Most countries in the world are now advocating for democracy as an effective governance system for development and a better world. Often times, whenever democracy is deficient, it is the media that becomes the greatest casualty because freedoms such as expression, speech, movement, association and thought are clearly conditioned by the extent to which that society is open and free.
By this token, therefore, if one would want to gauge the level of democratic deficit in a country, they have to check the extent to which the media is free. The lower the media freedom indexes in a country, the higher the democratic kwashiorkor. And quite obviously, the media plays a telling role in the promotion of freedom of expression and access to information. It is only when these two are present that one can talk of a functioning democracy. In most parts of Africa, women are usually the most-affected when it comes to access to information and right to freedom of expression.
This is especially so for the following reasons, but not limited to these; media ownership is still in favour of men in Africa and Southern Africa in particular, less women's voices are heard and represented in the media, and in some cases, the cultural set up encourages and reinforces the notion that women must be passive participants in issues including politics, economics, media, and development.
African governments are not prepared to play an active deliberate role to promote media freedom because the media is a key tool for accountability and transparency. Through media, citizens are able to engage their governments on different topical issues that affect them, including women. Because most governments are afraid of being put under pressure by their own people, they would rather ensure that there is no media freedom and people have to fight for it.
Oftentimes people from countries with limited media freedom have to rely on alternative media for access to information and freedom of expression. Countries such as Swaziland, Malawi and Zimbabwe in Southern Africa are clear examples where governments are not engaging in deliberate efforts to ensure media freedom. As a result, citizens from these countries are involved in perennial wars with their governments, fighting for media space and freedom of expression. What is disappointing is that this is happening 20 years after the Windhoek Declaration when we expect the situation to have improved significantly.
Lack of media freedom is the greatest stumbling block for democracy since the active participation of citizens is normally conditioned by levels of awareness and access to information. I argue that if media freedom is improved in Africa, the participation of citizens, especially women, will be enhanced just as democratic deficit will be reduced.
Women's contribution is clearly more than what men can and are contributing, though the greater portion of their (women's) contribution is not economically quantifiable. A greater part of the world's 52% women are based in rural commu- nities where access to information and freedom of expression is limited. Here women engage in most of the farming and child development work. It is my argument that once alternative sources of information are provided in these communities, women will have more say in democratic struggles and development, since their participation and social inclusiveness will improve.
In Zimbabwe for instance, Radio Dialogue a community radio initiative which has been fighting for a broadcasting license for the past decade, is creatively using alternative legal means to promote access to information to both rural and urban communities, including production of radio programmes that are put on CDs and tapes for distribution, a cellphone SMS system, and distributing newspaper returns. This, by and large, has enhanced both the participation and general social inclusiveness of women in the communities Radio Dialogue serves. Women in these communities have been able to take an active role in developmental projects in their respective constituencies.
So even in countries where there is limited media freedom, citizens will do well to explore alternative platforms that can be used effectively to advance access to information and freedom of expression. This is especially so with regards to rural women who should have an important voice which shapes the developmental agenda of a nation. If women's voices are given more prominence in the media, the real social issues that affect our communities will be more clearly defined and will be given the attention they deserve.
Women entrepreneurs must also be encouraged to venture into media business so that media coverage of women's issues will be given more prominence and space. Oftentimes prominence is given to male voices and males are accessed as authorities on different topical issues. There should be a deliberate policy in these countries to develop women experts who then become authorities in different fields and their voices accessed in mainstream and alternative media. More women media practitioners must be developed and empowered to tackle women's issues.
The media should also play a very critical role in the promotion of women into not only leadership positions, but all sectors of society so that the issue of gender is mainstreamed to all levels and all spheres of life. While training institution enrolment and intake of female trainees continues to increase in numbers, especially in Zimbabwe, there has not been a corresponding development in roles, including media managers, media owners, and media policy makers. Efforts must be made to create an engendered plan to ensure this does not continue.
This media should not, however, be a preserve of women and "their cause," but it should be all- inclusive so that men don't feel like the intention is to invert the system but to improve it. Male counterparts should play an active role in both gender-friendly policy formulation and improving portrayal of women in the media. On the other hand, women must also do more in terms of advocating and demanding access to information and freedom of expression as they say "Nothing for us without us." This advocacy work must be targeted not only at governments, but also international NGOs that advocate for general women's empowerment.
The participation of women in democratic processes cannot be taken for granted given the fact that they are virtually "passive kingmakers" as most politicians (men), turn to them for political support. It is then mindboggling that when it comes to policy formulation, women are found uninvolved, passive, and at best they only react to bad policy already in place. So women must be given a platform through the use of both equity and equality approaches to ensure their maximum participation.Â
However, the media also has to play a very critical role in the promotion of women's issues and governments must ensure the mainstreaming of gender issues in all areas so that the full and active participation of women can be realised. It is ill- advised to mourn the negative portrayal of women in the media, or their poor representation in the media, or their lack of access to information, when they (women) are not empowered in other sectors such as education, health, economic and political. The media can then play a very important role not only to sustain the acquired empowering position, but also watchdogging the acquired state of affairs.Â
By Kudzai Kwangwari- ZACRAS Programs Officer