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How new media are changing African journalism

10 Feb 2016

By James Tumusiime

Describing mobile telephony as the key technology in Africa today, Ismail Einashe, a London-based freelance journalist covering Africa, and a researcher and associate editor at Warscapes, a foreign affairs magazine, cited statistics that show fast rising mobile data usage in several Sub-Saharan African countries. According to communication multinational Ericsson, Einashe pointed out, mobile data usage across the continent, from South Africa to Kenya, Nigeria to Ghana, will grow up to 20 times between 2013  and 2019, twice the anticipated global growth, aided by a drop in the price of handsets and data. Ericsson's 2014 Mobility Report Index suggests that 75 per cent of mobile subscription penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa will be 3G or 4G by the end of 2019, he said. While Africa accounted for just 16 per cent internet penetration and 67 million smart phones in 2013, mobile phone subscriptions are set to rise to 930 million by 2019 and it is estimated that by this time, 3 in 4 mobile subscriptions will include an internet package. "Africa's internet penetration will reach 50 per cent by 2025 and there are expected to be 360 million smart phones on the continent by then, roughly double the number in the United States currently," Einashe said. Einashe, who has previously worked for BBC and is also a contributor for Prospect Magazine and Africa Arguments, noted that Africa's weak landline infrastructure partly explains the tremendous growth in the use of mobile phones. Mobile technology is so key in Sub-Saharan Africa, he said, because there is weak connectivity and unreliable access to electricity. Indeed according to Ericsson, 70 per cent of the users in the countries it researches browse the web on mobile devices as opposed to just 6 per cent who use desktop computers. Consequently, Einashe said, through mobile technology social media platforms and money transfer services have become increasingly available not to just urban users but to those in rural areas too. "We missed newspapers, missed [telephone] landlines and just jumped to mobile," the journalist explained. Positioning themselves to cash in on this market that constitutes the youngest and fastest growing population in the world, Western tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Wikipedia are active in many African countries.    Earlier in his presentation Einashe shared a brief context of African media, pointing out that the news agenda is still largely set by foreign news organisations such as BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, Reuters, AFP and CCTV. Einashe however noted that new media has democratised the media space to an extent, giving many Africans an opportunity to tell their own stories as opposed to the perceived western media focus on tragedies such as war and disease. "When there's a big story in Africa now, the tendency is to look out for local journalists, activists and bloggers for [perspective]," he said, quoting South African journalist Justin Arenstein who said that new media has turned the focus on local experts - from photographers, video producers to frontline journalists. Einashe further pointed out that new media is challenging traditional media and state authorities, exposing corruption and fighting injustice. The recent widespread protests experienced in Burkina Faso and Burundi, he said, had been in part engineered by social media activity. While acknowledging the advantages of social media, particularly in bringing immediacy and variety to the news process, with aggrieved activists able to go to Twitter, start a hash tag and immediately get an individual to account, unlike letter writing in newspapers, Einashe decried the abuse of social media that is becoming all too common in Africa. He gave an example of the recent hoax claiming that the Eritrean authorities had ordered all men in the country to marry two wives, which went viral across the continent despite being an obvious lie. "New media can have a positive impact of holding people to account but it can also have the negative impact of carrying these stories which are not true," Einashe said.

Ismail Einashe, London-based freelance journalist covering Africa, spoke at the Business and Practice of Journalism seminar at Green Templeton College on Wednesday February 3, 2016.

Listen to Ismail Einashe discuss his presentation on BBC Radio 4's Media Show.