A Few Thoughts on Democracy, Journalism and Grandma

The good folks at the Comittee to Protect Journalists  graciously asked me to opine on the state of media in Madagascar. For the piece, they suggested that I describe a bit  about how I experienced media while growing up.  Three memories stood out in my mind, my aunt who was the very first news anchor on Malagasy National television, our earnest weather man Ravince and my grandma's radio stereao from the 30's  that fostered her love affair with a Malagasy "radio sitcom" (more on that later).

Traditional House in Madagascar

So here are my thoughts on the future of journalism in Madagascar (en Francais ici). Keep in mind that I wrote the article before the report from Reporter Without Borders came out and I am glad to see that we are in agreement on where journalism stands back home. I wish the best to the folks who are currently trying to draft the "Code of Communication and Ethics" in Madagascar  and hope that they consider those thoughts and bloggers'perspective when they put the finalize the document. As Andrew Vachs says "Journalism is what maintains democracy. It's the force for progressive social change." As stated before on this blog, independent journalism or acts of reporting can take many shape or form but its existence as a reasonable platform for information and opinion is critical.

The link between democracy and media has been examined at length worldwide. From DC to Antananarivo, There is worrisome trend  that the democratic process is being hijacked by an increased polarization of the civil discourse and deliberate disinformation. At the commencement ceremony in Ann Harbor,  US president Barack Obama asked the students how they will save democracy in America.
He said that violent rhetoric in the media "closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation." His advice: "If you're a regular Glenn Beck listener, then check out the Huffington Post sometimes. If you read The New York Times editorial page the morning, then glance every now and then at The Wall Street Journal."

I think that this idea should be explored further, especially in the run-up for elections in countries like Madagascar. I am just spiting ideas out there but would it be totally crazy to ask voters days before they cast their ballots, to fill out a multiple choice questionnaires on their take on key arguments and whether a consensus can be found on these issues? This will ensure that there is a minimum exposure to basic information to balance the extremist diatribe and maybe a modicum of evaluating pros and cons before voting.

And still it might not be enough though, as a recent study pointed out.

This article by J. Keohane explains that we make a reasonable  assumption that in a democracy, once facts are revealed to the population, they will get things straight and change or reinforce their opinion accordingly. It is the premise  for the intrinsic value of debate and open societies. Yet, researchers are disputing this assessment, they affirm that
" Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."
The reason:
“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

This is the scariest finding I have encountered in a while because I saw it came to life  during the political crisis in Madagascar and its many detrimental effects.
You can put all the effort you want in trying to get the information correct (i.e the Ushahidi platform for Madagascar), distribute it as widely as you can (blogs, newspapers, radio etc.) and encourage conversation and debate. Still, at the end of the day, information made barely a dent in trying to fond a consensus or an exit to the ongoing crisis. Malagasy media and blogs have tried to put information out there regardless of the political agenda: we illustrated the Daewoo land grab issue at length, we put videos of the military repression of protests in February and in April and later, we have been writing and posting about illegal rosewood trafficking since 2009 and the plight of the Southern region (phosphate spill and malnutrition).

I am still hopeful that putting information out there will lead to positive change or at the very least, a start of a conversation between factions that openly dislike each other. It is critical that we find an exit. Literally, lives are a stake here because the longer the crisis goes, the less likely we are to be able to take care of malnutrition and the pillage of natural resources (rosewood etc..).

So here is hoping that there is a threshold of information that can be reached in order to breakthrough to a positive resolution. We may not like each other or have opposite opinions but we still need to start listening to each other, somehow.

Here is the part of the story that could not be included in the CPJ story about my grandma and the effect of media in Madagascar:
antique Malagasy stereo

"Growing up in Antananarivo, biweekly family reunions at my grandmother were tradition. We were about 25 gathered around the table and sharing a meal. My grandmother would rarely let anyone help her in the kitchen and would spend the whole morning cooking and making sure every single
one of us was fed and comfortable. She would listen to everyone's stories an add a few of her own that would invariably make one of her children blush. However, once the clock stroke 2:00
pm, she would drop everything, turn her radio that she purchased in the 30's and would listen religiously to a daily radio sitcom. She was not the only one, as most Malagasies would be totally sucked in by this well-produced but low-budget radio sitcom. The story tellers were brilliant, all of them with a flawless grasp of the nuances of Malagasy tradition of oral story telling.
The funny thing is, most of our written press, like in most of former French colonies, is in French and we never really question why that is or find issue with it. In fact, our embrace of the french press is reflected by my grandmother not-so-guilty pleasures of reading French popular magazines, the likes of Paris-Match and Gala. But when it came to radio, the Malagasy language ruled the air, seemingly as a tribute to this enduring tradition of oral storytelling."

How is that relevant to democracy and media you ask? I love my grandma but she was a hardheaded woman, it would have been difficult to change her mind on any subjects. However, evidently if the medium was right (radio sitcom), she could be an avid listener. We can reach people if we really want to but it will require more effort. If we want democracy to persist, we won't have much of a choice.

1 comment:

  1. I was more than happy to seek out this site.I wanted to thank you for this nice read!! I definitely having fun with each little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post. Anyway, in my language, there usually are not a lot good source like this.