term Fourth Estate can be traced to a speech delivered by
Edmund Burke in the British parliament in the 18th
century. Burke had just observed the other states of the domain:
the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons when
he is said to have looked up to the press gallery and said:
“And yonder sits the Fourth Estate, more important than them
all.” It is quite tempting and indeed flattering to think
of the media as being another constitutionally recognised
arm of the government after the Executive, the Judiciary and
the Legislature. The noble and powerful profession of the
Fourth Estate has been the subject of heated debates. The
media in the world now operate in a context in which the flow
of information has become globalised. The globalisation of
news has also seen the emergence of voices that are louder
than others. Indeed voices that can be said to be more equal
than others. These voices are shouting and promoting corporate
led globalisation – a globalisation that has on top of its
agenda the pursuance of profits at whatever cost. Should the
media act as cheerleaders while such a blatantly exploitative
corporate agenda is being pursued?
Journalism is more than communication of information,
it also involves communication of a vision of what society
could and should be. Society needs men and women of conviction
to proclaim the truth without fear, to give a voice to those
who have no voice and continuously call those in authority
(political or economic) to the highest standards of integrity,
service and moral responsibility. Journalists are called upon
to promote a just society, to decry violence which wounds
so many in our societies, to say no to economic exploitation
and to question and challenge any programmes that are bent
on profiteering at the expense of peoples livelihoods. This
means that the media should report in the public interest.
This can sometimes be a complicated affair because what
is in the public interest may not be interesting to the public,
while what is interesting to the public may not be in the
public interest. For example carrying photographs of the president’s
wife exercising in the gym may be interesting to the public,
but it certainly is not in the public interest. On the other
hand, writing stories about agriculture negotiations at the
World Trade Organisation (WTO) may not be interesting to the
public but it definitely is in the public interest because
agriculture negotiations are about people’s livelihoods. They
are about what people can farm and not farm. They are about
food and hunger, they are about life itself.
it has been easy for the media to hold governments accountable
they have not demonstrated as much zeal when dealing with
the corporate world, especially transnational corporations.
The role of the media in holding corporations accountable
cannot be overemphasized. Journalists are communicators who
play a vital role in interrogating the exploitation and injustices
that are thrust upon the people. This means that they have
to penetrate the smoke-screen of false priorities dangled
to them by politicians and big business.
Talking to the participants at a media workshop in Kadoma,
Zimbabwe, Professor Yash Tandon offered three levels of analysis
that can be used to interrogate problems affecting Africa,
namely the imperial factor, governance factor and the social
factor. There is need for African leaders to balance the three
factors for the success of our continent. Failure to take
note of any one of them will derail development, peace and
The imperial factor creates the global functions and
it is responsible for the powerful empire. In 1894 Africa
was divided (scramble and partitioning). Today the EU still
wants to have a continued presence and an influence in African
affairs. On the other hand the US is trying to restructure
the global system so that it is much more dominant in international
affairs. The problem however sometimes is that African leaders
over emphasize the imperial factor and ignore the other factors.
The governance and social factors must not be simply discarded.
How we govern ourselves and the extent to which we grant political
space and respect to alternative voices is very important.
People need to be given room to participate in the decision-making
processes. The problem with the developed world is that they
only emphasize the governance and social factors and completely
ignore the imperial factor in African economics and politics.
Yet the imperial factor cannot be wished away.
negotiations at the WTO are invariably marked by the ineffective
participation of developing countries. It is no exaggeration
to say that the voice of the developing countries is hardly
listened to. The current talks on agricultural trade reform
serve as a good example. While European countries and the
US have been persuading developing countries to open up their
markets, they have protected their farmers from competition
through giving them subsidies. The developed countries have
also campaigned against the right of developing countries
to come up with enforceable rules to protect themselves against
dumping by the powerful North. The idea seems to be to come
up with an Agreement on Agriculture whose intention is to
open African markets to transnational corporations without
due consideration of the plight of the small farmer.
the area of TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property
Rights) and Public Health, the US has been trying to arm-twist
Sub-Saharan Africa. Assistant US Trade Representative to Africa,
Ms Rosa Whittaker has written to governments in Africa asking
them to instruct their trade negotiators in Geneva to oppose
a number of proposals from the African Group and other developing
countries. The Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health
has provisions that provide for countries without manufacturing
capacity of drugs to use flexibilities in the TRIPS Agreement
of Compulsory Licensing and Parallel Importing. Compulsory
licensing refers to granting a licence to a third party (by
a government or court of law) to manufacture a patented drug
without the consent of the patent holder. The patent holder
is compensated later. This happens under certain conditions,
e.g. in cases of national emergencies. Parallel importing
means importing the patented drug for use on the domestic
market, if the country does not have manufacturing capacity.
However, after a year of intensive negotiations on the use
of these two flexibilities within the TRIPs Agreement, no
consensus was reached by WTO members. Big pharmaceutical companies
and the US are campaigning for the limitation of the use of
compulsory licensing to certain specific diseases yet the
Doha Declaration clearly states that for “Public Health” purposes
meaning that drugs for the treatment of any diseases should
be placed under compulsory licensing and parallel import,
as supported by developing countries. It is evident that the
US position is designed to block the developing countries
from making some inroads in reaching a permanent solution
to the public health problems that these countries are facing.
is no denying the fact that people have a right to affordable
services. It is therefore shocking that basic services such
as water, energy supply, education and health are included
under the General Agreement on Trade in Services. Developing
countries have been asked to open all these service sectors.
Governments will be pushed out of this sector and big business
will then have a field day by coming up with charges that
are beyond the reach of the ordinary person.
above are just a few glaring examples of stories that have
not been pursued by the media. The clouds are gathering and
the media do not seem to see that a storm is imminent. The
power of the Fourth Estate is not to be taken lightly. This
power could be used more responsibly with pro-active reporting
rather than a passive news approach. Pro-active reporting
is process-oriented and shows that the journalist understands
that the issue at hand goes beyond headlines and political
posturing. This means journalists have to:
follow up (issues
will always range beyond specific events)
(opposed to single-sourcing where you just quote one person:
he said, he went on to say, he reiterated, he stressed)
people take their voices for granted. They don’t know what
it means to have a voice. People listen to voices and the
Fourth Estate has a duty to see to it that no voice is drowned.
The voice of big business continues to dominate our media.
But it is not the only voice. The media must act as a forum
for debate and this should be reflected through divergent
voices representing different opinion. Ordinary people should
also see their images and hear their voices in the media.
As one French revolutionary said:
half a dozen grasshoppers under a farm make the field ring
with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle
reposed beneath the shadow of trees chew cud and are silent,
pray, do not imagine that those who make the noise are the
only inhabitants of the field.”
is a Programmer Officer with SEATINI and Assistant Editor
for the Bulletin.