Agricultural journalism plays a key role in food security but is often corrupted. Press Freedom is scarce, information is rarely independent. The situation in Africa is alarming, considering the messages brought by the Africa Forum of the IFAJ.
When in Nigeria, I personally experienced that colleague journalists are underpaid and need to keep on hustling for their money every single day. I told my Nigerian colleague journalist that I was going to interview the CEO of one of the biggest agricultural companies in his country. The first thing he asked me was: ‘What do they drop you?’
Editorials in chief and owners of media houses in Nigeria are aware that their employees take money from politicians and companies. This attitude takes away all objectivity and every possibility to be critical. Often the influence on journalists and the stories they publish are not only bought with bribe money but are even taken by threats on their lives and the lives of their beloved ones.
Nigeria is not the only African country that copes with corrupted journalism, proofed the Africa Forum in Pretoria, South-Africa, which took place in the run-up to the yearly congress of the International Federation of Journalists, in April 2017.
Journalists from different African countries got the opportunity to express their points of view. It was promising to hear from them they recognised this corrupted methods of journalism as an aberration and that they didn’t take it for granted, in contrary to what I experienced in Nigeria.
Independent agricultural journalism is a crucial factor when it comes to food security. Farmers need to know about farming methods, from independent media. They need to know about politics, market access and everything that’s needed in the wide range of topics a farmer needs to deal with when it comes to farming and gaining an income out if it.
So farmers should be able to make their own decisions. About farming in the broadest context on their own farm, about soil fertility, plagues, and diseases, about animal husbandry. But they also need to understand how markets and politics work and need a say in the local and regional decision-making process. Only this will make it possible for them to make the right decisions.
I previously pointed this out thoroughly in my essay Smarter Farmers, but all this became only more clear during this Africa Forum.
Agents of change
Agricultural journalism is not only about providing information towards the farmer, but it also reports on farmers needs and concerns, which can influence politics. It was agricultural journalist Jean de Dieu Ininahazwe from Burundi who clearly put this into perspective at the Africa Forum: ‘We, as agricultural journalists, are agents of change!’ But, he added: ‘the role of agricultural journalists is an effective player in agricultural and rural development is undervalued.’
Freedom of the press is questionable in most African countries. Also, many agricultural journalists have been jailed, intimidated and often they are just not allowed to do their job.
Agriculture is largely restricted to natural disasters, food shortages and rising food prices
Agriculture is barely covered in most media. In some African countries, it’s largely restricted to natural disasters, food shortages and rising food prices. Many journalists and media are not interested in covering agricultural stories. As everywhere in the world, the media give mainly what the readers want and prefer sensational news, entertainment, and sports above important news.
Friday Phiri, who works at the Agricultural Information Services at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in Zambia, presented figures that point out that only 4 percent of the media coverage is on agriculture.
Another big item on this continent with a general lack of capital is the extra costs that are involved with covering agriculture, learned the Africa Forum. For reporting in the field, one needs to go literally to the fields in often remote areas. This means a lot of travel expense for this outstretched continent.
Agricultural journalism in Africa has still a long way to go. Only in some countries, agricultural journalists are organized in a national guild. Just a few African countries have a guild which is a member of the IFAJ.
But this underdevelopment of agricultural journalism is not restricted to Africa. Worldwide, agricultural journalism is too much influenced by the agribusiness. The International Federation of Agricultural Journalists itself is the best example. The IFAJ was established in 1956 but is still developing.
Only in October 2015, the organization changed its constitution to accept membership from guilds in countries that do not necessarily have freedom of the press. Only since two years the IFAJ reaches out to connect with colleagues in oppressed countries and is willing to support them to achieve more press freedom.
Considering the daily practice of the IFAJ, media independence however still is not truly recognized as relevant. Events of the federation depend heavily on sponsors.
My personal experience with this Africa Forum was that they received in return too much influence on the content of the program. I experienced the same when I visited the final debate of the Masterclass for Young journalists and also during the main congress. The IFAJ practices the status quo that’s commonplace in agricultural media: The advertiser influences the content of the publications.
This is an issue that’s underestimated worldwide. Organisations working on a free press, mainly defend journalists whose life is in immediate danger. Agricultural journalists, however, are seldom suppressed by oppressive regimes. Journalists who get killed on their job mostly report on politics, war, human rights, and corruption. It seems quite safe to cover issues like soil fertility, animal husbandry, and pest control.
However: the simple fact that agricultural journalists are seldom killed or tortured, doesn’t mean they are able to do their job in freedom. The simple fact that the lives of agricultural journalists are hardly ever in danger, doesn’t mean independent journalism isn’t in danger.
Also, those journalists feel the pressure from the ones in power. And if they don’t, they are mostly adapted to the situation in which they live in. Meaning they take the truth that agribusiness serves them for granted.
This attitude is prevalent among agricultural journalists. There is a widespread common-sense among agricultural journalists and communicators that they have the same goal: to show farmers how agriculture can become more productive with new technologies and inputs like chemicals, fertilizers, and GMO.
I however also experienced that an editorial staff totally ruined my story, because it was better for their relations with the advertisers. And once a company even bluntly acknowledged that they have more expensive lawyers than I could ever afford.
Yes. It really happens! Even in a country in the highest rankings of press freedom. Just imagine the information that people receive in the rest of the world. To start with farmers in Africa.
The main sponsor of the IFAJ-conference in South Africa was Monsanto, the Masterclass for young journalists was sponsored by companies like Syngenta and the International Fertilizer Development Centre.
The IFAJ is in serious dualism, according to the words of president Owen Roberts. He pointed out the Vision 2020 Strategic Plan of the IFAJ: ‘to support free, fair and independent agricultural journalism worldwide’. For making this a success, he told the audience of the Africa Forum, ‘it takes serious money. And that’s why we are grateful to our sponsors.’
Of course, he was right. Without sponsorship money, colleagues from other African countries would not have had the chance to visit this Congress, which would be a great loss.
The reward of their sponsorship, however, went too far. Sponsors did not only get the opportunity to present themselves in printed communication and the possibility to show their name, their flag and hand out flyers. They were also given the opportunity to speak on stage and influence the content of the program. They took the chance to speech about the importance of increasing food production, which, according to those sponsors, can only be done through one farming system: with technology investments and the use of chemicals, fertilizers and GMO.
Soldier of truth
The journalist, however, needs to stand strong. He is the gatekeeper who decides what the truth really is, who asks the hard questions and shares perspective with his audience. In this quest for veracity, however, this often underpaid soldier of truth needs to combat with an army of PR-people worth billions of dollars a year.
But the battle has not ended yet. It was Friday Phiri from Zambia who criticized this situation, already from the start of the Africa Forum. ‘Money influences editorial choices and priorities’, he said. And objectivity is not always easy. ‘Sometimes you get information from a company like Syngenta, and that’s just how it is.’
Just as long as journalists recognize corrupted methods of journalism as an aberration, there is hope.
© Marc van der Sterren