Economic instability; the evolving major threat to freedom of media

The debate in media sphere at different levels has for so long pointed to freedom of expression as the core threat to the media industry.

This will even be underscored on World Press Freedom Day 2018, to be observed on Thursday May 3 under the theme “Keeping Power in Check”: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law.

However, today, the song seems to change the rhythm and verses related to media profitability are more reverberated than those involving professionalism.

The implication is that the dynamics of the contemporary era, require media outlets to be financially independent in order to be able to stand the pace, maintain their editorial independence and continue to abide by professional standards like objectivity, neutrality and balance among others.

Actually, for centuries, traditional media like radio, television and newspapers kept the monopoly as the only source of information and channels to reach the mass audience.

Such monopoly obliged all layers of the society including politicians, corporate companies, activists and behaviour change agents to allocate, imperatively, a portion of their budgets to buying airtime and space in media outlets for the purposes of conveying their messages to target audiences or promoting their products.

Today, with the current pace of digital revolution, media have lost their control over the audience.

Every institution whether public or private have their own website and are able to reach their audiences through social networks in a more effective and direct way, at a lower cost.

Media scholars like Denis McQuail in his Audience Analysis and Steve Baker in his Media Studies asserted that the audience is at the same time a market and product for media.

Therefore, the decrease or fragmentation of audience means loss of clientele for media, which results in serious decline of revenues.

The effect of shrinking financial revenues is currently evident in local media in Rwanda. We have recently witnessed the closure of some media houses and in-house restructuring that saw a considerable number of journalists lose their jobs.

This is a global phenomenon.

Apart from human resources matters, media content has also not been spared.

Today, much of the content aired by local radio stations is dominated by sports and entertainment, press reviews, and interactive programmes where presenters interact with the audience through call-ins.

Few TV stations that have managed to venture into the industry mostly air music and foreign movies.

Investigative reporting and media coverage in remote areas is considerably rare. Obviously, such operational model does not require huge resources in terms of skills and budget.

Financial instability has had detrimental consequences to professional journalism.

Typically, the media profession is dictated by three important factors: the editorial line, ownership and sponsorship. Inside that trinity, the sponsor sits on the throne, seconded by owner and the editorial line remains dependent on the two.

Therefore, the editorial line of a media outlet can never be discordant with the aspirations of the owner who also works to favour the interests of the sponsor.

In such case, the prevailing financial instability in the media sector may lead to a critical phenomenon whereby media houses would be arm-twisted to change their editorial lines and programming to align them to the mandates of major corporations, anti-regime politicians and other organisations, with the financial muscle to fund the media.

Hence, the media gradually abandon their cardinal obligation of education, advocacy, holding the powerful accountable, play watchdog role, among others, to be more business oriented.

A media influenced by such factors behind the curtains would hardly stand firm to defend principles of democracy and call out poor service delivery.

This is further underlined by the 2017-2018 UNESCO report on “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development” which notes that media independence is weakening and the professional standards of journalism are being eroded by economic forces.

The report emphasized that disruptions in business models have been seen as contributing to increasing dependence on government and corporate subsidies in some circumstances and thereby raising concerns about potential impacts on editorial independence.

To address the issue of financial instability, concerted efforts from both media practitioners and policymakers are needed.

First, in order to retain the audience, media practitioners should offer them well-investigated news, one they will not find on social media. In addition, for customization of the audience, media outlets should curve out a niche by producing content that targets a given segment of the population.

Secondly, media institutions need to create other businesses aside, to generate revenues that support media house operations.

Nevertheless, where possible, media houses can consider creating synergies in order to combine their efforts to create powerful media houses.

On the side of government, public media should be strengthened through a financing model that enables citizens to be the core source of funds, to avoid any external influence on the editorials and programming of public media

Finally, governments and policymakers, in general, should put in place environment conducive to the economic stability of the media by subsiding some utility services that served the media to perform their duties.

The writer is a media specialist at Rwanda Governance Board.


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