African media and civil society scholars have
described Sub Saharan Africa as a weak civil society. They also
questioned the role African media has played in promoting civil
society on the continent (Ronning 1999; Osaghae, 1994; Sachikonye,
1995b). The media, as public service institutions, have
traditionally performed a political propagandist and developmental
role and served the interest of competing elites (Karikari, 1993;
Ansah, 1985a). However, since the mid 1990s, democratic and liberal
reforms that swept the Sub Saharan African continent have resulted
in the introduction and growth of independent media, particularly
private radio, and ended decades of state media monopoly.
Consequently, the role of the media, particularly independently
owned radio broadcast services, has been changing (Heath 1999;
The contemporary role of African media in promoting
civil society on the continent has been unclear. This is because the
conceptualization of civil society to the African context has itself
been problematic. The application of the concept to Africa reflected
its origin in Western societies that are extremely different from
those in Africa, thereby, sparking the debate over whether the
concept can be applied to Africa (Berger, 2002, p.23). In addition,
the application of the civil society concept to Africa’s
democratization process seldom focused on how it related to the
continent’s media (Berger, 2002; Ronning, 1999). African media and
civil society scholars only examined media-government relations (Osaghae,
1994; Ronning, 1999). Berger (2002, p.22), for example, notes that
much research on African media from the 1960s to the early 1990s
focused on development concerns. It was only in the mid 1990s, when
struggles on the streets put democracy on the political agenda, that
the concept of civil society and media’s role on the African
continent began to register significantly in scholarly writings (see
Makumbe, 1998; Ndegwe, 1996; Osaghae, 1994).
Even so, many of the African civil society and media
scholars have described African societies as lacking viable civil
society elements (Ronning, 1999; Osaghae, 1994). Others have singled
out the African media as a weak civil society element (Sachikonye,
1995b). However, Berger (2002) points out that the exiciting
conceptualization of civil society for Africa is problematic and in
need of a more nuanced articulation.
This article looks beyond the boundaries of the
conceptualization debate and the state-media relationships that have
occupied African civil society and media writings for decades. Using
examples of the changing character of civil society institutions in
Ghana, after the country’s democratic and liberal reforms, this
article draws attention to evolving civil society elements in
contemporary Sub Saharan Africa. It calls on African media and civil
society scholars to re-examine the interdependent relationship
developing between the state, the media, the public, and other
emerging civil society institutions.
Two emerging characteristics associated with the
democratic reforms are significant to the development of civil
society in Sub Saharan Africa. The first is the emergence of an
independent media system, especially radio broadcasting, which is
redefining media’s role in contemporary African societies. A more
vibrant and critical independent media has emerged in newly
democratic Africa nations and is fostering the dissemination and
free exchange of information leading to social, political and
economic reforms. The independent media is also promoting the
development of socio-economic interests that mitigate traditional
political polarities that will ultimately strengthen civil society.
A new African public has also emerged from the 1990s
reforms; one that is being transformed from a passive to an
"aroused" public. For the first time in decades, the public is
participating in civil discourse and has begun to show a keen
interest in civil and state matters. It is developing into a key
element of civil society in Sub Saharan Africa.
The development of independent media and an aroused
public in African societies are important emerging components of
civil society that call into question past description of African
civil society as weak. They also draw attention to the need for
media and civil society scholars to re-examine emerging civil
society institutions in contemporary Sub Saharan Africa.
Past Conceptualization of Civil Society and Media’s
Role in Africa
Since the mid 1990s, after political and economic
liberalization began sweeping the African continent, the concept of
civil society has been at the center of debates among African media
and civil society scholars. The debate centered mainly on two
issues: on the conceptualization and applicability of the concept of
civil society to African context; and on the role of African media
in building civil society. Scholars have taken different views about
African media’s relations to civil society. Moyo (1993), for
example, considers state and civil society as belonging to one
public realm. Traber (1995) locates the media in civil society,
which in turn, he says, needs access to public sphere or needs to
create its own. Mansson (1999), on the other hand, sees an
interaction between civil society and the independent press as
forming a public sphere. He even treats the private press as if it
were something quite different from civil society (or at least
different from the rest of civil society). Ronning (1995) takes a
more conventional and logical position of seeing private media as
part of civil society. But Sachikonye (1995b) critiques the African
media in general and argues that social movements (in civil society)
should establish their own media to ensure a more favorable image of
However, Orvis (2001) provides a more realistic
conceptualization of civil society that is more applicable to the
African context. He defines civil society "as a public sphere of
formal or informal collective activity autonomous from, but
recognizing the legitimate existence of the state and family"
(p.19). This definition allows us to consider traditional or ethnic
organizations, self-help and cooperative groups, patronage networks,
and traditional authorities as viable elements of civil society (Hutchful,
1996, p.68). It also allows us to consider a wide array of political
activities, collective social activities and norms (Ekeh, 1992), and
rural institutions (Hutchful, 1996) as parts of civil society. Orvis
defends this view of civil society by asserting that collective
activity guided by the norms of moral ethnicity, and taking the form
of ethnic or patronage organizations, is as much a part of African
civil society as are trade unions, professional associations, or
churches. The broader conceptualization of civil society provides an
analytical utility that encompasses aspects of both Western
traditions and contemporary African associational life. It allows us
to ask important questions about contemporary African civil society,
especially regarding elements more rooted in and representative of
African societies, but less internally democratic and less likely to
support liberal democracy.
Besides the conceptualization issues, the question
of whether Sub Sahara African nations can be considered civil
societies have occupied the attention of many scholars. Two opposing
views have emerged. Pessimists have expressed skepticism about civil
society in Africa and point to the continent’s many failures of
democracy as a hindrance to the development of civil society. They
argue, "if used at all the concept [civil society] should be used in
a very restricted sense relating to the emergence of a consensus on
norms defining a civil sphere" (Callaghy, 1994, p.235). Optimists,
on the other hand, have proclaimed the dawn of a new democratic era
in Africa based on the resurgence of civil society. They argue that
"we [scholars] must excise norms from the definition of civil
society in order to allow us to examine a variety of norms that
might inform civil society… Rather than rendering the concept of
civil society useless, ethnic, regional, religious, class, gender,
and other conflicts are important areas that play a central role in
understanding contemporary civil society in Africa" (Orvis, 2001,
p.20). Unfortunately, scholars have conceptualized civil society in
the traditional Western sense thus setting expectations contextually
incompatable with the realization of African civil society.
In the Western sense, civil society is
conceptualized as the "realm of organized social life that is
autonomous from the state, voluntary, self-generating and supporting
and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules" (Diamond, 1994,
p. 5). Such a conceptualization reveals several tenets. First, that
civil society concerns are public, not private. Second, civil
society relates to the state, without being a part of it, through
pressure to redress policy and expose government corruption. Third,
civil society is marked by pluralism and diversity reflected by
independent mass media and cultural institutions. Fourth, civil
society is market-oriented and rejects central economic planning.
Fifth, civil society holds that different groups represent different
constituencies, and that no one can claim to represent the whole of
society. Sixth, civil society plays several democratic functions,
such as curbing state power, developing pro-democratic attitudes,
creating alternatives to political parties, and strengthening
independent media. And finally, civil society fosters the
dissemination and exchange of information leading to social change
and economic reform as well as the development of socio-economic
interests that mitigate traditional political polarities (Diamond,
By using a Western conceptual framework, many
African media and civil society scholars have characterized both the
African media and civil society as weak. For instance, Ronning
(1994, p.4) concludes that "it is characteristic of weak African
states that media are directly linked to the state apparatus and
used to promote personality cults. The reality is that a weak state
continues to be a preponderant entity in much of Africa -
especially, in relation to an even weaker civil society." According
to Fatton (1995, p.75), the lack of appropriate norms in African
societies has created a civil society that is a "disorganized
plurality of mutually exclusive projects that are not necessarily
democratic." In Berman’s (1977) view, the lack of a trans-ethnic
public arena grounded in universal society norms, and civic trust
governing both political and economic transition, partly explains
Africa’s weak civil society situation. While Lonsdale (1994) points
out the problem political tribalism and power battles among African
elites have posed to the development of civil society in Africa,
Markovitz, (1998) sees the lack of resources and Africa’s economic
crisis as creating weak civil society organizations that are
dependent on the state and foreign donors. Finally, Orvis (2001)
points to Africa’s rural character as a factor in the lack of a
civil society on the continent. He argues that because associations
such as trade unions, professional bodies, and independent media are
relatively new, disorganized and poor, they have few roots in rural
societies in Africa where the bulk of the population resides.
To many of the scholars, the so-called crises on the
continent have contributed to a widespread suspicion of state
structures, which were invariably seen as corrupt, inefficient,
dictatorial, and unable to provide any form of development. These
factors also produced a struggle between the state and civil society
organizations, such as non-governmental organizations, social
movements and activists that often took the form of attempts by the
state to overpower and bring them under its control. These were
often achieved and defended under the pretext of nation building,
national security and interest, and accusations of mismanagement. To
critics of African media and civil society, these conditions were
collectively responsible for the disintegration of Sub Saharan
African states and civil society. However, Berger (2002) points out
that the application of the concept of civil society to the Africa
context has several conceptual limitations.
Nuances in the Conceptualization of African Civil
The conceptualization of civil society to the
African context has raised many questions (see Berger, 2002;
Sachikonye, 1995b; Thornton, 1999). Both Sachikonye and Berger
present some of the conceptual nuances in scholarly writings on the
characterization of African civil society and on the role of the
African media in civil society. Sachikonye (1995b) claims that the
concept has been "used in a liberal sense where civil society is
seen as a sphere of struggle with mass organizations and the absence
of an adequate analysis of the state" (p. 1). In this view, the
state is inherently bureaucratic and undemocratic. Berger (2002,
p.25-27) also points out that scholars have treated the state and
civil society as two distinct concepts, thereby failing to recognize
the interdependence between them and other components of African
civil society. Scholars have also viewed civic groups, especially
the media, as oppositional forces to the powers of the state. As a
result, they have set unrealistic expectations on civil society
institutions in Africa. They have also dismissed or ignored civil
society as an alternative power center in African societies. Ronning
(1994, p.3) posits that scholars have created a view of civil
society as ‘good’ and the state as ‘bad,’ whereby the state is seen
as a problem whose power must be shrunk through privatization and
deregulation. In terms of African media, this took the form of
opening up access to the airwaves for private broadcasters. Civil
society, on the other hand, is seen as part of the solution.
Civil society scholars have ignored to examine how
African media relates to other components of civil society. Instead,
they have singled out media–government relations and focused on how
civil society components relate jointly or separately to the state,
rather than to each other (Berger 2002, p.28). Thus, civil society
has been pitted against the state and journalism oriented towards
government and government-media relations (Kupe, 1999). Such a view
has put Africa’s media in a watchdog role where it is expected to
curb the powers of the state. Unfortunately, the inability of the
media to perform this watchdog role has led to characterizations of
the media as a weak civil society institution. In addition,
assigning a watchdog role to African media is troublesome because it
assumes that the media is an institution free to focus on whom it
likes or prefers and without any interests beyond those of
journalism. Berger (2002) rightly observes "while it is often
recognized that other civil society groups have interests and
agendas, there is also frequently an assumption that the media could
or should somehow escape this fate" (p.29). It is, therefore,
important that media and civil society scholars examine emerging
relationships between the media and the rest of civil society
elements, not just the media-state relationship.
Finally, civil society scholars have failed to
acknowledge the importance of Africa’s rural institutions such as
chieftaincy, community of elders, and self-help organizations, as
viable components of civil society (see Ansah, 1991; Kupe, 1995).
These are significant oversights, as the role of culture and
community in the construction and maintanience of African civil
life, especially in rural areas, is an imporant area of inquiry.
Such a dearth in research allows sterotypical assumptions about
civil society in general and the rural situation in particular—e.g.
the absence of mass media creates a weak relationship between the
media and civil society on the continent--to continue. For example,
Ansah (1991) claims that civil society mass media (private and
community) is scarce in Africa, leading to arguments that the urban
independent press can in consequence play only a limited role in
democratization and civil society initiatives. Similarly, Kupe
(1995, p.397) asserts that the media has always been peripheral to
the lives of most people in Africa. These views set a barrier and
eligibility standards to civil society and fail to acknowledge that
the media as civil agency of mass communication, particularly
community radio, do have ripples across the whole African society,
and not only in the urban centers. In view of these, the argument
that the African media has no direct impact on the lives of the
rural masses "underplays the extent to which there is a message
multiplier effect whereby even rural dwellers obtain mediated access
to the urban-based media, particularly through rural radio and other
informal networks" (Berger 2002, p.28).
The characterization of Africa as a weak civil
society may have been true in the past. However, significant social
and political developments, following the 1990s liberal and
democratic reforms in African nations, raise questions about whether
this characterization accurately reflects emerging democracies in
Africa. The developments also draw scholarly attention to the need
to re-examine emerging civil society institutions and their role in
strengthening contemporary African civil society. Using Ghana’s
experiences, though Ghana is not unique in these developments, two
of such developments are discussed: the changing role of the media,
particularly independent media, and the opportunities it offers for
building a stronger civil society; and the emergence of an ‘aroused’
public who, for the first time in Ghana, is showing a keen interest
in civil society issues and actively participating in civic
Changing Role of the African Media – Independent
Media in Ghana
One of the most critical civil society institutions
is a media that allows for communication between groups, builds
relationship between social groups, and supports the development of
organizations articulating public needs and opinions (Taylor, 2000).
For decades, critics of Ghana’s media questioned whether the state
media that existed prior to 1995 played any significant role in
building civil society (Ansah, 1991 and 1994; Karikari, 1994;
Koomson, 1995). They point to the tight control and censorship of
the mass media by authoritarian and undemocratic governments, the
use of the media for government propaganda, and the political and
economic crises that plagued the nation for decades to justify their
criticism. However, the intensification of democratic and liberal
reforms in the mid 1990s have resulted in the establishment of
multi-party democracy, the privatization of the airwaves, and the
emergence of independent mass media operations, especially in
regional and community FM radio broadcasting. Since 1995, over two
hundred independently owned radio and television stations have been
broadcasting alongside the state media, thereby significantly
changing the media environment in the country (Blankson, 2000;
The traditional propagandist and developmental role
played by the state media, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), was
transformed after the introduction of private media 1995. Early in
their operations, the independent media, particularly radio, assumed
the center stage in the democratic and civil society building
process. For the first time in Ghana, it began to provide the needed
avenue for free speech, freedom of expression and public
participation in civil discourse. This has allowed for the free
expression of divergent or dissenting views on civic and political
matters without fear of government repercussion. It has also made
possible the exchange of information between various elements of
civil society and for public participation in the social, economic,
cultural and political development of the nation. For instance,
social activists, private individuals and public officials,
including former President Jerry Rawlings, have appeared on newly
created interactive audience discussion programs in radio to respond
to public concerns and questions on diverse issues – the first of
their kind in Ghana. The same programs are also open to other civil
society groups including student and worker’s unions, professional
associations, rural cooperatives, churches, activists, and women
groups who use the platform to exchange ideas and communicate with
their audiences and/or to relate with each other in a civil manner.
Although the majority of such interactions have been heated
exchanges between the guest speakers and the public participants,
the experiences clearly mark the development of a new relationship
between the media, the public, and the state; a relationship
critical in the development of a civil society.
The independent Ghanaian media has positioned itself
at the center of the emerging Ghanaian civil society and is
developing into an alternative power center to the state. In
exercising this power, it is encouraging and empowering other civil
society groups to shed off the ‘culture of silence’ that has
characterized them from decades of state control and suppression of
press freedom and free speech. The media is assisting and
strengthening other civil society groups to develop interdependent
relationships among themselves and with the state. In addition, it
is not only demanding for democratic changes (as civil society
scholars have expected); it is also demanding for social and
structural changes within the society and other non-state civil
society institutions. In particular, the privately owned radio
stations have not been afraid to play this civic role.
In the process of exercising their newly found
freedom, the independent media operations, especially radio
stations, are performing two important civil society functions:
disclosing the society’s shortcomings and abuses (not just that of
the state), and strengthening the democratic process and civil
society. They are serving as advocates for the new democratic
dispensation by scrutinizing public servants, the state, private
organizations, and other civil institutions. They are also gaining
the ability to reach various segments of the populace with
information and to create links between like-minded civil society
groups. These functions have made the Ghanaian independent media a
committed media and a viable civil society institution, one that is
positioned in the center of the democracy and civil society building
process. The independent media, particularly radio, have proven to
be the best tools to assist civil society organizations in Ghana
speak to and listen to the populace. In view of these developments,
one can only conclude that given the right environment, the media in
Sub Saharan Africa can play a major role in the democratic and civil
society process. Through its ability to allow for information and
social exchanges, it can also encourage the development of
interdependent relationships between components of civil society.
Finally, it can, and has already proven to be a central element in
the development of an active public; one that has begun to show keen
interest in civic matters and to participate in the society’s
governance and social life.
Emergence of an ‘Aroused’ Ghanaian Public
One of the central tenets of a civil society is an
active public that participates in civil discourse through the media
and also has an interdependent relationship with the state and other
civil society groups (Ronning, 1995). Yet, African civil society
scholars have failed to examine the role of the African public in
civil society initiatives, especially since the 1990s democratic and
liberal reforms and the consequent institutional and societal
changes. One of the important developments associated with the
reforms is the transformation of the Ghanaian public; from passive
to what Hallahan (2000, p. 505) describes as an "aroused public."
Prior to the introduction of independent media in Ghana in 1995, the
Ghanaian public generally had lost interest in participating in
state affairs and in the state print and broadcast media (Ansah,
1993). A 1985 study by Obeng-Quaidoo reported that Ghanaians spent
on the average only two and half hours per day listening to the
state radio, GBC Radio. The lack of participation in state
governance and in the media were results of decades of political
instability, public disappointments with governments, and decades of
state control of the media and free speech (Ansah, 1994).
However, the liberal reforms and the growth in
private media opened up avenues for the public to freely express
their views on all matters of civil and social interest. The
openness in government and a freer and more vocal press are allowing
the public to express diverse views on civic issues. Consequently,
the ‘culture of silence’ that characterized the Ghanaian public
prior to 1995, is gradually being broken. An aroused public has
emerged and begun to play a significant role in the society. For
instance, since 1998 there have been stirrings of public opposition
and protest against government policies and at the perceived
incompetence of the government and civil institutions. Public
resentments have also been expressed openly against non-state
organizations for their malpractices and social irresponsibility.
The majority of public discussions in the media do not center on
political issues. They focus rather on social responsibility and
accountability of both state and civil society matters such as
family issues, women and children issues, health issues, and the
role of cultural institutions in the Ghanaian society.
It is evident in Ghana that the public is no longer
content with being a passive element on which governments act; it is
insisting on being an integral part of the development agenda and a
true civil society element. For the first time in Ghana, the public
is able to participate freely and openly in civil and state matters
and is heavily involved in the democratic dispensations. It is able
to criticize the state and other civil society institutions by
expressing their views on scandals and abuses of an economic,
political and private character. The public is able also to
personalize social and political issues. Consequently, there
continues to be a growth in public interest and participation in
civic discourse and ultimately a redefinition of civil society in
Contemporary developments associated with the 1990s
reforms in many Sub Saharan African countries are transforming civil
institutions and their role in the society. As demonstrated by
Ghana’s experiences (although Ghana is not unique), the character
and role of the media as a civil society institution is changing
from being a state control propaganda tool to a more open and
independent media. The implication of this change in character is
that the traditional role of the African media in their societies is
being redefined in ways that are critical to the development of a
true civil society in the region. The independent media has emerged
at the center of the democratic process and ultimately developed the
potential to strengthen civil society institutions on the continent.
Similarly, the emergence of a relatively more active
public is having significant implications on both the state and
other emerging civil society elements. These two developments are
critical components of civil society that cannot be ignored in the
search for civil society tenets in Africa. Unfortunately, scholars
have ignored to examine their significance in civil society debates
on Africa. This article calls on African media and civil society
scholars to examine emerging civil society elements in emerging
democratic Sub Sahara African societies. Of particular interest are
the role of emerging independent media and the changing character of
the African public in the democratic and civil society initiatives.
This re-examination is important because developments associated
with the 1990s reforms in some Sub Saharan African countries
continue to contribute to the building of a civil society stronger
than what scholars have previously ascribed to the continent. One
cannot assume that the continent as a whole is characterized by
media freedom and broadcast diversity and democratic changes. In
many countries, political and legal systems continue to provide
provisions for curbing the freedom of the press and civil society
organizations (Jamieson, 1999). But this should not be an excuse for
scholars not to examine emerging civil society institutions on the
continent and the interrelationships developing between these civil
institutions and the state.
Ghana’s experiences lend support to the argument
that civil society elements can emerge in Sub Saharan Africa given
the right environment. Civil society institutions are not static but
respond to social, economic and political changes on the continent,
and are tied to local communities and cultural life. Therefore,
there is certainly a need for scholars to look beyond the past
conceptualization debate over what constituted African civil society
and examine contemporary institutional changes that are
strengthening African civil society and the interrelationships
developing between the state, the media, and other civil society
elements in Sub Saharan Africa. Scholars should also examine the
changing character of the African public, its evolving role in the
society, and its relationship with the state, the media and other
civil society institutions. It is only when these institutional
developments and changes are examined that a clear and contemporary
understanding of the nature of African civil society can be gained.
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About the Author
Dr. Blankson is Assistant Professor in Public
Relations and Intercultural/International Communication and the
Director of Technology at the Department of Speech Communication,
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE). Prior to joining
SIUE in 2000, he served as a private media and public relations
consultant to public and private organizations in Ghana. From 1994
to 2000, he worked in the Division of Student Affairs at Ohio
Dr. Blankson graduated from the School of
Telecommunications, Ohio University in 2000. In 1999, he was named
the School of Telecommunications’ Outstanding Doctoral Student. His
multidisciplinary educational background includes graduate degrees
in Human Geography/International Development from University of
Oslo, Norway and Internal Affairs from Ohio University and an
undergraduate degree in Geography from University of Ghana. His
primary research focuses on media developments in emerging
democracies and public relations practices among multinational
organizations in developing countries.
Selected Publications and Papers
"Public Relations in Emerging Democracies: The Case
of Ghana." Upcoming book chapter (expected to be published in
"Language and Cultural Sensitivity in Broadcasting
Reforms in Emerging Democracies: Ghana" Submitted for publication in
the Journal of Radio Studies, 2002.
"The Role of Media in Democracy and Civil Society
Development in Sub-Saharan Africa." Presented at the 2001 Global
Fusion Conference, St. Louis, MO.
"Foreignization of Local Media: The Concept of
"Locally Acquired Foreign Accent" (LAFA) in Radio Broadcasting in
Ghana." Presented at the Intercultural Communications Conference,
Miami, Florida, March 1-3, 2001.
"Public Relations Practices in Developing Countries:
The Shell Game" Presented at the National Communications Association
Conference, Seattle, November 2000.
"Transnational Corporations and Public Relations
Practices." Presented at CAS Research Series, Spring 2001, SIUE.
"African Images in Western Media: A Critical
Cultural Analysis of the "Feed the Children Program." Presented at
the 49th Annual International Communications Association Conference,
San Francisco, CA, May 1999.
"Representation of Women in African Magazines."
Presented at the 80th Annual Convention of the Association for
Education in Journalism and Mass Com. Chicago, July 30-Aug. 2, 1997.