Jul 3, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Skills are not enough

 

"Noticias", the state newspaper of Mozambique

This past week I went to a coastal city called Beira to work with small Mozambican NGOs on their media advocacy skills. There were good and bad surprises during the work, and some interesting questions were raised regarding the usefulness of capacity training under inhospitable political environments.

There were about 20 people present from 8 or 9 different NGOs that dealt with public health, sanitation and mostly governance monitoring. I was very well impressed with their dedication and capacity. Most people were versed in budgets and decentralization laws and there were some good, albeit localized, results stemming from their participation in official governance forums. Most, if not all, were already attempting to engage the media in their processes and the majority was successful in the local level, counting with community radio stations to publicize their work.

Nearly all, though, had tales of corruption in the media and/or political pressure trying to smother those efforts. When I was discussing how to “sell” a good story to a reporter, one participant asked: “But what if I’ve done all that, it worked, the story was covered, and then the governor paid the newspaper off so that it would never be published?” Another had a similar experience: but instead of the bribe going to the newspaper’s owner, the politician simply bought every single copy the next day so that no one in the town would read it.

Even when that didn’t happen, it seems that in a country that operates almost as a one party state, every attempt to criticize or just scrutinize public office was seen as an act of opposition. It’s like if you are not with Frelimo (the party in power), you are against it. Reporters and newspapers are afraid to publish stories of scrutiny because they don’t want to be seen as opposition. It comes to a point where any organized civil society is seen as opposition anyway, and it is really hard to get anyone to publicize monitoring efforts.

The second most common complaint of was blatant corruption. Often, when a reporter was contacted about an event or a story that might be interesting to cover, the reporter would charge a fee to go check it out. Not a fee from its newspaper – a fee from whoever was blowing the whistle. You want a newspaper to cover your protest? Pay. You want the story published? Pay again. And these are not big corporations getting too close to media conglomerates – these are rural associations being charged by their neighbors to do the job they were supposed to do. To me, this is just as shocking and bad as a police officer asking you to pay him to investigate the murder of a relative.

We had two local journalists come speak to our group of NGOs, and they did not deny any of the complaints. They did not condone it either, but the calm with which they heard accusations of corruption and political bias was, again, astonishing. It implied that these practices have become the norm. I do not want to sound naïve or say that the media elsewhere is free from corruption and bias. Obviously it is not. But to have corruption become the norm should not be accepted as natural either.

This context makes one wonder what results can be achieved by capacity development in the media field. For the NGOs, they might be trained to perfection on how to organize interesting stories and build a relationship with the media; they will still hit a wall when they are charged illegal fees or get silenced by political pressure.

The same goes to the journalists. There are several programs to better train journalists all around the world – to do investigative reports, to monitor the government, to discover money laundering schemes. But I feel that the problem in most cases has nothing to do with lack of capacity from media members. They are capable enough. They just can’t find a way to investigate and publish stories when their newspapers and TVs are owned by members of the government. And that cannot be changed by capacity development programs.

Here in Mozambique, one of the main TV channels of the country, which used to be quite vocal against the government, slowed the investigation of certain “sensitive” stories. Around the same time, journalists that work for the group that owns the channel told me that their CEO had joined Frelimo.

This is no small thing or isolated problem. Current theories and practices on development see the media as having a crucial role to create demand for good governance (DFGG, as the jargon goes), which in turn is believed to improve development outcomes. One of the pillars of DFGG is transparency, which relates to quality and freedom of information. But as I am discovering, media training, which is a common effort to tackle this, cannot solve the problem by itself. Besides, as many studies show, availability of information alone is not enough to ensure more participation or better governance.

I am in no way saying that there is no point in training journalists or NGOs to better monitor government activities or advocate for their causes. Access to information is still a prerequisite to demand better governance. But I have come to think the quality of that information depends a lot more on the particular political context of a country or region than on individual skill. As my professor Barak Hoffman wrote, “Capacity development is ineffective if the incentives are perverse”.

In that sense, I have now two bets for how media programs could have an actual impact within a political scenario that provides constraints for the quality of the information that becomes accessible on a larger scale: community radio and social media. Those seem promising and at least on selected regions and selected occasions can have a concrete effect on monitoring governance. But what impact can they have nationwide? Apart from conspicuous and specific revolutions, that remains to be seen.

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9 Comments

  • I agree with you completely, Andrea. Training journalists who have no incentive to produce high-quality journalism is a waste of resources. Community radio makes a lot of sense to me, especially call-in talk shows. This seems to work well if you can find people willing to do the hard work of setting up the station. Importantly, it often allows people to by-pass the power structures that own the national media. I am a very big proponent of using local media as a central part of DFGG programs.

    We don’t know enough yet about how to use social media, in my opinion. Social media proponents often believe it can provide a technological solution to a political problem. This is not true and programs based on this flawed assumption almost always fail. Use social media as part of a DFGG program – for example as a way to collect and disseminate information. It can’t be the central part of the program, however. You still need to do the hard work of mobilization. That takes people, not smartphones.

  • Yes, I agree that social media can to be a component, but definitely not the central part of any program. It can have an advantage in circumventing censorhip, but one has to be mindful of its reach – rural communities in Mozambique, for one, are not really into Twitter. The NGOs themselves have sometimes difficulties accessing the internet. Radio on the other hand is quite cheap and easier to set up than a full newspaper. But again, what to do about central governments? In my experience, parliament members are much more concerned about the capital’s newspaper than about local radio stations. How to monitor them effectively?

  • Well, I think that depends on what you are trying to do. Changing politics at the center might be too difficult right now, given Frelimo’s entrenchment. What about thinking smaller at the moment, focusing on local-level issues? If you can do something effective at the local level in a number of locations, you might be able to put a network together across the country in 5 or 10 years. I could see quite an effective program in a number of places around the country at the moment, using a number of transparency and participation campaigns, such as combing better data on local development issues with local media. Even this is quite a challenge given the low capacity of most NGOs outside the main urban areas. I think a program like this is a more reasonable approach in Mozambique under existing conditions.

  • hum that actually sounds feasible! and it could have an impact on DFGG, I think.

  • Although the corruption is most powerful at the top, with Frelimo officials, what struck me was the degree to which lower level, on-the-ground journalists have become consumed by these norms as well. I love the idea of community radio. But given the pervasiveness of the attitude that Andrea mentioned — specifically that journalists will demand payment to cover stories — I wonder if that might affect the quality of community media as well? Granted, the major advantage would be that these stations would not be an arm of companies, conglomerates, or parties, instead managed and run under community ownership. Still, the example Andrea gave of the independent TV channel being compromised after its owner joined Frelimo, is quite telling. Is there a risk that the party would offer similar incentives to to buy-off community stations in an attempt to preclude negative coverage? I wonder if local communities would be any more or less vulnerable to that type of situation.

    Just recently, my organization developed a proposal for a community radio station up in Puntland, Somalia. The underlying theory is similar to what we’ve talked about — that this radio station would be close to communities, engage them in debate, speak specifically to their concerns, educate them about their government, and do it all independent of the forces that often corrupt or silence media. Can it work? Will the government allow for it? It’s hard to say, especially since Puntland’s new constitution places not-so-subtle disclaimers on its article establishing freedom of the media — basically that media is free from government interference…unless its coverage contravenes Islamic law. Islamic law and a state of emergency are the two most common qualifiers to most freedoms found in the new constitution. Given this context, and from Andrea’s description a much deeper culture of corruption in Mozambique, it might be interesting to see how both societies would respond to something like community radio.

  • […] this week, my colleague, Andrea, had a great post about her experiences in Mozambique. She relayed some important stories and trends from NGO workers […]

  • […] preparing for a couple more training sessions with NGOs on media advocacy in Mozambique, I was asked by my CSO partners to include a module on […]

  • Let’s not forget that what these programs are supposed to do is challenge the status quo. Most programs will fail because this is not an easy thing to do. At the same time, we can’t use the difficulty of the challenge as an excuse to do nothing. The only reasonable approach I see is to try a bunch of different things and see what, if anything works..Learn from success and failure and try again. If the work was easy, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out what to do,

  • […] stemming from the top down. Particularly given the constraints to traditional media in Mozambique, as I discussed previously, community radio can be an important component of any work that aims to foster demand for better […]

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