BBC Media Action: The role of media in transparency and accountability in Africa
26 September 2012, 12-13.30, London. Watch the video here.
The BBC Media Action GTF programme, ‘A National Conversation’, is operating projects in Angola, Tanzania and Sierra Leone, supporting media, in particular local and national radio, to enable citizens to engage with their elected representatives and hold them to account.
As part of the Governance and Transparency Fund event series, BBC Media Action held an event to present their work and discuss both the role of evidence and learning from their projects. The event follows other events in the series which focused on value for money, women’s voices, and social accountability in demand-side governance, all with a strong emphasis on what the different GTF projects have been learning about facilitating good governance.
The event was opened by James Deane, Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action, who said that the event aimed to get to the essentials of the relationship between citizens and their government and the role of media in facilitating that relationship.
Rebecca Stringer, who is Country Director for BBC Media Action in Tanzania, gave a quick introduction to the aims and methods of ‘A National Conversation’, which operates media capacity building, training and partnerships in Angola, Sierra Leone and Tanzania. BBC Media Action also supports radio programmes in each country, which use local languages and culturally appropriate formats to engage citizens with governance and political issues and encourage accountability from elected representatives. She took Tanzania as a case study, beginning an honest discussion of the successes and challenges of the project.
The project in Tanzania took a new direction in the middle of the grant period. At first BBC Media Action was working in partnership with the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation (TBC), however, following the 2010 elections coverage and elections results, TBC decided to end this partnership with BBC Media Action. At this point BBC Media Action initiated a new project, a radio show called Haba na Haba (Little by Little), which aims to bridge the gap between leaders and citizens, in partnership with six local radio stations.
Rebecca drew out what BBC Media Action had learnt from their work in Tanzania, and the other focus countries, about what works:
- Audience engagement and participation was very important – whether by calls, text messages or online, the radio programmes’ audiences were very engaged.
- Explaining new issues could win interest – audiences’ interest was piqued by radio tackling unfamiliar issues and explaining them in new ways, particularly in Sierra Leone, where radio is the primary method for much of the population to obtain news and information.
- Stories of change are one way to share impact – real examples of situations changing for the better in communities as a result of showcasing local issues on the programmes.
Rebecca said that it was necessary to be selective about which partner they worked with in order to get results: some local radio stations didn’t have the capacity or interest to benefit from trainings and partnerships with BBC Media Action. Other challenges included local distrust in the media, which was often perceived to be partial and corrupt, and unwilling engagement from politicians and government officials, who equally may fear that they will be misrepresented if they engage with journalists.
She summarized the major learnings BBC Media Action had taken from the ‘A National Conversation’ project.
- Media is extremely important in building accountability between governments and citizens
- To have an influence, it is vital to understand the political economy of a country and the context which the media is operating in – both social, political and economic
- Be creative, innovative, appropriate and political (with a small ‘p’) in order to reach out
- Choose the right partners to work with
Rebecca also articulated a paradox: Increased demand for accountability may lead to a decrease in accountability. She explained that in some political contexts, increased demands causes politicians to become defensive and refuse to answer questions or engage with journalists and citizens. In his response, discussant Soloman Mugera, Editor of the BBC Africa Service, agreed that this could be the preliminary response, but argued that the paradox was temporary and that prolonged and robust demand for accountability, within a democracy, would eventually leader to stronger accountability.
The second speaker, Augusto Newell, Research Manager at BBC Media Action, addressed the evidence base for BBC Media Action’s engagements in this project. He began by running through some key terms, such as governance, and how they can mean very different things to different audiences. The research conducted for ‘A National Conversation’ was grounded on their conceptual model, which in its simplest form looks like:
Issues arise > interaction facilitated between citizens and leaders > gain leaders’ attention > national conversation takes place > issues resolved.
Augusto outlined the learning from the research programme as:
- Be flexible – not all approaches work in all situations
- Anchoring research in only one method is risky – aim for a balance
- Define terms – accountability and transparency aren’t the same, but they can be two sides of the same coin.
In his final contribution to the discussion, Soloman said ‘A National Conversation’ had been such a success because it tapped into an existing cultural predilection: ‘Africans love to talk’. The project created ways and means to allow citizens’ desire to talk about their issues, needs and challenges, and created platforms to allow this talk to continue, even when traditional platforms were blocked (by text message, for example). He said that Rebecca’s ‘accountability paradox’ was shortlived: where citizen demand was robust and prolonged, accountability would follow. However, Soloman emphasized that in order for media to act as a conduit for accountability between citizens and their leaders, journalists needed to be trained and, most importantly, informed about the context and politics of their country.
Several questions and comments came from the floor. One participant asked whether the media platforms might not serve to legitimize government actions without true accountability? Rebecca responded that part of the programme was to train journalists to deal with attempts to hijack media to provide legitimacy and in fact they had found the reverse problem and it had been difficult getting officials and representatives to engage. On the issue of evidence-base, the answer to another question addressed how programmes should respond to findings in formative research which questioned the programme design: James Deane said there was often a tension caused by funding incentives to go ahead with programmes which had received funding, but if formative research undermined the programme assumptions, difficult conversations sometimes have to be had.
The final question was more of a plea from one participant for the development industry to engage more fully with the private sector, particularly in the media world, where incentives can be skewed by funding models that rely on grants from NGOs to support local radio. Both funders and media actors need to remember than journalists need to be trained to be better journalists, not NGO workers.
The next event in the GTF series will be on sustainability, hosted by WaterAid.
To watch the video of this event at BBC Media Action, click here.
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