The Open Society Media Program has commissioned background papers on a range of topics that are important for understanding the effects of new technology on media and journalism. The papers accompany a series of reports, “Mapping Digital Media,” on the impact of digitization on democracy in 60 countries around the world.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa. Rwanda and Burundi are among the continent’s smallest states. More than just neighbors, these three countries are locked together by overlapping histories and by extreme political and economic challenges. They all score very low on the United Nations’ human development index, with DRC and Burundi among the half-dozen poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. They are all recovering uncertainly from conflicts that involved violence on an immense scale, devastating communities and destroying infrastructure.
Their populations are overwhelmingly rural and young. In terms of media, radio is by far the most popular source of news. Levels of state capture are high, and media quality is generally poor. Professional journalists face daunting obstacles. The threadbare markets can hardly sustain independent outlets. Amid continuing communal and political tensions, the legacy of “hate media” is insidious, and upholding journalism ethics is not easy when salaries are low. Ownership is non-transparent.
Telecoms overheads are exorbitantly high. In these conditions, new and digital media—which flourish on consumers’ disposable income, strategic investment, and vibrant markets—have made a very slow start. Crucially, connectivity remains low. But change is afoot, led by the growth of mobile internet access.
In this report, Marie-Soleil Frère surveys the news landscapes of DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda. Marshaling an impressive range of data, she examines patterns of production and consumption, the often grim realities of law and regulation, the embryonic state of media policy, the role of donors, and the positive impact of online platforms. Most media outlets now have an online presence. SMS has become a basic tool for reporters. Interactivity gives voice to increasing numbers of listeners. The ease of digital archiving makes it possible to create a collective media “memory” for the first time. Chinese businesses are winning tenders for infrastructure projects.
Above all, the unstoppable flow of digitized information enables ever more people to learn about current events and available services. “The average news consumer in Central Africa will soon leap to new opportunities,” Frère predicts, “without having to pass through the intermediate stages of a personal computer and a fixed telephone line.” The report ends with a set of practical recommendations relating to infrastructure, strategies to reduce access costs for journalists and the public, education and professionalization, donor activity, governance, regulation, and media management.