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Climate change, AI put African media on the spot  

It is not the best of times for media practitioners in Africa. From repressive laws against the free press and deadly attacks on journalists to the dwindling revenue occasioned by the economic downturn, African media is entwined in a web of hurdles. And what is more, the massive impacts of climate change and huge disruptions caused by artificial intelligence (AI) have thrown up fresh issues to grapple with. 

The odds notwithstanding, giving up is an option off the cards. African media must put up its A game to stay above board, leveraging digital technologies, innovative strategies, and effective collaboration with all the key stakeholders.

These and more took centre stage at the 3rd African Media Convention (AMC), hosted in Accra, Ghana, from May 15–17, 2024, in partnership with the African Union (AU), the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Fund for Public Interest Media (IFPIM) under the theme ‘African Media We Want: Enhancing Freedom, Innovation, and Environmental Sustainability in a Dynamic World.’

Dr. Rita Bissoonauth, Director of the UNESCO Liaison Office to the AU and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and the National Office for Ethiopia, said the theme of the convention resonated well with UNESCO’s commitment to promoting freedom of expression and the safety of journalists.

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According to her, UNESCO views freedom of expression as a global public good, intricately linked to both the preservation of the planet and the vitality of democracies.

“This vision aligns with the urgent need for robust and free journalism that can navigate the complexities of climate change and drive meaningful action. Africa holds a special place in UNESCO’s agenda, being designated as a priority for the organisation.

“UNESCO’s initiatives across Africa aim to harness the transformative power of media and communication to foster sustainable development, peace, and democracy,” she remarked.

Dr. Bissoonauth noted that protecting journalists, particularly environmental reporters, had become imperative given the outcome of a recent study that 70 percent of environmental journalists were attacked over the years due to their work, with numerous casualties.

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Dr. Rita Bissoonauth

“In response, UNESCO is launching new initiatives dedicated to enhancing the safety of journalists and expanding media education on environmental issues, ensuring that those at the frontlines of reporting are not only protected but also empowered,” she added.

President of the Africa Editors’ Forum and Chairperson of the Steering Committee of the AMC, Churchill Otieno, agrees that the condition under which journalists operate is tense, with at least 14 journalists and media workers killed in Africa from January 2023 to May 2024 and 67 others imprisoned across Africa in connection to their work as of December 1, 2023.

Despite censorship, harassment, and the rampant spread of misinformation, Otieno urged that creativity and innovation should be harnessed to sustain a free and vibrant media.

“We must embrace new technologies, explore innovative storytelling methods, and forge partnerships that amplify the voices of the voiceless and ensure the truth prevails,” he advised.

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Churchill Otieno

Leveraging digital technologies 

No doubt AI technologies pose significant threats to journalism, but Otieno believes they can be deployed ethically to revolutionise media practice in Africa. By harnessing the power of AI responsibly, he said, “we can unlock new opportunities for innovation, improve the quality of journalism, and advance media freedom and sustainability across the continent.”

Dr. Bissoonauth echoed his view, saying it is essential that stakeholders continue to build a media landscape that can withstand the pressures of the digital age while championing the principles of sustainability, accuracy, and fairness.

“As we strive towards ‘The African Media We Want,’ let us embrace the challenges and opportunities for innovation and collaboration,” she concluded.

Leslie Richer, Director of Information & Communication at the AU Commission, further highlighted Africa’s place in the digital economy and how African media practitioners can have a fair cut of the culture and creative industries’ $2,250 billion global revenues projected to reach $480 billion in 10 years.

Specifically, Africa’s digital economy is estimated to reach US$180 billion within the decade. But who are the beneficiaries? Is it African economies, African businesses, or African individuals? Who owns the infrastructure and platforms upon which the digital economy in Africa is based? Which jurisdictions benefit from revenues generated by taxes? What share of the revenue from contents generated on the continent by African content creators and media organisations ends up in their pockets? These were pertinent questions Richer nudged the participants to reflect on.

“These discussions at the AMC, along with priorities under the AU’s Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa and other continental frameworks being developed, including the establishment of Africa’s Digital Single Market and the Protocol on Digital Trade under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), as well as the development of the AU Continental Cybersecurity strategy and the Continental Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategy, will enable the development of a cohesive action plan towards ensuring Africa and its citizens and businesses are real beneficiaries of the digital economy,” she said.

 

Giving primacy to environmental reporting

Richer maintained that environmental journalism is critical to shaping Africa’s response to climate change, serving as a vital bridge between the scientific community, policymakers, and the public and helping to raise awareness about the urgent need for action to address the crisis.

She, however, said for African media to play its role in climate reporting, there must be investment in investigative journalism and data driven reporting through training and media literacy to enable journalists to interpret scientific data and transform it into compelling stories that resonate across diverse audiences.

“In aligning with Africa’s Agenda 2063 and promoting the Africa We Want, the media must adopt a multifaceted approach that involves deep investigative work, data-driven insights, and public engagement, driving a more accountable and sustainable approach to environmental management in Africa.

“As communicators, we have a key role to play in changing the narrative of Africa, and we can no longer continue to be bystanders while the story of Africa and its potential are defined, re-written and narrated by others,” Richer said.

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Leslie Richer

To change the status quo, she advocated for a strong network of African media and content creators “to build the linkages that will make it possible for us to view news about Africa from African sources as valid.”

African media should source news about the continent from other African media houses and strengthen the collaboration of national news agencies into a continent-wide pan-African outlet, Richer added.

 

Action plan and declaration 

The convention births a number of action plans arrived at by stakeholders, including the government, media professionals, civil society groups, academics, and development partners.

Among others, they called for a comprehensive capacity-building programme for the African media focused on AI, coordinating the establishment of a network of press freedom organisations monitoring and documenting press freedom threats and violations to facilitate information exchange and joint advocacy strategies, coordinating the mobilisation of journalists and resources to enhance the quality and coverage of environmental and climate change issues in Africa by leveraging AI and technology, and establishing a media fund dedicated to climate reporting.

In what is tagged “Accra Declaration 2024,” the participants expressed commitment to fostering a conducive environment for media freedoms and independence across Africa—including the repeal and/or amendment of laws that restrict press freedom—and ensuring the protection of journalists from various forms of press freedom threats and violations both online and offline.

Governments were enjoined to uphold their duty in line with national constitutions, as well as regional and international standards to ensure that journalists work freely and safely; including investigating and prosecuting attacks against journalists.

“We call for increased reforms in media workspaces, including better welfare and capacity building for the human resources of media entities; investment in innovation to respond to new interests and communities; the acquisition of digital skills for media operatives; gender rationalisation policies; the promotion of entrepreneurial journalism; and strategic business modules.

“We advocate for the integration of disability and diversity inclusion into media employment practices and content generation through guidelines and frameworks on gender equality and social inclusion (GESI), ensuring that all voices are represented and heard within the African media landscape.

“We call on the media to contribute to the Africa We Want under Agenda 2063 by prioritising the production and promotion of content, including in indigenous languages, to foster inclusion and access to information across communities,” it stated.

The media was also tasked with promoting Africa’s economic growth through sustained reporting on the AFCFTA protocol on intellectual property rights and digital trade, which have impacts on the media industry.

“In conclusion, we reaffirm the importance of creating safe and conducive operating environments for journalists to undertake their professional duties. We reiterate our commitment to building a vibrant, inclusive, and sustainable media landscape in Africa that upholds the principles of freedom, innovation, environmental responsibility, diversity, editorial independence, and affirmative action for PWDs.

“Through collective action and solidarity, we believe that the African media we envision will contribute significantly to the continent’s development and prosperity,” the document added.

 

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