Developing citizen media in developing countries: Should Canada help?

What does a changing communications landscape and innovation in communication technology mean for media development in developing countries? Nicholas Benequista explains how he will find out. 


By Nicholas Benequista

What does a changing communications landscape and innovation in communication technology mean for media development in developing countries? Nicholas Benequista explains how he will find out. 


By Nicholas Benequista

How much would you estimate that Canada spends to help other countries to strengthen their media and the freedom of information?

I was curious, so I looked through Canadian International Development Agencies’ (CIDA) datasets of historical projects, which are woefully incomplete. But from what information is available, and with a rather unsophisticated back-of-the-envelope methodology, I calculated that in the 2010-11 fiscal year, CIDA spent about $5.28 million on projects related to “media and the free flow of information” and on the “provision of equipment and capital assistance to the media.”

That amount is down from about $9 million in 2005-06 (despite that the total Canadian aid budget has risen since 2005-06). This is especially odd since the trend everywhere else in the world is to give more support, especially in light of the crucial role that mass media and social media played in the Arab Spring. For example, US support has nearly doubled over the past five years on what it calls “media freedom and freedom of information” to $US 141 million in 2010, according to the Center for International Media Assistance.

How much a country spends, however, is not nearly as important as how it spends it. So I tried to find a report or statement from CIDA about its approach to media development in the age of blogs and citizen journalism. In short, I found nothing – nothing that specifically describes how CIDA thinks new information and communication technologies (like the Internet, of course, but also mobile phones and satellites, etc.) can be harnessed as tools for strengthening journalism. 

Citizen journalism, data journalism, crowdsourced journalism: J-source, the Nieman Journalism Lab and other journalistic forums are buzzing with excitement about new innovations. What about the folks in international development?

Now, please correct me if I have missed some key document at CIDA, but I would not be surprised if the organization is silent on this matter. Indeed, not just in Canada, but globally, the field of media development has not formulated many clear ideas about what changing communication landscape means for journalism in places like Pakistan or Kenya or Ethiopia.

So here's my plan for a participatory action research project that will hopefully be useful for journalists in Kenya and Ethiopia and also earn me a PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Starting in November 2012, I intend to work with a small group of well-known journalists in these countries as co-researchers in a process of learning-by-doing. Together, we will test what we can do in the new communication landscape: accessing new sources of information, connecting with people who could not be reached before, using crowd-sourcing, social media, innovative survey techniques and citizen journalism, etc. (and, of course, still going out to speak with people in person).

This experimentation will rely on close engagement with various people and organizations at the helm of new media innovations. Many of these organizations, like Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS, are already making efforts to persuade journalists to use their innovative tools, but this process will turn that engagement around, with the journalists contemplating both the pitfalls and possibilities offered by a new technology.

This is an opportunity for the journalists to re-imagine their profession in the changing communication landscape – but also importantly in their own political and social context. Journalism, however accurate and balanced, is never a neutral activity; it is almost always driven by some form of idealism: a belief in the marketplace of ideas, or in the value of marginalized voices, or in equal justice for powerful and powerless. But this idealism is not the same in one country as another, or even in one newsroom as another. Before we can answer the question of how to do journalism in the brave new world of digital media, we must first answer the question of why we do journalism, and let our moral commitment and ethics guide our decisions.

The work will be featured by the journalists' respective media outlets – like the Daily Nation, Radio Citizen, and the Kenya Television Network on a forthcoming website that I hope you might visit periodically in the future: (please excuse the Goddaddy holding page that’s there at the moment).

So why does this matter? It matters because we are at a historic juncture. New technologies have put journalistic models in question, and it is still unclear whether mainstream journalism will emerge any more pluralistic or democratic than it is today.

My bet is that the answer to this question will depend on journalists themselves. We must recognize that journalists are political actors – not just by virtue of what they print, post or broadcast – but in their capacity to re-imagine their profession.

Rather than just make an academic case for this, I plan to demonstrate it in action. The participating journalists, by example and through their influence over colleagues, will hopefully change the way the business of journalism is conducted in their institutions: perhaps by opening mainstream media to more voices, or by weaving together new sources of information to tell a more complete story.  

Second, this project will provide important insights for the field of media development by testing a method of journalistic training that does not rely on importing innovations from the Western nations but on stimulating innovations in a local context.

Third, this project questions assumptions about the democratic affordances of new media and is expected to shed a critical light on the view that new media will necessarily transform news for the better.

The technology alone will not determine the future of journalism; many other factors will, some beyond the scope of this project. But I believe that a fair question to ask is whether the moral commitment of journalists will make any difference.



Nicholas Benequista has worked as a foreign correspondent in Venezuela, Mexico and Ethiopia for Voice of America, Bloomberg News, The Globe and Mail, The Christian Science Monitor and many others, and is now carrying out his fieldwork towards a PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please feel free to get in touch with him at if you have an interest in the research. You can also follow the project by following him, preferably on Twitter rather than in person:  @benequista