22 March 2010

Nation Media Group's Pan African Media Conference – Day II

I wasn’t so impressed with the first day of the Nation Media Group's big 'Pan-African Media Conference' – too many presidents, and too little that actually had something to do with the media. Had they just called it the 50th anniversary celebrations, it would have worked better.

The second day was more interesting. Unfortunately, in the morning, several sessions ran in parallel, and I heard that the session on new media was hopelessly crowded – not giving this subject its own plenary session was clearly an oversight.

I walked in later in the morning, at the tail end of a discussion on languages – preserving local languages (or rather 'rocar ranguages', as it came out) in media, or trying to get everyone really proficient in one? One panellist made the argument that in order to compete successfully on a global scale, proficiency in English is necessary: 'New forms of technology create an illiteracy of their own'. I sympathise with that.

Then, just before the break, a truly acrobatic feat: Uganda's Minister for Information and National Guidance, Kabakumba Labwoni Masiko, was asked a question about Ugana's proposed media regulations: jail terms of up to two years for journalists who commit 'economic sabotage', the expansion of the media council to give more control to the ministry, the licensing of print media, and other restrictions on the media in Uganda. Moderator Sibi Okumu nearly bent over backwards to assure the minister that no, heavens forbid, she wouldn't have to answer this question if she didn't want to since it was not the session's topic ('We could spend an eternity on what doesn't work', he said. Well, why don't we?). Thanks to that, she was able to react with a very cursory reply on the Ugandan government's commitment to press freedom and that the Ugandan media were 'stakeholders in development' – never a confidence-inspiring statement.

Conferences always have their own dynamics: On day one, the red-carpet session, the big names, the dull speeches. Everyone turns up for that, even though protocol and security are a nightmare. By day two of the NMG conference, many people – and certainly the eminent ones and their hangers-on – had gone home. The rest were snoozy after lunch, and later hot and dehydrated and the last two sessions ran without a break. A pity, because the topics were interesting, and very relevant to the media industry: Reporting in a crisis, with an interesting keynote from Joe Odindo, and media freedom. I thought the latter was particularly interesting and should have been given a lot more, and a lot more technical space: Kenya is now moving to restrict the broadcast media through regulations that will do little to improve quality, but much to fragment the industry and make it less viable. Quite in contrast to official statements, Uganda is doing the same in print media, and the raid on the Kenyan Standard shows that irrespective of what regulations say, there's still always that old-school approach.

Trevor Ncube commented that after a period of liberalisation, the media space has been contracting again in recent years. Especially the regulatory angle to media freedom would have been worth pursuing in more detail, I think, not the least because there are legitimate concerns over media ethics and quality.

Conference report, speeches etc here.