Mchombo: We must be informed

Jennifer Dostal

Africa Week speaker Sam Mchombo said a democracy must have informed citizens in order to thrive.

Mchombo, the director of the African Language Institute at the University of California, Berkeley spoke about the development of democracy in Africa and the media’s role in shaping it, Tuesday night in the Sun Room of the Memorial Union.

“It’s somewhat of a truism that a democracy must have informed citizens to thrive,” Mchombo said to an audience of about 45 people at the African Students Association’s lecture.

Chris Dzimadzi, a graduate student in higher education, said the African Students Association chose Mchombo because “we wanted a distinguished African.”

“He knows firsthand about the issues,” Dzimadzi said.

A lack of an objective media outlet and a large illiterate population have contributed to the African states’ political instability and corruption because the citizens are not informed of government actions and wrong-doings, Mchombo said.

He said the people rely on radio and television news broadcasts, which are controlled by different political parties and the government.

Mchombo also said the African media has many difficulties when they publish or broadcast news stories.

The government can threaten journalists and send them into exile in neighboring countries and commit direct violence against journalists, like firebombing their homes after they publish something contrary to the current political ideology, Mchombo said.

The government also has control because a radio or television station needs a license to operate. The government can refuse to renew a station’s license if it doesn’t like the station’s political stance, Mchombo said.

While a large portion of the African population relies on radio and television for information, Mchombo focused on the role of the print media during his speech. “The press, particularly print, has the invisible role in keeping people informed,” Mchombo said.

The print media is also subject to a high level of partisanship. Starting a publication requires a large capital investment that most Africans can’t make, but many politicians can, he said.

This makes the newspapers and magazines puppets of the investing sponsors and their respective philosophies, Mchombo said.

Politicians make sure they have firm control of the media because an informed public could unite against them, Mchombo said.

This governmental and partisan control of media outlets “undermines the concept of free press,” Mchombo said. This control also reduces the print media to “organs of governmental propaganda,” he said.

Mchombo is an associate professor of linguistics and the director of the African Languages Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

The governments of African countries have “a very tall order” if they want the media to fulfill its role as an objective observer and teller of governmental goings-on, Mchombo said. They need to “get away from divisive politics and be able to inform people,” he said. This move would “reclaim its relevance to society,” he said.

“He is quite renown in the role of media and has published numerous articles about language and politics,” Dzimadzi said.