As the internet penetration in Africa deepens, it is expected that more people will go online opening up the continent to a more liberal and interactive media space. This has created a need for suitable regulatory frameworks and governments across the continent are working to bridge the existing policy gaps in a bid to increase inclusion across the emerging digital economies. Nevertheless, experts say, policy makers in the region need to catch up with the demands of the dynamic online media space.
C.D. Glin, President and CEO of US African Development Foundation; Prof. William Gumede, Executive Chair of Democracy Works Foundation, and Ms. Jacqueline Musiitwa, Executive director of Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) recently shared their thoughts about the state of Africa’s regulatory structures in regards to internet-based media technologies.
How important is the role of media in a country’s economic well-being?
C.D. Glin: The media has become a function of development; there is a nexus point between the role of media and the role of development and how this impacts on foreign direct investment.
Why have African governments been slow to establish rules and regulations governing online media?
Jacqueline Musiitwa: Lawmakers are not paying enough attention to policy and they have insufficient knowledge on how to regulate it. They (legislators) are often working in a singular way, dealing with competition law for example, without taking into account the information act or laws on cybersecurity.
What can players in the industry do to ensure better governance and regulatory frameworks are in place?
Jacqueline Musiitwa: The industry needs to form associations that can approach governments to ensure their concerns are heard and that policy safeguards against abuse.
What do you think about the recent restrictions like Uganda’s new social media tax?
Prof. William Gumede: New restrictions resemble a modern-day reworking of old style censorship – the likes of shutting down newspapers, interdicting journalists or threatening them with imprisonment for not revealing sources. But we have an increasingly youthful population in Africa and we know that technology is changing how youth access information. They see what their peers around the world have. They will keep demanding that they too should have a better life. Governments that are uncertain of what action to take against this kind of social media dissent choose to respond by setting up more barriers.
Jacqueline Musiitwa: Patchy lawmaking has led to tensions and knee-jerk reactions including, in some countries, the implementation of taxes for users accessing social media and increased use of tools that restrict Internet access. Data is also a commodity but governments are only just waking up to recognising this and recognising the need to take ownership of it. There are multiple challenges but overcoming them requires an approach that is locally applicable, but adaptive to match the boundary-less nature of the digital space. It comes down to more flexible, integrated frameworks, more stakeholders’ voices to be heard and definitely not the panic reaction of total shutdowns
How can governments ensure they have a hold on online media regulation without resorting to oppressive measures?
C.D. Glin: Some governments are uncertain of what action to take against social media dissent, for instance, and they choose to respond by setting up more barriers.
It’s the kind of hardline clamping down that makes investors nervous. However, even this may hold the opportunity to use technology and community-driven development solutions to turn around problems. Successful intervention could help young people change their circumstances, stop the dissent and reverse the negative narrative that dominates on the continent. In turn, it helps attract investors who like the positive sentiment, stability and policy, and framework certainty