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Power to the People: The Role of Electronic Media in Promoting Democracy in Africa

by Dana Ott

This paper presents an analysis of the role of electronic media in promoting the formation of democratic political regimes in Africa. With the dramatic expansion of various forms of electronic interchange, including electronic mail and the Internet, opportunities for communication across national boundaries, and cross-fertilization of ideas are greater than ever before. This article argues that access to electronic information can have a positive impact in promoting democracy in Africa, by providing civil society with greater leverage vis-à-vis the state and political elites. However, without parallel efforts to insure that access to the Internet is not restricted to urban, elite populations, political instability may result. The paper is structured as follows: Section I makes the theoretical case for the role of increased information access and communication in the promotion of democratic political regimes. Section II presents an overview of the state of electronic access in Africa, including indigenous and international donor supported initiatives to promote African connectivity. Section III presents an empirical analysis of the relationship between access to electronic media and political participation and democratization in Africa. Section IV considers methods to increase usage of electronic media as a tool for increased participation and democratization in Africa.

Contents

The Role of Information in Promoting Democratization
Electronic Access to Information in Africa
Democratization and Electronic Access to Information in Africa
Electronic Media and the Promotion of Democracy in Africa
Conclusions
Notes
Bibliography

 

"The general belief holds that representative government is the only form of democracy that is feasible in today's sprawling, heterogeneous nation-states. However, interactive telecommunications now make it possible for tens of millions of widely dispersed citizens to receive the information they need to carry out the business of government themselves, gain admission to the political realm, and retrieve at least some of the power over their own lives and goods that many believe their elected leaders are squandering" [1].

Since the earliest conceptualization and discussion of the political, communication has held an equally prominent position, both in terms of its necessity for political ideas to be transmitted and replicated, and as a tool by which political actors seek to ensure the predominance of their ideas through improved methods of communication [2]. In the polis, as conceived by Aristotle, direct communication among and between all the political actors in the system was an attainable ideal. The growth of larger and more geographically diverse states necessitated the development of alternative modes of interaction as societies moved from direct political interaction to representative political action. Those chosen to represent the interests of others in the political system have historically used a variety of methods to obtain information about their constituents' preferences, including physically touring their districts periodically, reading letters from constituents, and polling their constituents about key issues. All these methods can be time consuming and costly to employ, limiting the frequency with which they can be used and by extension the quality of information which can be regularly obtained. However, the changing nature of communication ushered in by the dawning of the age of electronic communications, and the concomitant decline in the costs of communication on a global scale has profound implications for political interaction among representatives and their constituents, and for economic and political development throughout the world. This paper focuses explicitly on the impact these changes may have on political communication and potentially on the formation and maintenance of democratic political regimes in Africa.

The Role of Information in Promoting Democratization

"Now as in the past it is difficult to separate the quality and cast of political life from the methods of communication that sustain it. But behind the changes wrought by technology, organization, and the scale of politics, there is also a certain sameness. Linked to the communication structures which characterize a society, and in fact inseparable from them, are numerous face-to-face relationships. Much of the political business of the world is still done in such situations, and it would indeed provide a mistaken view of the communication process to concentrate on machines and organizations to the exclusion of the face-to-face groupings which are a prominent feature of all political systems" [3].

Writing over thirty years ago, Richard Fagen cautioned against reading too much into the impact of technological developments such as radio and television on political communication and ultimately on the conduct of politics. He argued that while technology does matter in the functioning of a political system, that there are more elemental relationships of power in political communication that are unaffected or barely affected by the development of enhanced methods of communication such as television and radio because those relationships are the one-to-one interactions that remain a critical part of the political process. In other words, the political elite will always be small enough to remain relatively unaffected by changes in communications. This paper argues that while it is certainly true that the actual decision-making in a political system (even a democratic one) may remain concentrated at the level of a few individuals, the complexity of information which those individuals use to engage in decision-making processes (especially constituency feedback) is equally important and is subject to influence by the changing nature of communications. As electronic communication enables citizens to directly and instantaneously convey their wishes to their representatives with ever decreasing costs, the nature of political interaction is likely to change. There are several direct consequences which can be highlighted:

In what Grossman (1996) calls the "Electronic Republic", the power of individual citizens is increased is several ways: through greater access, and greater influence. There is greater access to those who represent the individual in the political system, and to information about issues, decisions and pending legislation that might affect the individual. There is greater influence both as an individual who can more easily communicate his or her views on a topic directly to elected representatives, and indirectly through easier access to issue advocacy organizations. There are other, more subtle implications of this shift in public power for elected representatives and for citizens themselves. For representatives, this could mean the transformation in the definition of their role; from the more traditional conception of the representative as someone who is selected to represent his or her constituents by considering the facts surrounding various issues and making carefully reasoned decisions on that basis with the interests of his or her constituents in mind; and someone who is merely a proxy for his or her constituents, adding up the constituency responses on a given issue and voting accordingly. The electronic media has given a larger percentage of constituents than ever before the ability to easily and qui ckly transmit their opinions on public policy issues to their representatives. The danger is that whereas a representative is supposed to consider what is best for his or her district as a whole (including all members of the district), a proxy is constrained to represent the majority viewpoint. This dominance of a majority faction could have serious repercussions in the African context.

At the same time, and in the same vein, the opportunity costs of participation are reduced. Electronic access could potentially erase disparities of distance and geography, minimizing the rural-urban distinction that has had significant political implications in Africa in the past. Aside from these direct consequences, Grossman sees as an additional consequence a power shift in the electronic republic:

"The big losers in the present-day reshuffling and resurgence of public influence are traditional institutions that have served as the main intermediaries between the government and its citizens - the political parties, labor unions, civic associations, even the commentators and correspondents in the mainstream press" [4].

By empowering ordinary citizens to participate more directly in their political system, Grossman argues, electronic communications increases the role of citizens in the policymaking process at the expense of the political "middlemen" who have historically provided the forum by which ordinary citizens could make their interests on specific issues known through interest aggregation and representation. Not only this, but electronic communication and participation in politics may eventually lead to a more direct democracy in which general participation is increased with both potentially positive and negative consequences. In larger democracies such as the United States, there is a potentially troubling outcome:

"As the political system grows ever more responsive to majority impulses, and the legislative and executive branches feel increased pressure to bend to the public will, the judiciary remains the branch of government in the best position to serve as a brake upon the people ... In the electronic republic, the judiciary will have the increasingly difficult and sensitive role of protecting the rights of unpopular minorities and thwarting the popular will when it gets out of hand... Protecting the essentially anti-majoritarian doctrine of judicial review will become the key to preserving democracy in the electronic republic and preventing it from succumbing eventually to a popular tyranny or a demagogic leader" [5].

In other words, James Madison's concern in the early days of the United States democracy over controlling the effects of "majority faction" may once again become a problem in an electronic republic [6]. That this issue could become a concern even in the United States, where strong legal barriers exist to this "tyranny of the majority," has significant implications for the political impact of electronic communications in African countries where factionalism is already a problem and there are weak safeguards to majority domination.

[...]

Electronic Media and The Promotion of Democracy in Africa

"The information revolution could help level the international playing field in terms of opportunities for social and economic development. However, if appropriate care is not taken, the same revolution instead could lead to increasing disparities in incomes and information access, across regions, countries, areas within countries, income groups, communities and individuals... Donors should strongly encourage the development of electronic networking in Africa in directions which will reduce discrepancies between areas and social groups" [13].

There is no doubt that the electronic media (particularly the Internet) can profoundly influence the economic and political development of African states, and affect their role in the global economic and political system as well. To what extent those effects will be positive and sustainable will depend on a myriad of factors, some predictable and others not. This analysis has attempted to address only the narrowest of issues within this broader spectrum; specifically, what potential electronic media have to contribute to political outcomes in Africa such as democratization.

There are a number of conclusions and broader implications that can be drawn out from the material presented here:

1. At present, there is no empirical evidence that electronic media have thus far contributed to "democracy" in Africa. Despite the long-standing presence of both radio and television in some African countries, there appears to be little linkage between access to these forms of media and political democracy. This may be the result of the state control of radio and television for much of the period for which data is available. It is only in the last five years that private radio and television has been allowed to exist in many African countries, and some lag time may be required for effects to become noticeable. In addition, the impact of electronic media on political activity is difficult to measure quantitatively across the continent. As Ronning (1994) argues:

 

"Potentially radio is a very democratic medium which when used in a decentralized manner may give local people and communities an opportunity to express their grievances in representative discussions. This however presupposes the establishment of decentralized structures and local and community radio stations as well as radio stations representing the views of organizations in civil society such as trade unions" [14].

 

For much of Africa, efforts to decentralize power and to establish community radio are in a more preliminary state, which limits the ability of this analysis to capture their impact. Further, expansion of television is much more problematic for Africa, requiring a substantially greater outlay of capital resources and is therefore less likely to become a means for distribution of independent sources of information.

2. There is evidence that greater access to print media is associated with higher levels of democracy in Africa, an association that holds up over a 25+ year time span. But it also has limitations above and beyond the literacy constraint, as Ronning notes:

"The most diversified medium in Africa is the press... The major complaint against the daily press in the region which is relevant both for the official and the independent press is that too little attention is being given to journalistic excellence, and that the news and stories are too centered around the interests of a relatively small section of society" [15].
.

It is also interesting that the strength of the correlation between newspaper circulation and democracy across Africa has been declining over time, ironically at the same time that levels of overall democracy in Africa are increasing. This is likely the result of stagnant literacy rates in much of Africa.

3. The Internet appears to hold great potential to improve access to information in Africa. In particular, great benefits can be derived through ongoing efforts in distance learning and other similar methods. Education in and of itself is a great need in Africa, but using electronic technologies to further that goal also has the additional benefit of ultimately enabling more Africans to gain access to the Internet by increasing overall literacy. At this time, it is unclear what the potential is of the Internet to influence political outcomes, since preliminary studies in the United States (one of the most wired places on earth) show little impact. It could also be argued, however, that there are already sufficient opportunities to provide political input in the United States and the Internet gets lost in the larger array of choices. In Africa, on the other hand, there are very few opportunities and it is possible that the Internet could become a major tool by which NGOs and citizens exert political influence. At this juncture there simply isn't enough evidence to point in one direction or the other.

4. A critical issue for the spread of Internet technology across Africa will continue to be the question of access. At this time, in many African countries access is limited to a select few - typically urban elites who gain access either through universities or non-governmental organizations. Fagen argues that stripped of all the complexity - the basic question that must arise in any discussion of the impact of these new technologies on communication is, "Who shall control the new instruments of communication, and for what purposes shall they be used?" [16]. In Africa, this question may have to be answered at two levels. On the one hand, initiatives by USAID such as the Leland Initiative, along with efforts of other donors, may allow African nations to become players in the international system by enabling them to access the information they require to do so. On the other hand, such efforts may also widen the gap between haves and have nots, or deepen existing cleavages within individual African countries, creating the potential for political instability if specific efforts are not undertaken to address the problem.

Conclusions

This paper has argued that the Internet has great potential to impact the formation and maintenance of democratic political systems in Africa, both positively and negatively. Access to alternative sources of information, as well as the capacity to overcome limited availability of print media, have the potential to strongly affect the political status quo in much of Africa. At the same time, if access is limited to traditional advantaged groups in Africa, there may be negative consequences resulting from the cementing of economic and social inequalities. At this time, it is still difficult to establish any empirical linkages between measures of access to electronic media and democratization in Africa. This may be the result of several factors, including the relative newness of the Internet in Africa, and state control of other forms of electronic media until very recently. The reality is that whether Africa is prepared or not, the Internet exists and will continue to expand and change to meet the needs of its global users. The challenge for Africa, and for those who care about it, is see that the Internet is used in a positive and sustainable manner, both within and without.

 

[...]

About the Author

Dana Ott is Program Analyst in the Africa Bureau, Office of Sustainable Development of the U. S. Agency for International Development in Washington, D. C.
e-mail: dott@usaid.gov

Notes

1. Lawrence K. Grossman, 1996. The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age. N. Y.: Penguin, p. 6.

2. The views presented herein are those of the author and should not be interpreted as reflecting those of the U. S. Agency for International Development.

3. Richard R. Fagen, 1966. Politics and Communication. Boston: Little, Brown, p. 3.

4. Lawrence K. Grossman, 1996. The Electronic Republic, p. 16.

5. Grossman, 1996. The Electronic Republic, pp. 162-163.

6. James Madison, 1787. Federalist Papers: Federalist No. 10, From the New York Packet, Friday, November 23, at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/const/fed query.html

7. See, among others, Darrell M. West, 1993. Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-1992. Washington D. C.: Congressional Quarterly; and, Shanto Iyengar, Donald R. Kinder and Benjamin I. Page, 1989. News That Matters: Television and American Opinion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

8. Bruce Bimber, 1997. "The Internet and Political Participation: The 1996 Election Season", paper prepared for delivery at the 1997 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington D. C., August 28-31, p. 2.

9. Mike Jensen, 1997. "Internet Connectivity for Africa", September, p. 1, at http://demiurge.wn.apc.org/a frica/afstat.htm, p. 1.

10. Lishan Aden, 1995. "Electronic Communications Technology and Development in Africa", at http://www.sas.upe nn.edu/African_Studies/ASA/lish.html, p. 5.

11. Aden, 1995. "Electronic Communications Technology and Development in Africa", at http://www.sas.upe nn.edu/African_Studies/ASA/lish.html, p. 6.

12. Christopher R. Kedzie, 1996. ""African Connectivity, Problems, Solutions and Actions: Some Recommendations from INET'96"", paper presented at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the Internet Society (INET), at http://wwww.nsrc.org /Africa/regional-reports/inet.txt

13. Etienne Baranshamaje, Eugene Boostrom, Vidoje Brajovic, Masud Cader, Robert Clement-Jones, Robert Hawkins, Peter Knight, Robert Schware and Hugh Sloan, 1995. "Increasing Internet Connectivity in sub-Saharan Africa: Issues, Options, and the World Bank Group Role", draft paper, March 29, Washington, D. C.: The World Bank, pp. 6-7.

14. Helge Ronning, 1994. Media and Democracy: Theories and Principles with Reference to the African Context. Harare: Sapes Books, p. 16.

15. Ronning, 1994. Media and Democracy, p. 18-19.

16. Richard R. Fagen, 1966. Politics and Communication, p. 150.

 

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