West Africa: Social media unlock the space

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Fatou Jagne-Senghor

03 May 2012

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The West African region is still marked by political instability, increasing social malaise and the threats of religious fundamentalism. In this complete context, traditional media has shown limitations due to the lack of political and financial independence; few media groups are able to keep governments on their toes or conduct in-depth and ethical investigative work on issues of national interest. In almost the entire region, the public media is the mouth piece of the government and part of the private media still struggling to survive in a saturated market and the diktat of advertisers. The few independent media entities continue to face hardships in some countries, the oppression is brutal and security concerns push journalists towards self-censorship while in other countries the restrictions are more settled and could lead many who do not support to go bankrupt.

Amid all these, the continuous development of technology has brought new possibilities for the media and citizen to be heard and influence the way they are governed. Today, there is an increase in the use of social media, citizen blogs, discussion fora, and online media are all avenues that enable people to have their say and share their perspectives and stories with the rest of the work. As technology is growing and influences the way advocacy work is conducted, as we witness the emergence of a new type of citizen with clear demands; governments' responses have been poor and negative, in most countries they are proposing inadequate regulation to  restrict content without due regard to the specificity of the cyber space and hoping to stifle critical expression.

These attempts to reduce the impact of new media is further motivated by governments’ awareness that new media is a means to easily disseminate information and could break the longstanding culture of secrecy practiced by West African governments in the management of public affairs, namely on issues of foreign debt, its actual use and in the utilisation of public resources gained from mineral extraction and the allocations of public funds and the management of the security and national defence.

Some countries have enacted legislation to unduly regulate online content while others (The Gambia) use bulldozing tactics to filter and block critical online content.  Cyber crimes, national security and anti-terrorism are the main buzzwords used to deprive citizen of their rights to alternative opinions made available by new media.  

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