4. Lessons learnt

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4. Lessons learnt

The above case studies offer quite a number of lessons that could be useful for other countries and societies about to embark on the process of transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.


The major lesson is perhaps the most obvious: `top down' approaches - by whoever and however well meant - do not work.

Any strong-arm tactics subvert the ultimate goal of creating a democratic society. The approach of imposing a legal structure to regulate media and expecting it in time to be supported by the community and thus gain legitimacy is bound to fail.

`Top down' strategies do not help to facilitate the development of local media that will be able to maintain themselves in the long run, independently of the international community or donor funding, and that will contribute to the creation of a vibrant civil society.

It is certainly correct that in post-conflict situations the media should be peace-oriented. Such an orientation, however, cannot be forced upon them or spoon fed - it must arise out of conviction (which is not to say that incitement to renewed violent conflict should be tolerated). Where international (governmental) organisations engage in `peace broadcasting' to overcome ethnic or political divisions, for example, they often end up producing or encouraging bland or overly educational material largely unrelated to the reality experienced by people on the ground, and which will be perceived and dismissed as `propaganda'.

All too often, major international organisations have also been known to fall out amongst themselves along ideological lines, waste time and hamper progress towards media reforms.


A media reform process which is to be credible and accepted by society must be driven by society itself.

Where there are no non-governmental organisations in place, the help of the international community should begin with assistance to emerging groups in order to strengthen and empower them to start the reform process. If there is not enough time for such an approach, the international community must involve local representatives in a meaningful way in all interim bodies being set up. If these are perceived as token representatives only, it will be difficult to achieve

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participation from local communities, and decisions by these bodies will be met with resistance.

The media reform process, driven by civil society, should be spearheaded by media associations themselves. They have the most vital interest in its success and the clearest insight into the deficiencies and dangers of the existing dispensation. Their vested interests - being able to work freely to deliver the best possible product - mostly coincide with the interests of society at large. Both are pitted in equal measure against the interest of the authorities to retain control over the media and the free flow of information.


In order to engage civil society at large and its organisations, the reform process should be accompanied by continuous public awareness campaigns. These could comprise advertisements in newspapers, radio and television as well as leaflets to explain the goals of the media reform, public meetings (Round Tables), debates in radio and television, demonstrations. To add pressure on governments and to increase the public interest, blackout periods in existing broadcasting operations or blank pages in newspapers could be considered.


A Campaign for Media Reforms must be based on a coalition of broad cultural and political interests: media organisations, trade unions of journalists, writers and printers, other national trade unions, law associations, religious groups and, where applicable, political parties.

The Campaign should acknowledge that strategic partnerships with those engaged in the political decision making processes (political parties, parliament) are needed to succeed. It should seek to lobby and impact on such partner(s). As a partner might be tempted to turn the tables and gain undue influence on the Campaign, the coalition backing it must be as broad as possible to ensure that the voice of any partner is just one among many.


Reform processes are most likely to get off the ground when the balance of power is shifting. Where ruling political parties feel safe (and even though they may have indicated their preparedness for media reform before they gained power) they will hardly be willing to voluntarily let go of their influence over broadcasting and state print media. Where power hangs in the balance (with no party having a clear majority), government will be forced to seek broader consensus. If a ruling party expects to lose power through elections and be about to become the future opposition, its interests will for once coincide with those of the aspirant new rulers: a level playing field during the campaign, and

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fair and balanced news and current affairs coverage by the media and especially the national broadcaster.

Such a window of opportunity should be used for thorough media reforms. After an election when powers are confirmed or newly assigned, that window may close all too quickly.


In formulating the goals and objectives of necessary media reforms, the Campaign should refer to international conventions and declarations. Such documents are for example the Banjul Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa (2002), the Windhoek Declaration on Independent Press (1991) and the African Charter on Broadcasting (2001).

Of particular importance for the SADC region are the SADC Protocol on Culture, Information and Sport as well as the SADC Declaration on Information and Communications Technology, both adopted in 2001 by heads of member states and to date ratified by parliaments in a number of countries. The Protocol, e.g., obliges member states "to create a political and economic environment conducive to the growth of pluralistic media", and commits them to the "promotion, establishment and growth of independent media, as well as free flow of information" and to "take necessary measures to ensure the freedom and independence of the media". "Media independence" is defined as "editorial independence, whereby editorial Policy and decisions are made by the media without interference".


Given the impact and pervasiveness of the electronic media, the reform of state controlled broadcasting is a high priority in the transition process. As soon as this topic is included in the agenda it will be difficult or even impossible for one side to take unilateral steps.

Basic legislation for the transformation of state controlled broadcasters into truly public broadcasters should be in place before elections even if this means a delay of voting dates.

A minimum requirement is that before any election the national broadcaster be put under the supervision of an non-partisan independent board which will shield the broadcaster against any undue influence from outside.


A democratic broadcasting dispensation will include opening up the airwaves to new players by placing broadcasting as a whole under the authority of an

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independent regulatory body. As it may not be possible to set up such an authority before elections take place, its establishment must be guaranteed through an amendment to the constitution or in a new basic law.


The playing field for free and fair elections is not level as long as other media - news agencies and newspapers - continue to be controlled by government or the ruling party. The Campaign should demand that they be put under the supervision of an independent media commission.


The Campaign should insist that all media related laws on the statute books be reviewed and those with the most negative impact on freedom of the media be deleted as a priority. For the purpose of a thorough review of such laws, a Media Task Force should be established to prepare new or amended legislation.


The Campaign should aim to get an undertaking from all parties involved in the transitional process that access to information legislation will be developed and implemented immediately after the elections. This undertaking could take the form of an act or be part of general transformation legislation which obliges parliament to pass such legislation within a stipulated period after elections.


The Campaign should aim at getting an understanding from political parties that in the new, democratic dispensation there will be no need and no place for any kind of state authority in charge of media.


To achieve the above goals, the Campaign should start working even before an official transition process gets off the ground. It should always be a step ahead of other forces in the country and the first to draw up an elaborate media policy and drafts for appropriate legislation. These must be developed in an open and transparent process with public debate and involvement at all stages to make sure that the result will be `owned' by civil society.


The Campaign must make sure that its work is as professional as possible. A small Steering Committee should decide on broad policies, and an even smaller

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core group including legal experts be set up to develop draft policies and legislation and negotiate with the strategic partner(s) and others. Continuous support from international media and strategy consultants should be sought to complement domestic expertise with international experience and standards. The fresh look that outside observers will bring may also help to untie knots when deliberations become bogged down in too much detail and those involved cannot see the wood for the trees anymore.

At some stage, an international/regional conference on issues under discussion can be a useful means to exchange experiences and gain international attention.


Where special commissions are set up to investigate human rights violations committed under the old regime, the performance of the media should be included in their terms of reference. More often than not, broadcast and print media were used to sustain and prolong authoritarian rule, and were thus part of the root causes for such violations. Civil society must make sure that any recommendations made by such commissions to avoid a repetition of past mistakes are considered seriously and implemented.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Oktober 2003

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