The Urban Character of the African Press

Helge Ronning, Professor, Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo

The urban and educated character of the press provides it with its particular role as a central institution in civil society in Africa. The pressure for democratic reforms in Africa to a large degree had their roots in the cities. Urbanisation contributed to the creation of new organisations outside state control, facilitated protest and demonstrations. And urban life creates new identities. The densely populated cities in Africa represent a break with traditional forms of clientage and structures of authority. Thus the results of elections show that it is the urban population which is most likely to opt for change, while the rural population has a tendency to vote for the government in power. Education also increases awareness of political processes and ability to assess the situation in a longer term perspective. It is not a coincidence that African universities have been (and remain) centres of political opposition and critique. Thus the new press has had a tendency to appeal to a new, young, relatively educated unemployed or underemployed, dissatisfied urban population with high aspirations and dim prospects for the future.

This has lead the emergence of a new type of sensationalist African newspapers which are highly critical of government, both the new and the old, which personalises political issues, run campaigns against officials and politicians, exposes scandals of economic, political and private character, and which often shows poor journalistic judgement and oversteps unwritten, but internationally accepted ethical rules. A case in point maybe the Zambian weekly, The Post, which has been harassed by government and has had more than hundred libel cases filed against it in the few years it has existed. Granted, they have won almost all of them.

[From Helge Ronning. "Democracy, Civil Society and the Media in Africa in the 90s." Media and the Transition of Ciollective Iderntities. Ed. Tore Slatta. Oslo: University of Oslo, 1996, page 46. Available from Department of Media and CommunicationsDepartment of Media and Communications [[email protected]].

Postcolonial Web [Africa] [History] [Politics]