What has gender got to do with media freedom?

What has gender got to do with media freedom?

Date: May 6, 2011
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This 3 May marked 20 years of the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media, which was endorsed by UNESCO and the United Nations General Assembly in 1991. This endorsement ultimately led to the creation of 3 May as “World Press Freedom Day”.

In 1991, heavy state control characterised much of the African media landscape. Following the Windhoek Declaration, things began to change. Acknowledging that media freedom is a necessary condition for democratisation, many African countries mainstreamed this into their constitutions in the first decade following the Declaration. At the Windhoek +10 conference in 2001, the right to press freedom was extended to include broadcasting freedom, which was brought about through the adoption of the African Charter on Broadcasting. The Charter in turn fed into the influential Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression, as adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights of the African Union.

However, the media landscape envisaged in the Declaration of 1991 is still far from being realised. This is due to various new laws and bills which ultimately threaten freedom of the media. For instance, in February 2011 the Malawi government enacted the Newspaper Ban Law (Amendment of section 46 of the Penal Code) which allows the information minister to ban publications deemed contrary to the public interest. In South Africa, a Media Appeals Tribunal was tabled in 2010 and, if approved, will be tasked with overseeing complaints brought against the press, which until now has been self-regulatory. These laws and others continue to infringe on the freedom of the media and undermine democracy.
The Declaration also addresses other pertinent issues such as freedom of information and expression, free flow of ideas by word and image, independent and pluralistic press, repression of media professionals, and establishment of associations that safeguard the fundamental freedoms in the Declaration and training of journalists. What strikes me when I read the Declaration today is that it puts women and men in the same bracket of media freedom.

Whereas media freedom has been understood to mean the absence of political censorship, there are many other ways in which citizens may be denied the right to be heard. As noted by the 2006 Gender Review of Media Development Organisations, women’s voices may be excluded from the media. It is thus important to look at media freedom in a way that takes into consideration “gender-based censorship” which ultimately disempowers, silences and makes invisible certain people in society. My point is that whilst the Windhoek Declaration has often been successful at changing the overall African media landscape, the focus in the next decade should be on how citizens, both women and men, can be empowered by its provisions. This can only be realised if the Declaration clearly articulates the different ways media freedom impacts women and men.

Interestingly, the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration takes place when the 2008 SADC Protocol on Gender and Development is closer than ever to coming into force. The Protocol brings together and enhances international and African commitments to gender equality by setting 28 targets to be achieved by 2015. Specific provisions on the media include achieving parity in decision-making (rapid strides have already been made in the political realm); giving equal voice to women and men; challenging gender stereotypes; sensitive coverage of HIV and AIDS and gender violence. The Protocol also calls on the media to mainstream gender in all laws, training and policy.

Gender equality is entirely consistent with freedom of expression. Nothing is more central to this ideal than giving voice to all segments of the population. When women comprise about 52% of the population, but only constitute 24% of news sources (Global Media Monitoring Project, 2010), censorship of a very real kind exists. The Gender and Media Progress Study (Gender Links, 2010) found that there has been a marginal increase in the proportion of women sources in Southern African media: from 17% in the 2003 Gender and Media Baseline Study to 19% in the GMPS.

“These findings beg the question of what we really understand by freedom of expression, democracy and citizen participation,” noted delegates at the Fourth Gender and Media Summit last year in Johannesburg. “While more blatant forms of censorship may be subsiding, our media daily silences large segments of the population, notably women.” They added that gender disparities in the news occur because of a lack of diversity in media ownership and “armchair” journalism, which results in the media seeking out a few voices of authority: often men.

Further, the media often applies double standards to men and women. Women are objectified and their physical attributes highlighted in ways that do not apply to men. The explosion of tabloid media has perpetuated these stereotypes. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has also recently taken up the issue of how women are represented in media, noting that high numbers of female news anchors on television creates a false impression of equality.

Gender equality is implicit in the notions of a “pluralistic press”; “reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community”; “the fulfilment of human aspirations”; “freedom of the press” and “freedom of association” as espoused in the Windhoek Declaration. But the failure to state this explicitly has led to gross gender disparities in the media.
The Declaration encourages the establishment of professional associations that safeguard various freedoms. These associations should include women’s media associations. Media development organisations have the opportunity, through the work they do, to lead by example in showing that gender is intrinsic to free speech, citizen participation, and progressive media practice and content.

Thus after 20 years of the Windhoek Declaration it is time to acknowledge these silent forms of censorship that daily occur in the media. The debates on mainstreaming gender in the declaration should be taken forward so that the next decade can see a region that truly exemplifies the freedoms espoused in the original document.

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