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Experts Say Free Press Key Beacon of Democracy

FILE - Zimbabweans listen to a radio for an announcement of election results in Umguza, April, 2008.
A free press is not only of value for practical reasons, such as the importance of informing people about important facts. It is a foundational requirement for democracy.

That assessment from Amadou Mahtar Ba, chief executive of the African Media Initiative, a Pan-African effort to help the continent’s media owners and practitioners be more effective.

Mr. Ba was one of several panelists addressing the issue of the role of the media in democratic transitions in southern Africa. The discussion was hosted by the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Washington on Thursday.

The panel discussed how the media in South Africa helped reveal the injustices of apartheid to South Africans and the world. Today, South Africa is a democracy. Zimbabwe cast off its white minority rule in 1979, but the media remains largely controlled by a single party.

According to Dave Peterson, the director of the NED’s Africa programme, Zanu-PF’s dominance of broadcast media helped deliver rural voters to Zanu-PF in previous elections.

But today's media environment looks much different. One growing area of communication that remains largely free is the internet, particularly social media sites, like Facebook. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones, says Mr. Ba, more and more people - even in rural areas - are now able to join national debates.

While social media provide space for people to express their opinions and even report and collect news, Mr. Ba warns that there are dangers with social media, as bloggers online can use their anonymity to convey uncorroborated information.

To help ensure professionalism at news organizations, the panelists said media owners need to make sure journalists are adequately paid, so that they won’t feel tempted to accept bribes to alter their reporting.

The panel ended with a look at the role of media ahead of major events, such as elections.

Veteran American journalist and International Center for Journalists programme director, Jerri Eddings, said where the media is under attack, it may be appropriate for foreign donors to lend support.

Also on the panel was Reed Kramer, co-founder and chief executive officer of All-Africa Global Media.