Placing African Online Media Back in Africa's Hands

It should go without saying that the most credible and authoritative voices on African politics are African residents themselves. But how do we give a voice to the voiceless, to those that actually possess the legitimacy and authority to talk about the political realities of their own countries?
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As yet another symbol of the hold France retains over her former colonies, the most influential media platforms in francophone Africa are... based in Paris. Despite the usual leveling effects of the Internet, the clout of hexagonal news sites like RFI, Jeune Afrique, Slate Afrique, and in the 'dark continent' is undisputable. Things are hardly better in the English online world, where the most influential sites on Africa are sub-sections of Western behemoths such as BBC Africa or CNN Africa.

The problem isn't that African online media outlets don't exist; there is a multitude of platforms that regularly post news and opinion content. The problem is that very few manage to attain the stamp of credibility that most Western sites have by default. This isn't helped by the fact that most African platforms are partisan in a way that would make Bill O'Reilly blush, promoting barely concealed political propaganda. What's more, activist diaspora communities produce the majority of highly visible online content in political debates, for whom the Web is a vital means of keeping in touch with their country of origin.

As for the sites that embrace a non-partisan editorial line, they err on another level: the logistical one. Usually pieced together with the paltry means at hand - staffed with greenhorn journalists and apprentice graphic designers and backed by flakey advertising companies (if any at all) - these media platforms suffer from a severe lack of funding, which negatively impacts both content and the reading experience. While journalism's funding problems are universal, Africa's underinvestment issues are of a whole different order of magnitude.

Even if these factors may not turn African readers away from websites covering regional issues (culture, sports...) as these sites can rightfully claim a monopoly on the subjects discussed, they do, however, push Africans en masse towards Western online media.

Writing either in the 'Africa sections' of established online media platforms or on sites they themselves created, members of the African diaspora are playing a pivotal role in generating the majority of politically-charged content stemming from outside the continent. In 2010, for example, the researcher Hassane Souley estimated that the United States hosts more than two thousand of these "diaspora" websites, while Europe boasted an extra five hundred. It's a safe bet to say that, five years on, the offer has largely expanded.

Whether it's about connecting with other members of the diaspora, targeting the communities back home or involving a wider, non-African audience in the debate, several reasons underpin the creation of these grassroots media sites. Etienne Damone, researcher in Information Sciences and Communication, suggests that targeting the community back home serves a very specific purpose: bringing about change. He adds, "The mirror effect imposes a reconsideration of oneself, a critical view of oneself and, at the same time, a need to adopt new behaviors, to evolve in economic, cultural and social matters."

Damone also emphasizes the fact that the diaspora is at its most influential in political matters. Aware of the incestuous relationship that unites most African media with various local political interests and parties, Africans overwhelmingly turn to Western media, seen as more legitimate, in order to forge their own political opinions. Even if the political positions adopted by the members of the diaspora have an activist dimension (especially as one can find a number of political exiles among the migrants themselves), the fact that they appear on 'serious' media sites, not funded by any local political party, gives such voices an innate authority that cannot be obtained on African platforms.

However, the main downside to the diaspora's online media dominance concerns representation. Indeed, the diaspora's disconnect with the on the ground realities of their home countries, and their relatively small size makes these African expats a vocal minority subject to the distortions that often plague online media. For example, an overactive minority group can often sideline the opinions of the silent majority and paint a completely different image that is then taken to be the majority view. This extra disconnect ends up hampering the overall accuracy of their articles.

It should go without saying that the most credible and authoritative voices on African politics are African residents themselves, not migrants that may have not set foot in their home country for years. But how do we give a voice to the voiceless, to those that actually possess the legitimacy and authority to talk about the political realities of their own countries?

Roughly speaking, there are two options: either Africa acquires its own 'serious' online media outlets- a fact that is surely going to happen, but unfortunately not overnight - or those on the ground use Western sites as platforms from which to testify on a range of critical issues. If the right picture of this increasingly exciting and complex continent is ever going to emerge, authentic African voices must be given the platform and the space from which to speak out.

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