The media’s gender blackout

Date: May 31, 2011
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On 3 May journalists the world over commemorated World Press Freedom Day with gusto and pomp. They used the opportunity to reflect on the past, present and future events that have shaped the profession.

But as the world commemorated, there were concerns in a Declaration issued by a Namibian conference about the lack of gender equality in the media. Indeed, the findings of the Africa regional report of the 2010 Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) shows that women are underrepresented in news content and in media structures. Women account for only 19% of news sources in African media, unchanged since 2005.

In his analysis of African media 20 years after the Windhoek Declaration, Rhodes University Professor Guy Berger argues that in 1991 the Declaration focused mostly on print media. During the Windhoek +10 review, it was expanded to deal with broadcasting.

Berger poses the question: “Can we do the same as with Windhoek?” in reference to the upcoming Cape Town Conference dubbed Windhoek+20, to be held in September 2011. The conference will focus on access to information.

There appears to be a very real need to once again expand the Windhoek Declaration, this time to include gender.

Many media and gender experts are arguing that in this era of enormous change, the media can only play a critical role in the lives of Africans – a majority of whom are women – if the following questions are tackled: Information for what and for whom? Why are we collecting this information and what difference is it making in the lives of women? What do we do with the information once it is collected?

Media development scholars generally agree that information can empower women and enable them to forge links for gender equality. The Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies and the Beijing Platform for Action recognise media as one of the fundamental tools for achieving gender equality and the economic empowerment of women.

Yet women continue to be underrepresented and portrayed in a narrow range of roles in the mainstream media: most often either as victims of violence or as sex objects.

During the conference in Namibia, concerns were raised about the fact that African media has failed to commit itself to ensuring that the gender question becomes a standard of measure for press freedom and access to information on the continent.

Meanwhile, many media practitioners have been content to argue that since society is male-dominated, it is this reality they convey. There has been little willingness to grapple with what is meant by freedom of expression when half the population is virtually mute – nor the more philosophical question of the role of the media in a democracy: to project only what is, or what could be?

Another important discussion revolves around media ethics and codes of conduct. For instance, why do women continue to be objectified and portrayed as sex objects and why are their voices and opinions ignored. If this approach is considered unethical, then which codes are African media houses using?

Therefore, as the Windhoek Declaration is expanded to embrace access to information, there is also a need to develop a gender addendum which takes cognisance of the context in which media is produced.

What this means is that an “engendered” Windhoek Declaration can help media managers to address these problems, making it a duty to increase representation of women, and give women space and visibility on issues of national importance.

The main areas of focus should be to increase women’s access to, and use of, the media; improve the portrayal of women in the media; increase women’s representation in decision-making structures in media houses and develop structures and frameworks for gender mainstreaming based on laws and policies.

If the Windhoek Declaration is to continue to be a guiding, constructive document in this era of intense media transformation, any expansion must include the issue of gender justice in the media.


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