By Kemiso Wessie: In today’s increasingly interconnected world, journalism holds a crucial role in fostering a transparent and open society. However, in conservative African countries where religious and moral extremism often dominate, journalists encounter challenges such as censorship, intimidation, and violence.
In order to address these issues while ensuring students’ safety and maintaining professional integrity, educational approaches can combine cultural sensitivity with a profound comprehension of journalistic ethics, says the Society of Professional Journalists.
Underscoring the significance of objectivity and impartiality is essential for teaching journalism in these conservative regions. Presenting diverse perspectives fairly without personal biases enables more accurate reporting on sensitive topics and avoiding cultural insensitivity. The World Economic Forum highlights the importance of diversity in the newsroom, which helps provide inclusive content and building trust.
In relation to education, teaching students the benefits of including diverse perspectives from various sources is essential to reporting on contentious subjects. Journalists can develop a nuanced understanding of the issues at hand and prevent perpetuating stereotypes or misconceptions by seeking different opinions. Simultaneously, recognising possible biases within sources is critical for verifying information and ensuring accurate, objective reporting. Sharon Bramlett-Solomon (1989) explains this in “Bringing Cultural Sensitivity into Reporting Classrooms”, saying “A crucial goal of journalism and mass communication education is to instil in students a sense of responsibility for all groups that make up the society,” adding it is important to expose students to reporting approaches that recognise the experiences of others.
Within the context of conservative countries, journalism educators must consider several factor while teaching accurate reporting. Cultural understanding is crucial as the influence of religious extremism can affect news reporting and starting from this can guide students in navigating accurate reporting despite potential obstacles.
Acknowledging cultural and societal differences as one would while on holiday, the same should apply to reporting in and about conservative countries in Africa and globally. Researching societal norms (either by custom or law) as highlighted by Harvard in an article on dressing in conservative countries should apply when reporting in different countries and areas.
Focusing on fundamental journalism skills, such as sourcing, fact-checking, and clear writing, is essential. These abilities hold particular importance in regions with heightened religious extremism to ensure accuracy in reporting.
Creating a comfortable environment for discussing sensitive subjects is vital for journalism students, given the taboos surrounding certain topics in many conservative African countries. By facilitating a safe space for conversation, educators enable students to report competently on sensitive issues without fear. Effective journalism education in conservative African countries requires an awareness of unique cultural contexts while emphasising fundamental journalistic skills.
A paramount issue journalism educators could encounter in these regions is navigating media policing and control. With governments tightly controlling the media by disseminating propaganda through state-owned outlets and repressing dissenting opinions in many African countries, private media organizations often battle heavy regulation and censorship, which Jeff Conroy-Krutz (2020) highlights in “The Squeeze on African Media Freedom.”
To effectively teach journalism under these conditions, educators must stress the significance of journalistic independence and impartiality as addressed by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in “The Elements of Journalism” while highlighting the media’s vital role as a watchdog “over those whose power and position most affect citizens,” states the American Press Institute.
Another pressing challenge journalism educators face is the imminent danger confronting journalists themselves. In various African nations like Nigeria, Somalia and Senegal, journalist murders and kidnappings are not rare.
Reporters Without Boarders mention that in Nigeria, freedom of expression and the work of reporters are barred by other laws on cybercrime, terrorism and the criminalisation of defamation. These laws, as Jeff Conroy-Krutz explains, “typically cite national security or public order as grounds for media control, but watchdog groups fear that the new laws are being used to restrict free speech.”
Student journalists are also often victims. In June 2019, a student journalist Jeremiah Omoniyi was arrested and detained by the Department of State Service (DSS) while covering Ekiti State governor elections for recording a video of a fight at a polling station, reports the International Press Institute.
Deputy Director at the International Press Institute, Scott Griffen states ‘’Journalists carrying out their crucial democratic role shouldn’t be the target of attacks nor illegal arrest and detention.”
The Reuters Institute highlights the issue of violence towards journalists in Somalia, which has made the country infamous for being the worst place in the world to be a journalist as they face threats from the government, militias and militant groups like Al-Shabab. This is what led to the development of the Somali Journalists Syndicate in 2019, who advocate for press freedom and challenge laws.
Reporters Without Borders also report on the increase of journalist attacks in Senegal since February and March 2021. Technology has assisted journalists in many ways but also creates a channel for harassment, for example, Pape Ndiaye, a reporter for Senegalese TV channel Wal Fadjri received death threats over WhatsApp, video and phone calls in early 2022.
“The very society that media practitioners are devoted to ensuring their security by conveying information about their plight to the larger local, national, and international communities, are invariably persecuting the media,” says Jacob Nyarko and Ufuoma Akpojivi (2017) in a journal article on violence towards journalists in Ghana.
With the examples highlighted, educators must emphasise essential safety protocols and risk management —sending locations with editors, team members and even family but realising the possibility of hacked devices and unsecure forms of communication— heightened situational awareness, and conflict-sensitive reporting in journalism training in hostile environments.
The IWMF shares safety tips in their Safety Snacks series on TikTok including videos on leveraging your identity to keep you safe, how to break out of duct tape and hotel safety. They also share advice on hostile environment and first aid training, which Laura Albast highlighted as beneficial for protecting herself and others during civil unrest, protests or other hostile situations while in the field.
Students need to be encouraged to make use of such resources and find new sources of information that could be applied to safety and reporting, for example, safety tips videos for solo female travellers.
Besides these hurdles, journalism educators in conservative, religious, and morally extremist African countries also need to overcome cultural and social norms clashing with Western-style journalism practices. Strict adherence to authority structures can create challenges for journalists aiming to report critically on powerful figures. In order to tackle these obstacles, while maintaining sensitive cultural distinctions intact between Western-style journalism principles and traditional norms, educators must strive for a delicate balance.