Not to be misunderstood: It is wonderful if an ailing media house that has missed out on the challenges of digitalization and changing consumer-habits is saved from bankruptcy. It is beautiful if an online-only start-up, like the Premium Times in Nigeria, gets funding from Bill Gates, George Soros and others. But how long can media rely on philanthropists in far-away places?
Media philanthropy, no matter with what good intentions, can in the long-run undermine journalistic ethics. Giving things for free creates the typical donor-recipient dependency, with African media outlets reliant on American donors who mean well but know very little. It also contradicts the role of a self-sufficient media, serving as the Fourth Estate, no matter how disputed the term might be.
KAS Media Africa is sometimes mentioned at conferences as a donor or a philanthropic institution. We are neither. What we do is to encourage exchanges between media owners and media regulators on the African continent, between the private sector and the state. We don’t do training, but we do comparative studies on media laws in many African countries as well as bring together political bloggers from the continent, who have in many instances taken over the critical role of political commentators.
We are able to do all this with German taxpayers’ money. We believe that the separation of powers is essential for democracy. Strong and independent media is essential for democratic societies.
Newspapers that are funded by wealthy philanthropists in far-away places do indeed find it increasingly difficult to maintain their editorial independence. It is somehow understood that a media outlet funded by the Open Society Foundations is unlikely to publish a critical story on George Soros, and the Washington Post is unlikely to report extensively about working conditions at Amazon, as they are both owned by Jeff Bezos.
We have seen a new breed of media owners on the continent, people who have a paper or a station to further their political ambitions. But we need media owners in Africa who believe in the importance of good journalism. Media is more than owning a copper mine, as media plays a vital role in society and democracy. So, when publishers are prepared to stand up for their journalists and their reporting, then they should also be prepared to address a business loss, by fixing it with profits from other media outlets.
Diversity in a media enterprise is today more important than philanthropy. Do not produce a paper alone, but open a radio and TV-station; develop a very clear digital strategy; produce special interest magazines; run a printing press; organize a tourism wing; and encourage the brand of your media.
At a recent conference on Entrepreneurial Journalism, organized by KAS Media Africa in Ghana, participants from 16 nations debated trust models, membership models, and for-free models. The need to diversify was expressed by everyone, be they from Niger or Namibia. What was also clear: Each and every country on the continent has its own unique political and cultural challenges, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to journalism in Africa.
All media in the world is running into trouble, and they all have to find ways around this. Why should the African media be an exception? Philanthropists can be paramedics who give first aid, but the journalists and media owners have to do the rest.
By Christoph Plate, Director of KAS Media Africa
This essay appears in Global Media Philanthropy: What Funders Need to Know About Data, Trends
and Pressing Issues Facing the Field. With so many pressing issues affecting the media funding space as well as specific regional considerations around grantmaking strategies and priorities, Media Impact Funders turned to experts from the field and asked them to share insights across a range of media issues. Listening to those working on the ground is essential for understanding challenges and opportunities in a global context, and these essays offer critical insights that funders need to understand in the global media ecosystem. Opinions offered by essay authors are their own.