It’s impossible to open the paper or turn on the telly in Tanzania without stumbling on some message from the NGO world – or a mobile phone company for that matter, or a brewery or any number of deep pocketed politicians.
It’s not surprising that it’s an issue. NGOs are increasingly working out how to deal with the media: at the crude end wondering what the market rate for a brown envelope is, to more sophisticated relationships with editors and writers.
And it’s big enough for people to take notice. The Tanzania Media Fund has c. $1.8 million available in grants annually. One of the more active NGOs in this line, HakiElimu*, spent over TZS 500 million in 2007 (most recent annual report) funding journalists trips to 36 Districts to look at education issues and sponsored most of the high profile discussion shows on TV. They also ran 11,763 ‘spots’ or short citizen-improving pieces in the advertising slots. That’s nearly 200 hours in ‘spots’ alone from just one NGO. If anything, the field has got considerably more crowded in the three years since.
First, private companies, politicians, and yes, even NGOs, engage in more or less regularised practices of “brown envelope journalism”, paying for positive news coverage. Second, both private- and state-owned media have their own set of political and business interests to protect. This affects what they are willing to cover and fundamentally undermines their watchdog role. Third, low revenues and the need to keep costs down means that media houses are reluctant to spend money on more expensive forms of public interest journalism. All of this is far more damaging to a healthy media sector than NGOs buying airtime for public debate programmes that almost certainly wouldn’t happen otherwise.
A harsh reading of the first point would suggest that it says everybody’s doing it so why can’t we? The second point refers to the media anywhere and money won’t change that. And why should it? A plurality of views is a good thing. A healthy response might be to set up your own outlet, as Daraja did.
Low revenues and the need to keep costs down? Can anyone give accurate revenue figures for our media companies? Newspaper circulation figures, even? Are funders even interested in such figures? Experience indicates that donors in Tanzania are wholly uninterested in such issues and do not take them into account in terms of what they fund media-wise. So, plenty of room for unintended impacts on the industry and plenty of room for savvy media operators to get ahead.
And finally, would there be no public debate without donor funding for the media? What about EATV’s Connect (which was also presented by Daladala’s excellent Daniel Kijo, btw)? Or ITV’s popular Longa Mwanaume (let’s hope it was pulled for being wildly misogynistic)? Or countless radio phone in shows? Tanzania’s private sector is well able to deliver accessible talk shows without donor funding, thank you very much. In fact, donor support may be displacing the development of good shows through their subsidies.
But Daraja, by helpfully pointing to a range of models leaves open the possibility that the current mechanisms for moving the money may not be ideal.
There are simple things donors could do easily. In the immediate short term, ensure that media pieces funded by NGOs or other donors are clearly indicated as such. And it costs nothing. This happens with some TV shows (and with Daraja’s newspaper, Kwanza Jamii) but rarely in print in the numerous NGO funded stories in the papers and on TV. Practice what you preach: transparency and accountability. I was guilty of not doing that myself often enough when I was in the cheque signing game.
Secondly, for those with serious intentions of supporting the media and funds to match: make decisions based on a proper understanding of the media industry and how it works and individual companies and how they work: reach, coverage, costs, revenue, content generation. Such analysis is not undertaken. For big players in this game, that is astounding If the information is not readily available in public records, a competent industry analyst should be able to draw a reasonably accurate and informative picture.
Thirdly, understand what is being covered. If you say that regional or provincial coverage is weak, then put some numbers on it. A couple of interns scanning the papers for a week and using simple categories for stories could do that easily. But surprisingly (or not) it’s not undertaken. You may be surprised by the results. Either way, the results will help direct your support.
And once you have those basic bits of information, only then consider how best you can support a media sector that will be vibrant whether you throw your money at it or not.
*HakiElimu’s website is being renovated. Get your annual reports there when it’s back up.