How East Africans can build one common destiny for and by themselves, step by intelligent step
Posted Sunday, August 14 2011 at 14:33
PETER MWAURA spoke to the founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, who is also the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, on a wide range of issues — from media ownership in developing societies to religion, development and the quality of life, as well as the risks that wealth disparities pose to regional economic and political integration
Q. You founded Nation newspapers before Kenya’s Independence and championed the cause of the African majority. Today, nearly 52 years later, we are embroiled in internal jockeying for power in a new political dispensation. This often takes the form of inter-tribal rivalry. How do you see the place of journalism in this new political reality?
A. Maybe I should go to the pre-Independence situation in East Africa. If you reflect back over those years, one of the conclusions that everybody would have reached was that these areas of Africa were going to be pluralist societies – pluralist in linguistic terms, pluralist in tribal terms, pluralist in ethnic terms. Therefore, one of the questions just before and after Independence was how these areas of Africa would become successful pluralist states. So my concern with the newspapers at that time was to try to put into the public domain questions about how you build a successful pluralist society.
And that question remains today. It’s not gone away. But I think that people are much more aware of it than ever before. They recognise the risks, they recognise the consequences of things going wrong, So there is greater public concern not to let this happen again. The recent crisis in Kenya has shown that the people of Kenya, not the politicians, but the people of Kenya didn’t want internal conflict among themselves.
Did you see a particular role that the Nation newspapers were going to play in this?
Yes, definitely. At the senior levels of management and editorial policy we’ve done everything we can to ensure that the people of East Africa add value to the notion of pluralism rather than see it as an element of weakness. So, certainly, the Nation and others within the Group have to continue on that road. Indeed, that is one of the fundamental editorial policies of the Group.
So there is no question of your taking sides with a particular political bloc?
No, not at all. The goal of the Nation Media Group is to remain independent. Most countries in East Africa have multiple political parties. If every political party were to have its own publication, I think, first of all, there would be confusion in the public domain. Secondly, experience shows that political party papers are never very successful economically. So it’s more important that the independent newspapers should cause intelligent reflection on national issues, arms-length evaluation of goals – what are the goals that each party wants to achieve, what success has been achieved in the past — so that there is a serious, intelligent debate about where the country is going.
The phone hacking and police bribery scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World has attracted global attention. As a major investor in the media yourself, what concerns you about this scandal, particularly in the context of emerging democracies such as East Africa’s?
In the past in Africa, there has been a tendency to look at the role of the journalists but not that of owners. And, in fact, in the proposed Graduate School of Media and Communications [of the Aga Khan University, initially to be based in Nairobi], we are specifically going to aim at educating the owners because ultimately, it is the owners who are responsible for the products they put on the streets. And they have a clear responsibility to behave in a responsible manner, which in Africa is not the same thing as it would be in the United States, or Canada, or elsewhere in the industrialised world. We are dealing with different problems, different societies, different levels of development, different electorate capacities. So there is a very serious question to be asked about the role of media owners in the developing world.
The question of media ownership and media concentration has been controversial in Kenya, as you are aware. So too is foreign ownership of the media. What are your views on this?
Well, I personally would prefer to see a profile of owners whose ultimate goal is to serve the people and the countries in which they operate. And the unilateral or exclusive quest for profit is not in my view, frankly, conducive to that. So I am not concerned about the nationality of the ownership. I am concerned about the purpose of the ownership. I think that’s more important.
You said one of the things you want to do at the Graduate School of Journalism is to educate owners of the media. What else do you want to do with the School?
Modern societies are much more sophisticated than they were 50 or 100 years ago and journalists now have to have the capacity to write well. But they also have to have the capacity to understand the subject they are addressing. So a journalist who writes about constitutional issues, who has never dealt in the domain of comparative government, or a journalist who has to write about the results of a major national corporation and doesn’t know how to read a balance sheet, or a journalist who writes about faith issues and has never looked at faith issues as an area of intellectual endeavour, these are journalists who are not sufficiently prepared. So, in the Graduate School, we hope to be able to develop capacities that are not readily available in Africa at the present time.
Media freedom is a very delicate issue in Africa. What do you see as the priority areas that your media should be paying attention to?