4.3.1 UNESCO model curricula in Africa: Call for a more bottom-up approach

Ibrahim Seaga Shaw

Problem of the top-down approach

Reservations have been expressed in both academic and media industry circles that the largely top-down approach in journalism education informed by the Western Liberal democracy model in Africa has seriously hindered efforts to adapt it to local conditions and structures. Twelve out of 16 African Journalism educators interviewed in a BBC Trust funded research project in 2005 by the African Media Development Initiative (AMDI) felt many NGOs and donor organizations failed to understand the operational environment, resources and/or work practices prior to engaging in a media development project (McCurdy, 2007, p.133). A respondent from the DR Congo said the “outlines” often come from Paris, Geneva etc. and “are repeated in the field,” and warned that this often causes “conflict…because there is a gap between the predetermined macro-programmes and reality” (McCurdy, 2007, p.133). Training programmes from the West are often out of tune with the realities on the ground in Africa. This calls into question the media development package conceived within the context of the neoliberal western democracy model and exported to other parts of the world.

De Beer (1995) notes that communication training requires more than technical knowledge and skills by practitioners, adding that they (journalists) “need an ‘internally organized body of knowledge’ which reflects a clear understanding of their society and culture and a personal repertoire of intellectual and imaginative skills” (cited in Odhiambo et al, 2002, p.2 and Ogundumi et al., 2007, p.192). Yet, as Shaw (2009) argues, much of the scholarly literature regarding the theories of journalism practice is predicated on the tenets of the western liberal democracy model. “To the extent that this model is held to be universal, it hinders the analytical theorisation of journalistic precepts that have evolved locally in most countries of the developing world” (p.491).

While media scholars have often expressed reservations about the applicability of the liberal democracy model of journalism to African countries, there have been few attempts to adapt it to existing conditions and structures (Akioye, 1994; Ansah, 1888; Anyang’ Nyong’o, 1995; James, 1990; Mafeje, 1995; Obeng- Quaidoo, 1987; Ronning, 1994, 1995; Sachikonye, 1995; Uche, 1991, Berger, 2002, Shaw, 2009). Looking at the UNESCO Journalism Education Model Curricula (JEMC), I am concerned that they may also hit some rocks in Africa if they are not revised to reflect a more bottom-up approach in their adaptation. It is becoming increasingly clear that they need a more robust historical dimension to make them easily adaptable to local journalism values and challenges in Africa.

There is the need to adapt some of the largely western formulaic approaches of the model to resonate with the cultural realities of journalism education and practice in Africa. In order to achieve this I propose the incorporation of a critical history of African journalism in relation to the dominant western neoliberal model and others in the UNESCO JEMC. I make the argument that the African journalism model is very similar to the cultural approach of the news that characterised the mid 19th century American and British Victorian journalism in as much as journalism of association and belonging is concerned. And since the cultural approach to the news resonates with the ‘educational’ ethos of the liberal theory of the press, which epitomises the ‘social responsibility’ role of the journalist, it is reasonable to argue that the African Journalism model deserves consideration in adapting the UNESCO journalism education model curricula in Africa. I argue that it is far from enough to have just a passing reference to the history of the dominant neoliberal theory of the press as a BA year 2 session in the syllabus of the Media and Society module as indicated in the UNESCO JEMC.

Is there anything called African Journalism?
Yet questions have been asked in some scholarly quarters about whether there is anything called African journalism. There is a dominant view, albeit shared by some African media scholars, that African journalism is lacking in African values, and that African journalists are merely mimicking the dominant neoliberal democracy model of journalism (Nyamnjoh, 2005). Cameroonian scholar Francis Nyamnjoh (2005) argues that the precepts of journalism that currently apply in Africa are ‘largely at variance with dominant ideas of personhood and agency (and by extension society, culture and democracy) shared by communities across the continent, as it assumes that there is One-Best-Way of being and doing to which Africans must aspire and be converted in the name of modernity and civilisation’ (Nyamnjoh, 2005, p.3, cited in Shaw, 2009, p.492).’

“Nyamnjoh’s theory presupposes the non-existence of any journalistic precept unique to Africa. This claim frankly but problematically gives the impression that what obtains, or remains, of journalism practice in Africa, is nothing but a holistic replica of the western liberal democracy model. Nyamnjoh’s thesis raises questions such as: What can we say about the form of journalism that existed in Africa before colonialism? Which aspects of this journalism survived the colonial and postcolonial periods, and which did not? Whither African journalism? Modernity, Africanity, or a synthesis of the best of both” (Shaw, 2009 p.492)?

Contrary to Nyamnjoh’s claim, and following Louise M Bourghault (1995), I argue that there was a form of journalism as it were in Africa before the advent of colonialism. Journalism then took the form of oral discourse, using communication norms informed by oral tradition and folk culture with communal storytellers (griots), musicians, poets and dancers playing the role of the modern day journalist. Recalling Rubin and Weinstein (1974, p.10), Bourgault notes that “although governments change, this does not mean that older forms disappear. The same could be said for all forms of communication” – the technological forms change, but the pre-existing styles of interaction may not (Bourgault, 1995, p.2). Little wonder that Bourgault was critical of communication scholars, like other social scientists, for viewing Africa at the onset of colonialism as a tabula rasa (Bourgault, 1995). This claim flies in the face of the unique grounding of the African journalism model in oral discourse, creativity, humanity and agency. The African oral tradition resonates with the myth of the African ruler as a spiritual symbol of a people.

Social values in pre-colonial Africa strongly stressed ‘group orientation, continuity, harmony, and balance’ (Bourgault, 1995, p.4). As Bonnie Wright reminds us, the question ‘Who are you?’ was meaningless without the additional query ‘of where and of whom are you born?’ (Wright, 1966, p.54, cited in Bourgault, 1995, p.4). This brings to mind the African worldview of Ubuntu, which is an ancient African ethic, a cultural mind-set that tries to capture the essence of what it is to be human. “A person is a person through other people” (Tutu, 1999, pp.34-35). “I am human because I belong, I participate, I share” (Murithi, 2005, p.341). It is this Ubuntu African worldview largely based on group solidarity and belonging that informs the oral discourse style of journalism
unique to pre-colonial Africa.

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Dr. Ibrahim Seaga Shaw is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Politics Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne , UK . He is also the Secretary General for Africa in the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) and author of two books:  ‘Human Rights Journalism’ Palgrave Macmillan (2012)

Contact: Email: ibrahim.shaw@northumbria.ac.uk

The latest report on UNESCO’s new syllabi can also be found here.