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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Have Ethics, Will Travel – The Glocalization of Media Ethics from an African Perspective


Can media ethics travel?

Can media ethical codes and frameworks developed in North America and Europe, be applicable in other contexts, such as Africa?

How, for instance, does the orthodox liberal-democratic role of the media as a critical ‘Fourth Estate’ translate to South Africa, where a board member of the public broadcaster recently declared that its journalists should be “guide dogs” rather than ”attack dogs or lapdogs,” and that the notion of journalistic objectivity is ”outdated”? Should South African journalists interpret the remarks made by their president, Thabo Mbeki, reminding them that they were, ”Africans before they became journalists,” as a warning to tone down criticism of the post-apartheid government?

In other African countries similar tensions exist between the ethical norms that journalists absorb in scholarly literature or training, and the ones they adhere to in their lived reality. In Cameroon, for example, it is common practice for journalists to receive ‘gombo’ — various forms of kickbacks or rewards for favourable news reports — as Lilian Ndangam has shown in her research. This practice would surely be condemned from a Western, liberal point of view, but when seen in the context of severe economic hardships in Cameroon, Ndangam notes that accepting gombo might be seen rather in terms of a coping mechanism for survival than a wilful breach of ethics.

Also consider the situation in Zimbabwe, where the Mugabe government has clamped down severely on the private media, and journalists and editors are routinely harassed and treated harshly should they dare criticise the government. Does it make sense to preach the gospel of watchdog journalism and press vigilance in such a context, or should other ways be found to formulate ethical ideals for journalists that can realistically be achieved in such an environment?

One of the burning issues in media ethics scholarship today is whether one could arrive at a global journalism ethics. In an era where the media industry has mushroomed all over the world, where geographical, cultural and even temporal boundaries seem to have blurred, the need has arisen for the formulation of a journalism ethics that would be similarly global in its reach. However, the above picture of the everyday realities of journalists in Africa brings us to realise that Western theories cannot be applied unproblematically to African contexts — although this is often what is being done in media training programmes, media textbooks and international media watchdog organizations. Because such impositions of media ethical theories and concepts do take place, African journalists find themselves negotiating contradictions and tensions between what they have been taught to do, and what they have to do to cope in their specific circumstances.

So what happens to media ethical theories if they cannot be globalized willy-nilly?

They get “glocalized”.

The term “glocalization”, used by scholars such as R. Robertson, M. M. Kraidy, J. Tomlinson and T.W. Luke, refers to the multidirectionality of the globalization process. Globalization does not mean that Western cultural products, ideas and values merely sweep over the rest of the world, obliterating all difference in its way. While the power differentials of the process still have to be taken into account, the term ‘glocalization’ aims to capture something of the push-and-pull of globalization, where the influx of global culture is met with a local resistance and counter-flow. The result is often a hybrid between the global and the local. Seen this way, the global and the local are not opposites, but mutually constitutive, interconnected forces.

The effects of media globalization in non-Western countries have contributed to shifts in media ownership, content, and structures, but it has also exerted influence on the level of professional ideologies, ethical frameworks and practices of media workers. As a result, journalism ethics has become a mix of the global and local.

Let’s take South Africa as an example. The demise of apartheid opened the country to the influx of global capital, such us the Irish media giant Independent. Because the South African media now have to compete with international media, and (for instance in the case of Independent) now form part of global, multinational media firms, they have to seek ways to be profitable in global economic terms, in order to keep their overseas owners happy. To do so, they have adopted an increasingly commercial ethos in the post-apartheid media. That commercialization, however, is often bemoaned as resulting in the ‘dumbing down’ or ‘sensationalizing’ of news.

Preliminary surveys of mainstream journalists seem to demonstrate an acute awareness of what is seen as ‘universal’ or ‘global’ ethical standards and news values, and the current ethical codes have largely been modeled on international ones like those of the American Society of Professional Journalists and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Yet these codes have proved to be inadequate to articulate the need for the post-apartheid media to fulfil the demands set by different sectors of society. It can be argued that the roles and responsibilities of the media in a country that has recently emerged from decades of systematic racial oppression cannot be the same as in countries where formal democracy has been long established. Similarly, questions are asked about whether journalists should still adhere to treasured Western media ethical values such as ‘neutrality’ and ‘balance’ when faced with severe poverty, inequality and an HIV/Aids pandemic. Such challenges, critics say, demand another form of involvement by journalists.

A counter-reaction to the orthodox media ethical frameworks and professional codes inherited from the West came in the form of a renewed appeal to the media to display a loyalty to the local, to the community, to ‘African values’. In line with President Mbeki’s vision for an ‘African Renaissance’, appeals have been made to the South African media to be more strongly oriented towards the African continent, and for journalists to report ‘as Africans’, with a pan-African mindset.

This Africanist perspective underlaid the founding of the African Editor’s Forum (TAEF) in 2003, which deliberately reinforces the philosophy and goals of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the African Union. This forum represents a journalistic counter-discourse to the homogenizing influences of Western ethical norms. The forum emphasizes the need for African media to play a role in promoting African identities, issues, and perspectives in the face of unequal globalisation of communication. During the conference where the TAEF was established, participants emphasised ‘the importance that journalists tell the African story from African perspectives’ and that ‘African editors give prominence to publishing African issues’. Editors from all over Africa decided to explore Africa-specific ethical values and respond to contextual needs. Editors noted key challenges for journalists in the African continent, such as freedom of speech in the face of intimidation and harassment. They proposed drawing of ‘an African media charter and/or a code of ethics’ (TAEF, 2003), partly as a corrective to the prevailing Western ethical values underpinning many of the discussions about journalism ethics.

That this process of indigenisation occurs simultaneously with the appropriation of Western-based ethical codes and mimicking of ethical practice in metropolitan countries can be seen as indicative of the paradoxical glocalization of journalism ethics in South Africa. This process is not tantamount to a dualism or dichotomy between the global and the local. Instead it should be understood as two moments in the same process of glocalisation, in which the global is rearticulated in the local context, and local responses are intertwined with global influences. In such a context, the local and the global cannot easily be separated, but give rise to specific, contextualised journalistic ethics and practices.

Critics (such as Pieter Fourie and Keyan Tomaselli) have warned against a normative media framework based on indigenous cultural values alone, such as the African communitarian idea of ‘ubuntu’. They fear that such an approach to media ethics may lead to an essentialist view of culture and identity, thereby excluding journalists who do not conform to certain ethnic characteristics, or condemn certain statements that do not comply with a specific view of ‘Africanness’, resulting in the curbing of freedom of speech. Such criticism is valid if the glocalization of media ethics is taken to mean the crude rejection by African journalists and scholars of all Western values and ideas. But such criticism may also lose from sight the hybridity of ethical frameworks that come about as a result of the contradictions, tensions and contestations that characterize the encounter between the local and the global.

Our original question was: Can media ethical frameworks travel? An investigation of African media contexts suggests that the answer is yes, they can — but they do not return from the journey unchanged.

HERMAN WASSERMAN is an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. He has worked previously as a print journalist in Cape Town. His research interests relate to the role of the media in post-apartheid South African society, including the use of the new media technologies for social change, the media’s construction of identity, and media ethics. During the Fall 2006 semester, he is a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the University of Indiana (Bloomington), where he is working on a project pertaining to a postcolonial approach to normative frameworks in South Africa. He can be contacted at hwasser@sun.ac.za

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