9.
2 Ibid, p. 50.
3 Ibid, p. 19.


Fritz Kopsieker is currently the FES Resident Representative in Zambia. He has held similar positions in a number of other African countries and the South Pacific Region. He has also worked as a desk officer and head of department at the FES Head Office in Bonn, Germany. Fritz Kopsieker studied business administration, economics and political science in Germany and Canada.

The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

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