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Democracy: Africa roots for new media

STOCKHOLM, 24 Oct – African leaders on Friday welcomed the potential of new media to offer opportunities for democracy, particularly as it transforms access to information and fosters freedom of expression.

Some speakers at the ongoing European Development Days conference in Stockholm, Sweden discussing ‘New Media for a New World,’ however called for caution.

Setting the stage for discussion Mactar Silla, Director General of Spectrum TV in Cameroon and also the Head of the African Association of Private Producers and Television (APPTA) said new media might bypass traditional constraints such as time, space and political control, transforming the access to information.

“In developing countries new media face a lack of resources and great percentages of illiteracy, apart from political persecution in some States,” Mr Silla noted.

He said new ways to exchange information are rising through the Internet and cell phones, offering a great potential for social, economic and political development.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf praised new media noting that it has the potential to inform many people and expand one’s capabilities for learning from the experience of others.

“It enables young people to have a greater stake in society, to participate more and have informed choices and opinions – a key enhancement for society. But there are clear downsides – kids don’t read anymore,” said the Liberian Head of State.

Raila Odinga, Prime Minister of Kenya, who said he was an active blogger during – and after – his election campaign said using new media, gives his office the opportunity to communicate regularly with people who give valuable feedback about issues that need to be addressed.

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“It is a constant channel of communication that we use now. I am sure new media will play a more and more critical role in the future. In Kenya, 200,000 people had mobile phones three years ago. Today, that number is more than 17 million,” said the Prime Minister.

Wambui Waweru, Features Editor, Capital FM added that mobile telephony had transformed media in Africa as people are increasingly using their mobile phones to access the Internet and to listen to radio, particularly community radio.

“Media houses send out news alerts on the mobile phone. The phone also helps in the gathering of news because listeners call in when they see something newsworthy; in a sense we too receive alerts from the public,” said Ms Waweru.

Special Africa Union Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in Africa Pansy Tlakula said the continent was still dealing with the ‘bread and butter issues’ of press freedom.

“New media have to come up quickly with self-regulations before being regulated by the State,” said Ms Tlakula.

She raised a voice of caution saying: “New media ushers in many societal challenges that must be addressed such as child pornography and human trafficking. There are limits as how new media should be used particularly in institutional settings.”

Ms Tlakula stressed self-regulation and accessibility as some of the many challenges of new media.

“Many so-called traditional media organisations are moving into cyberspace and are re-colonising it,” warned Prof Fackson Banda, SAB LTD-UNESCO Chair of Media and Democracy at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa.

The European Development Days is an annual event organised by the European Commission bringing together world leaders and organisations to review development cooperation between the commission and developing countries.

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