Ines Drefs
Barbara Thomass
Publication Date
August 1, 2017

"Social change is no longer regarded as a linear process in which media are promotional instruments serving a Western notion of modernization which journalists are trained to deliver. Instead, active participation of all stakeholders in the communication process is recognized as a value in its own right and media are only one means to realize this."

For three years, a consortium of researchers from eight international universities analysed, within the European Union (EU)-funded project Media, Conflict and Democratisation (MeCoDEM), a broad range of questions concerning media and communication in the context of conflict and democratic transition, as well questions of media development aid. One of the outcomes of the project is this policy brief, which combines findings from the research on media development organisations with fieldwork in the four countries of the study: Egypt, Kenya, Serbia, and South Africa.

MeCoDEM is based on the understanding that effective development cooperation that is sensitive to conflict contexts has to integrate media and communication into their overall strategy by taking into account the communicative needs of societies faced with democratisation conflicts. The project investigates the role of traditional media and information and communication technologies (ICTs) in conflicts that accompany and follow transitions from authoritarian rule to more democratic forms of government. It focuses on the three main stakeholders in those conflicts - governments, civil society actors, and journalists - and aims to understand the dynamics of conflict by analysing the communications of these actors in key conflicts.

The sample for this brief consists of members of European media development organisations who operate on an international level and local actors from the case study countries. It includes intergovernmental actors (such as EuropeAid), state-funded actors (such as Sida), and non-state actors (such as Internews). In total, the researchers conducted 19 qualitative semi-structured interviews with these personnel. In addition, they conducted 100 interviews with journalists (24 in Egypt, 26 in Kenya, 25 in Serbia, and 25 in South Africa), 91 interviews with civil society actors, and 67 interviews with governance actors.

Some general findings from the investigation include:

  • Media assistance in complex contexts has advanced from a short-term intervention (e.g., a training workshop) to a model of long-term cooperation in the form of mentoring or continuing dialogue. This re-orientation of the media development sector reflects the observation that the attempt to implement a universal model of journalism regardless of context has been unsuccessful.
  • Media development practitioners no longer see media as an aim in its own right but as part of a broader communication ecosystem. This has led to a new policy paradigm: the paradigm of participation. However, contextual factors receive less attention in processes of monitoring and evaluation; there is pressure please donors by coming up with simplistic indicators - thereby perpetuating the instrumental approach of the past.

The brief includes a spotlight on each of the four countries, exploring what the researchers looked at, and what they found. Sample insights to emerge:

  1. From Kenya: Contemporary media development is no longer only aimed at journalists. Instead, civil society actors have become partners (albeit to varying degrees). Limiting engagement with civil society organisations (CSOs) predominantly to their role as sources for journalistic news stories ignores a lot of their communicative potential in conflict contexts. For instance, by employing a broad variety of non-mediated communication formats (including artistic means such as songs, murals, and graffiti), CSOs are able to reach large sectors of the public that might not be reached by mainstream media, thus shaping the way in which a conflict is understood.
  2. From Serbia: In transitional contexts, most media development actors regard the state as an antagonistic force that threatens the independence of the media. Thus, it is important for media development activities to look out for innovative forms of cooperation between media and political authorities, and to strengthen the ability of the latter to articulate policies and to engage in dialogue with citizens. It is also crucial to take into consideration a broad range of political authorities, including unelected, informal actors who often exert a considerable degree of influence in transitional societies.
  3. From South Africa: Media development interventions that are aimed at strengthening independent journalism and developing an open public sphere can also have counter-productive or even harmful side effects. For instance, the South African Presidency embarked on a social media listening exercise in the weeks leading up to the 2015 State of the Nation Address (SONA), but this "empty performance" only contributed to cynicism and a widening gap between political representatives and citizens.
  4. From Egypt: Minority media play an ambivalent role in identity-based democratisation conflicts - e.g., episodes from history have been reinterpreted to encourage the community to engage in contentious politics that set communal identity apart from national identity. Media development activities that do not address such dangers of communication in identity conflicts could do more harm than good.

Considering the findings from all country contexts, selected policy implications and recommendations include:

  • Context matters. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to media development in transitional societies. Communication is a complex cultural practice that is rooted in local meanings, customs, and history. Therefore, baseline studies of local contexts are crucial to help reduce the risk of causing damage and ensure relevance and sustainability. Furthermore, the infrastructure of media production as a foundation for independent media remains an important aspect of media development. It must be appropriate for the given social and economic conditions. In view of global media concentration and powerful market actors, high-quality local production must be strengthened.
  • Participation is key. Inclusive and open participation should be the standard approach of any media development policy and should also guide the methods of monitoring and evaluation. In order to pursue a coherent do-no-harm approach, cooperation of the various actors of development communication - both media corporations and international actors - must be supported and promoted. Policymakers should increase support for pre-action analyses and a qualitative, participatory monitoring and evaluation approach.
    • Involving civil society actors
      • Support that concentrates solely on CSOs working on issues of media freedom runs counter to the ideal of diverse public discourse that is a basic feature of a democratic society.
      • The principle of participatory communication also extends to journalists. Engagement with civil society actors should therefore be an integral part of journalistic practice, which otherwise risks favouring elite voices.
      • Taking into account the communicative needs of those who are not heard in the public discourse is particularly challenging where socio-economic inequalities exclude these voices from articulation by organised groups.
      • If training is still the format of choice, sensitising journalists to participatory communication and communication with civil society actors should be an integrative component of media assistance initiatives.
      • Media literacy and cultural diversity should be general aims of development cooperation.
    • Involving government actors
      • Political actors should be involved in any development strategies in order to make them aware of the necessity of an open mediascape and the right to access to information. Multi-stakeholder activities contribute to a widening of the discourse.
      • Development cooperation should address the communication capacity of governments, their ability to articulate policies, respond to media investigation and engage in a dialogue with citizens. Listening to citizens and developing forums for this endeavour is an important element of this approach.
      • Involving government actors has problematic aspects as it is not the purpose of development cooperation to strengthen undemocratic governments. Considering the context and looking out for individual partners who are willing to cooperate and to work for a stronger democracy are key in this respect.
      • Strong media depend on reliable media legislation and on political actors who understand the need for independent journalism. That is why involving political actors in media development efforts should be advocated as a constructive rather than a destructive approach.
      • In the case of media assistance interventions in hybrid political orders, there is a need for thorough pre-action analysis: What kind of groups can be considered political actors, apart from the formal ones? What authorities exert influence within communities and on the government? These actors will have to be considered and addressed directly if efforts for increased transparency in political communication are to be fruitful.
      • Securing the independence of media from vested economic and political interests should be a guiding principle.
  • Media development efforts can have benefits for citizens. - Policymakers should enable long-term interventions that are conceived from the perspective of citizens as the final addressees of media development cooperation. This is a more comprehensive approach than the traditional media-centred approach.

Concluding recommendations:

  • The research shows that media development should be broadened to communication development. What democracy needs is a healthy public debate in which the media play a central, but not the only, role.
  • The goal for policymakers should be to develop a media-and-communication mainstreaming strategy. It should consider communication-related actions for development activities in all areas and levels. Development communication should become an instrument for building global development partnerships alongside governance democratisation efforts. Media organisations and media outlets should be seen and promoted as enablers of social dialogue that matters to all aspects of development and development cooperation.