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Let’s Talk Accountability! GIZ-GSP German Study Tour

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Berlin | Hamburg | Bonn
The Eastern Cape Socio-economic Consultative Council (ECSECC) has adopted the acronym VUCA to succinctly describe the socio-political landscape of the province. According to the council, the setting in which our provincial leaders, civil society organisations and media houses operate in is challenging, not only because it is Volatile and holds much Uncertainty, but also because it has problems that are Complex and Ambiguous. However, the Eastern Cape is also a province with a strong storytelling and oratory historical tradition. There are therefore many institutions and organisations that use this asset to facilitate inclusive communication spaces that address the VUCA environment. The province has a vibrant community and local media sector, civil society organisations (CSO’s) like the Eastern Cape Communication Forum (ECCF) and state actors like the Government Communication Information System (GCIS), working together to facilitate inclusive communication spaces where citizens can discuss key development issues and hold their local Government to account.

CSO’s and state actors frequently make use of dialogues and debates to facilitate inclusive communication spaces where citizens can not only voice their opinions freely but also be heard by relevant decision makers. However, one of the major disadvantages or challenges of many of these invited spaces is that firstly, there is a negative invited-inviter power dynamic unintentionally formed by technicalities as simple as the process of agenda drafting, seating arrangement and feedback loops. The importance/role of inclusion and listening as a value and act is often under-estimated within these spaces. There also exists a healthy, yet complex historical tension between state and local/community media. A thorough exploration into the complexities of the relationship between state and media is imperative to facilitating a radical shift in the metanarrative and meta-values used to underpin communication in the Eastern Cape public domain.

From 10-25 June 2015, I travelled to Germany on a study tour with 12 South African communicators. The group comprised of editors and journalists from the community and local media sector as well as government communicators from both Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. The Government Communicators included Siyasanga Hompashe (Communication Manager, Nkonkobe Local Municipality), Siyabulela Makunga (Communication Manager, Amathole District Municipality), Joseph Mandlenkosi Ngala (Communication officer, Mbombela Local Municipality), and Tabita Ngqunge (GCIS Regional coordinator, Amathole District) while the Community Journalists included Phumza Sokana-Ntongana (Journalist, Daily Dispatch), Thomas Richard Nkosi (Editor, Ziwaphi), Tumelo Brain Dibakwane (Journalist, Bushbuckridge News), Wandile Fana (Editor, Skawara News), Max Matabhire (Editor,Zithethele News), Buntu Gotywa (News reporter, Grocotts Mail), Thembisa Mjiba-Makasi (Editor, Idike- Lethu News). The tour was organised by the South African-German GIZ-Governance Support Programme (GSP) in an attempt to facilitate learning and transfer of knowledge on tools and mechanisms in the field of accountability. Over 15 days the group travelled through Berlin, Hamburg and Bonn, to engage on the importance of two-way communication between state and citizens and the role of local media as an intermediary. The team visited a variety of media houses, public offices and communication enterprises to gain an overview of the German, media-state dynamic, especially regarding state accountability.

The tour was facilitated by trained journalist and Coach, Andrea Tapper of Tapper press who gave input in the form of workshops, guidance and assisted in eliciting deliberative dialogue on key issues throughout the trip. The trip successfully provided a variety of insights into the inner workings of the German Federal State and the healthy tension between itself and the German media. The trip also provided the opportunity for me to reflect on the historical differences and similarities between the two countries. Here are some highlights and insights from the trip:

Overview of the German media landscape

germany2.jpgThe German media landscape is characterised by a vibrant print, TV and radio sector. The print sector has about 50 daily, 1, 528 local editions, 121 weekly and 7 Sunday editions. Out of a population of 80 million people, 22 million are regular readers, making Germany one of the greatest reading nations in the world. According to the same numbers, television has a penetration of 90%, Newspapers 63% and online about 46%.

The media sector is divided into public or private. There are 2 nationwide television channels (ZDF 1 and 2) and a number of community television stations. Public TV is run by an independent board made up of people from all walks of life (church, trade unions and parties). Since 2010, a law was passed, forcing all citizens to pay tax to finance public TV. However, not all citizens are supportive of this law and the state has two cases in the constitutional court against the regulation. This is interesting because in South Africa, TV licenses are rarely contested. Comparative to the American-centric South African TV, German TV is still very much under the influence of British Television especially the BBC.

Compared to a country where state advertising is relied upon for survival, (state recently promised 30% of its advertising to community media), in Germany, for the past 5 years, more money is made from distribution (4.7 billion Euros) than advertising (3.1 billion Euros) in print. This is a major paradigm shift that impacts the relationship between state and media drastically, especially making media free to report on state matters as they wish. This theme ran through the various engagements that the team had with media houses throughout the journey.

Alex TV: Free Radio and TV for all.

germany4Alex TV is a public access television station based in Berlin, Alexanderplaatz. The main vision of the television station is to encourage public participation and because of this, anyone and everyone can produce and share content on its platform.

In 2006/2007 German online had become saturated with low quality content and German TV inundated with badly produced programmes. The big question then arose; do we need open access TV, if it’s really this bad? In 2008 Alex was then re-born.

Alex has an open TV and radio studio where young people can come and produce and broadcast their own radio/TV shows. Radio shows are produced using a simple software programme called Mairlist. In Berlin there are about 150 radio stations and many open access radio stations. This means that there is huge competition and content has to be good. Alex allows young people to produce content by providing equipment for anyone to use free of charge, as long as they produce for Alex. The quality of equipment provided and duration allowed depends on the quality of the production and level at which the product engages the audience. Alex has about 530 evaluators of content. The evaluators watch the content and then critique the quality. Suggestions are given and workshops are provided to help producers improve. Alex is seen as a valuable stepping stone for practical experience for young people. A great deal of the content produced is placed online, with their website receiving around 27, 500 clicks per day. The station has about 800 producers and 86% of them are from Berlin.

Bezirksamt Neukӧlln: A problem district changing

Neukӧlln is one of 12 boroughs in Berlin. Each Borough has its own municipality. Similar to Soweto in South Africa, the borough is home to a large migrant population. In its totality, the area has a population of about 310 000. 137 000, almost half of the population, are immigrants coming from 146 different countries. Not only art the immigrants from a different racial/ethnic background, mostly, Turkish or Arab; 63, 500 members of the population are Muslim. One major difference between Neukӧlln and Soweto is that the state provides a great deal of financial and social support to foreigners. Firstly, there are many schools where parents do not have to pay for books and furthermore the state pays out €185 per child for school fees and other expenses related to education. The down side to this is however that because the state provides so much support, a small minority of migrants do not work and others even go as far as pocketing the surplus cash.

Most of the Germans who could not ‘handle’ the influx of foreigners moved to other suburbs and for the many that remained, integration became a top priority for the municipality. Regardless of the state support, the area was soon labelled a “problem borough”. Social workers began to work closely with the police and develop strategies to manage integration and encourage engagement. The situation became difficult in the district when in 2006 an elementary school, the Rutli School, was declared unmanageable by its own teachers due to the high levels of violence. The issue was communicated extensively through local news. Political tension grew between politicians and those working on the ground.

In an effort to curb this, the Municipality began to run projects with Civil Society. A nationwide debate about the schooling system ensued and the school has since been reformed. In addition to this, the main church was developed into an intercultural centre. There is even a café run by an African and rooms for seminars. In order to maintain close communication with citizens, the municipality does not use a complex communication strategy but rather relies on close ties with CSO’s through hands on municipal officer and social workers who also speak directly to the media. It is interesting to note that in comparison to the multi-layered communications departments that many of the South African municipalities have, the Neukӧlln Municipality is very simple, and has had no formal communications department for 15 years.

Neukoellner.Net: Famous, wild and unpaid

germany5Neukoellner.Net is an online news website founded in 2011 by three young ladies who studied Cultural Journalism. They started off as student project and continued on when they got their first jobs (none of them are actually working as journalists).The magazine is run as a Non Profit entity. The website is attractive to the eye, clean and fresh with beautiful photography. News section is creatively labelled as “art and kitsch” and the politics section as “power and fairy tales”.

The website can be translated into 8 different languages and receives almost 12,000 clicks per day. The main aim of the online news website is to re-imagine and shape the image of the “problem district” which it serves.

The topics started with culture, street life, and galleries and changed as the district changed. Issues of crime and gentrification took the fore but the magazine still aims to provide balanced and fair reporting that gives everyone a voice. They recently won the Grimm award which is an important step for acknowledgment of online journalism.

Professor Caja Thimms: Social Media Expert from Bonn University

If there is an expert on social networks, twitter, Facebook and the like, it’s Dr Caja Thimm who studied communication and political science in Heidelberg, San Francisco and Berkeley and is a professor and director of the media science faculty at Bonn University for 15 years.

The dynamic social media expert talked to the team about her recently published analysis “Digital Citoyens: Political participation in times of Social Media” covering case studies In Germany, Egypt and China. She provided the team with an insight into an all-important question: In times of digital democracy, what do citizens really want?germany6

One cannot talk about politics without talking Mediatisation of politics (Strimback 2008: 243 and Thimm et al 2014:254). In essence we are experiencing the transformation of politics through media. Habermas talks of the normative political deliberation. Thimms asks can the traditional concept of deliberation be applied to the digital world. As a team they have been attempting to model twitter as a discursive network by looking at German national elections through qualitative research methods. They looked at 3 million tweets from certain selected events. The results of their research are yet to be completed and published. They have however found that more and more people are fighting for their digital rights and demanding to be heard. However, what is even more interesting is the overwhelming feeling that the digital world cannot close the real life and social divide that we experience on a day to day basis.

Conclusion

Just over two decades after the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, state and media in South Africa are still in a state of transition. More and more, people are expressing a feeling of exclusion from public processes. Although the media exists as a fantastic opportunity to develop inclusive communication spaces in the country, the fractured relationship between state and media remains a cause for concern. Not only is the strength of the media to hold government to account precarious in its position, the state still has a long way to go in terms of social innovation in the communication space. What has become clear through the study tour is that South Africa holds all the necessary resources to facilitate inclusion, transparency and accountability. What is lacking is only a paradigm shift in the metanarratives of power and force within these spaces. Not only should deliberative dialogue and democracy play a more established role in public participation processes, communicators and actors need to come to the spaces with a stronger emphasis on listening.

Deliberative dialogues and democracy is less about finding the correct technical solution to an issue as we already have the frameworks and structures in place, it is more about working with what we have in common as state, media and civil society. It is about figuring out what our values are and what the assets and interests are that are most important to us as we think about our way forward. If implemented in the Eastern Cape Province, this kind of communication will allow problem solving in a deeper and more sustained manner.

The trouble with mediated citizenship

A recent report from the Eldemen Trust barometer which measures the level of trust citizens have for different institutions, rated South Africans at a mere 17% in terms of trust for the South African Government compared to a staggering 82 % in terms of trust for media. Although this says very little for South Africa as a democracy, it does place media at an ideal space regarding its potential to act as a democratic mediator and support social, political and economic development. Media gives people a platform to communicate, decide what kind of development they want to see in their community as well as hold their local government to account. Access to true and proper information is therefore key to sustainable development, particularly for the global south which battles with a myriad of developmental issues. However, for South Africa and particularly the Eastern Cape, this still remains a misleading notion, merely because of a low level of media literacy and difficulties in gaining internet access as well as, and most importantly a local government that remains disconnected from the communication stream.

The Centre for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the National Endowment for Democracy have found that more and more democracies across the globe are acknowledging the need to get youth to consume media more critically and therefore become media literate. “Definitions of media literacy range far and wide, but common attributes include the ability to access, evaluate, analyse, assess, comprehend, review, critique, and produce information from a variety of media” (Milhailidis, 2009). However, in my experience of Media Literacy Training, I have found such interventions in the Eastern Cape to be quite complex; racial divides, the gulf between the rich and poor, high levels of unemployment, unresponsive local government, and the great digital divide, means that the  small number of young people that become media literate through self-taught citizen journalism or media development projects, either begin to view their media engagement as a chance for upward social mobility or are halted half way up the ladder when they realise that mediated citizenship requires the same social capital as citizenship enacted in the physical, public realm, or worse yet, when they realise or start thinking about who is actually listening. Are the people in power connected to the conversation? They quickly begin to see that in South Africa, who you are and where you come from matters as much online, on paper and on the airwaves as it does in the community hall.

In the Eastern Cape, every township or neighbourhood has its own unique set of developmental issues that they would like to bring to the fore; from qualms around dog walking parks to issues around the unavailability of proper sanitation facilities. Furthermore, each area carries its own cultural identity and is probably either mostly populated by English, Afrikaans or Xhosa speaking people. In most cases, public discourse (developed and maintained via mainstream media) is dominated by an elite middle class, not only because this group have the means to communicate and participate, (something the poor usually don’t have) but also because they have the interest, a soft skill habitually missing amongst the often politically apathetic rich. (Excuse my gross generalisations; I only use them for effect).

There is a whole lot of hype in South Africa around an enchanting pill called media that is believed to have the ability to magically bring voices from the so-called margins into the mainstream. I am respectfully appropriating the title of last year’s “Highway Africa” conference – Social Media, from the margins to the mainstream, where journalists from all over the world came together to discuss the role of social media in nation building. This hype, has for some time now encouraged journalists, political activists and development projects to see mediated citizenship as a viable alternative for subaltern groups who “lack” a voice in the physical realm. It is believed that, through media platforms, they can air their grievances and by so doing enter through the narrow doors of elite civil society as equals to join the rich and middle class where discussions about dog walking parks and sanitation are held in the same regard (tongue in cheek). We often forget the role and value of social capital and its impact even in mediated citizenship. We forget that a recent report by IDASA states that most people feel disconnected from their local government. There can be no benefit to inciting ideals of liberal democracy…share…share….share… with such sensitive developmental issues as education, sanitation and housing when there are insufficient mechanisms in place to raise these voices to a level where they count most.  I feel we must tread carefully, when it comes to such concerns and get local government plugged in to the conversation.

Without the buy in of local government, I think campaigns around access to information and media literacy will continue creating a citizenry that is aware of their rights and responsibilities, equipped with the knowledge and information necessary to engage fruitfully and prepared to do so but without a platform to act. They will continue creating a citizenry whose social mobility may not be limited by their space, place and language but limited by a lack of social capital to legitimise their claims. Access to information campaigns will continue creating an empowered citizen that speaks to their local government but without anyone actually listening. Who is listening?

Civil society needs to continue to act by providing skills and knowledge for engagement with media through Media Literacy Trainings, while local government needs to tap in to these conversations and proactively listen to what the people are saying. Without all four working together (citizen, state, local media and civil society organisations) in tandem, mediated citizenship will remain a failed project.

 

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