The government quickly realized people were turning to VOA for their election information and that’s when the government blocked the station’s air waves. “Someone had found a way to penetrate the system,” Mwakalyelye said, referring to the media’s role in the election. After spending what she calls “a small fortune” on the right equipment to override the block, VOA’s listenership went from hundreds of thousands of people to millions. “The jamming” by the government, she said, was “creating a need to broadcast more.”
Zimbabwe is one of nearly a dozen countries in Sub-Saharan Africa where there is no freedom of press. At a conference at Columbia University in New York Wednesday, journalists working in Africa, policy makers and researchers discussed the power and restriction of media in the region.
Mwakalyelye, who sat on a panel, said the landscape of journalism is evolving, and bloggers, citizen journalism and social media are playing larger roles in inciting change. “Its power is unbelievable but it needs to be in good hands” Mwakalyelye says. “Uganda tried to block Twitter and Facebook during the elections” she recalls. “People saw the revolution it caused in Egypt and Tunisia.”
“Freedom of the press is necessary, but not sufficient to ensure a healthy and effective media sector,” said economist Sanjukta Roy, who is currently working on the Media Map Project with Internews, which helps to support independent media and access to information.
In partnership with the World Bank Institute, the project will provide guidance to NGO’s and donors on how investments in local media might serve to advance a country’s governmental and developmental objectives.
Roy explained that in order for press freedom to thrive, the country must also be financially viable and establish an educational system with developmental goals and basic access to food. She said professional journalists and a plurality of sources are essential to a successful media.
Michael Behrman studies quantitative methods in media at Columbia University and said, “Press freedom is an important component in maintaining a long term democracy.” For example, he said. the democratic nation of Mali has one of the freest media in Africa and the government protects freedom of speech.
Meanwhile, Behrman, citing a country like Niger, which never fully capitalized on its a freedom of press during a democratic period in the 1990s, said the country has seen its press freedom deteriorate significantly.
Behrman points out that Africa has the least amount of data regarding the media, and panelists agreed there is currently no means to measure the quality of the content being produced, in part because it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, propaganda from truth.
Behrman said while the lack of data is troubling, it is exactly the reason it’s not easy to predict whether the uprisings in the Middle East could be paralleled in Sub-Saharan Africa. The best way to determine what can cause such a social media and political revolution is to study what happened in the Middle East and use it as an indicator for other regions.
“It would be good if there were such data so that you can get a glimpse and a better understanding” Behrman said. “It would be a natural experiment.”