The 30th General Assembly of International Press Institute

His Highness the Aga Khan delivering the keynote address to the 30th General Assembly of the International Press Institutes (IPI) in Nairobi, 02 March 1981. AKDN / Christopher Little

Honourable Ministers,
Mr Irani,
Mr Galliner,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have rarely spoken publicly in the developing world or in the industrialised nations, or indeed in any international forum about the press. I wish to take this exceptional occasion to pay a deep personal tribute to a truly remarkable African who was himself at one time a journalist, then who led his country’s struggle for independence and who finally became the first President of Kenya and an outstanding African statesman. I refer to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. “Freedom of the Press” are four of the most commonly used and misused words in the English language, but here in Kenya their meaning was given true substance by the late President’s personal commitment to the independence of the media. I state this today as I was privileged to experience the depth of his conviction on this matter and because I feel I have a personal, unequivocal commitment to uphold what the Father of Kenya upheld so ardently himself. History is unjust or at least very often incomplete in recording the work and thoughts of great men. This must not be the case with regard to Mzee’s exceptional strength and courage in defending this important foundation of democracy.

Today Kenya is one of the countries of the developing world that has the strongest tradition of a free press. It has an unusually large number of qualified and competent editors and journalists. As the owner of a substantial newspaper organization here for many years, it is right that I should also recall the admiration and respect I feel for the way in which His Excellency President Moi, his ministers and the people of Kenya have continued to uphold this tradition of a free, responsible press.

Ladies and Gentlemen, protocol on these occasions also dictates that I thank Mr Cushrow Irani for inviting me to talk to you today. I have the highest respect of the ideals of the International Press Institute and I have the highest respect for the courage and integrity Mr Irani has shown in protecting these ideals, both for himself and for his great Indian newspaper, “The Statesman”. But asking me to speak to you about the complex and extremely sensitive international debate on communications and the third world, I just do not know if I really should thank him. As the French would say, it is like asking me to walk on eggs. Apart from the fact that I will totally crush a large number of them, I have no doubt that by the end of this talk, those that remain unbroken will be used as missiles and your harassed speaker will unavoidably exit with egg on his face. Be that as it may, I thank you most warmly Mr Irani and Mr Galliner and the IPI for inviting me today.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I accepted this invitation to speak after more than twenty years of work, both in the press and in the third world, as I would like to put forward in this important forum sole thoughts and some hopes whose only objective is to help move the present passionate and often acid debate toward a new and more constructive beginning.

I have to state unequivocally that many of the grievances and aspirations expressed in UNESCO are sincere and perfectly valid. But this does not imply that I am willing to underwrite all the solutions proposed at UNESCO. Some of them have clearly been motivated by ideology and by an entirely different concept of the press as it is understood by most democracies, including the Republic of Kenya.

To me, many of the arguments set forth in the debate’s resolutions and declarations are frankly not related to the practicalities of producing newspapers, radio and television programmes, books and other forms of communications in the developing world. I have worked to build many bridges between the west and the third world in order to solve practical problems in health care, in education, in architecture, in establishing study financial framework for self-help and disciplined private initiative. But in this field of communications, a cornerstone of our hopes for world peace, I am afraid that what exists is not a bridge, it is a wall.

Whatever has happened to this debate, the problems that originally provoked it have gone away. The frustrations of the third world are still there, and in many cases growing. The most powerful western media concur, some perhaps reluctantly, but nonetheless sincerely, that the third world has often not been dealt with equitably by the present systems of international communication. These media condemn the UNESCO debate, and many of the ideas being proposed in and by UNESCO, but those who are unhappy have so far had only UNESCO to turn to.

In fact there have been some initiatives by the industrialized nations both at the private level through news organizations, through institutions such as your own, as well as through government aid programmes and international agencies, including the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme. But these efforts have for the most part been isolated, uncoordinated and unpublicized. So hardly anyone knows about them. Certainly, the perception of the developing world is that very little has been done. It seems to them that no strong, orchestrated, supportive, creative, adequately financed alternative has been established. At the risk of appearing naïve, I am still hopeful that the debate can be resolved positively. It seems to me altogether probable that the majority of the United Nations’ 153 sovereign states which endorsed less than three months ago UNESCO’s continued effort to address the issue, will maintain that support. Discrediting UNESCO will not make the problem go away. If for many of you the present UNESCO approach is so unpalatable, and you are convinced that acceptable solutions cannot be worked out in that forum, then it is imperative that you develop a practical alternative. If you fail to do so, the issue will be lost by default.

How, then, do we create a new beginning? How do we re-establish effective communications between the third world and the industrialised world? To begin with, we must try to isolate the political conflict which always arises over different forms of ownership. I am myself a private owner and I believe that disciplined, mature and responsible private ownership is the lost effective means of managing a newspaper. But I submit that the issue is not principally the form of ownership: it is the editorial quality and credibility of the publication.

Second, I think we need much more coherent and comprehensive action by the media and governments of the industrial world to make their managerial and technological know-how available to the developing countries.

Third, we should all accept the need for a structured exchange of editorial expertise. The developing countries can make a contribution here which is just as important as any by the industrialized nations.

Our fourth task is to make journalism a profession in the truest sense, to give it everywhere a status and level of remuneration appropriate to its enormous responsibilities. Like teaching and nursing, journalism in too many areas today is a discredited profession at the very moment when its powers and what the public expects of it have risen to unprecedented heights.

Finally, I realize we have to keep in mind the reluctance of the media in democratic countries to become too closely involved with their governments. This should not be an excuse for failing to create methods whereby much more substantial international resources can be made available to news organizations in the developing nations.

Dealing with each of these issues in turn, let me begin with the question of ownership. Here the debate turns usually to political or ideological considerations. One viewpoint is that government ownership of the media is intolerable. Another argues that private ownership leads too often to excessive commercialism and political or economic manipulation. These two viewpoints appear irreconcilable and paralyse the debate. To make progress we have to evaluate ownership on considerations other than the purely political. The range of possibilities extends from absolute government control at one end of the spectrum to uninhibited private ownership at the other. Government control, as Kenya has always recognized, risks becoming simply an off-shoot of the Ministry of Information. Fewer and fewer people believe in that version of the news or wish to pay for it. In the end everyone does because such publications have to be heavily subsidized by the taxpayers. Co-operative trade union or political party newspapers are other variants of a similar theme. They suffer from similar disadvantages because they tend to be read by the faithful and ignored by everyone else.

The debate on ownership continues here in Kenya with an added dimension – the issue of foreign control. The Nation group has looked most carefully at alternatives to address both ownership and foreign participation. One possibility is a collaborative enterprise still under private control, but with the participation of an international agency or a para-statal organization or any other local institution or collectivity such as a development bank, a municipality or a labour union. We have also looked at a formula that attempts to ensure economic viability but insulates the editorial content from ownership.

We asked the question of what could be the consequences both editorially and economically if the controlling shares of the publishing company were placed in the public through the stock market. No doubt both major publications in Kenya have sought to resolve these issues. So far as the Nation group is concerned almost forty per cent of the equity has been acquired by the Kenyan public through the stock exchange.

Our conclusion on this debate of ownership has been twofold. First, no ownership pattern will protect the public from a bad publication. Secondly, many formulae are possible and acceptable provided the guiding intent is to publish a newspaper of quality. The words “ checks and balances” used in constitutional law seek to convey a sense of credibility and equilibrium but when all is said and done constitutionality is insured by people and institutions. My experience in the media of the developing world is the same.

The point I wish to make – and it conditions everything else I have to say this morning – is that there is probably no infallible solution to the problem of media ownership. What matters is that the organization, whoever owns it, develops sufficient resources and is committed to creating quality newspapers that are responsible, reliable and readable. The ultimate test of ownership is whether it achieves these objectives.

It is the enterprises which have a good chance to meet this objective which the democratic nations should help in the third world. The greater the number of companies that achieve financial independence and professional credibility, the greater the chances of building truly independent press structures in these countries. The greater the number of independent press structures, the greater the chances that we can reduce the present imbalance in the flow of informational news.

In this regard, I know that there are sole small projects under way. I wonder if we could not take on larger projects and train whole teams of both journalists and managers at the same time? Specifically there is another idea which is attracting attention and I think it has some potential. We have all heard of twin cities, why not twin newspaper companies and news organizations between the industrial world and the developing world? These could provide mutually beneficial exchanges of managerial, technological and editorial experience and news.

The technological revolution perhaps offers the developing world an exceptional opportunity to succeed. With this technology the manpower necessary is far less and the production quality is extremely high. But as we know, this new technology is highly capital-intensive. The press and governments of the industrialized nations could show their commitment to communications development by quickly making the relevant new technology available for credible projects in third world nations. This should be available on the sale preferential financial conditions as any other nations’ building programmes. Let me be clear: the time of reconditioned teleprinters and second-hand printing presses is over. I am talking about modern plants that can be established with a real chance of commercial success, and thus of redeploying redundant labour in an expanding or diversifying enterprise.

I want to turn now to one other fundamental aspect of this argument that I feel needs clarification: the problem of how to elevate journalism into a truly desirable and prestigious profession of uniformly high standards. Many journalists in third world countries have left the profession altogether – some even after expensive training courses abroad – because they found they were not respected in their own countries, because of harassment or oppressive official regulations, or because the industry itself was so run down that it offered neither career satisfaction nor the earning potential of other professions.

These are obviously not problems confined to developing countries. Both sides have their difficulties in attracting and maintaining the best people and the highest quality of journalistic standards. Perhaps even more intensive support for schools of journalism and exchanges such as the type envisioned in twin newspapers could broaden everyone’s horizons and offer stimulating new challenges to the profession.

In addition, however, I think it is imperative that standards of reporting be elevated as well. A complaint that the North reports the South superficially, condescendingly, sometimes inaccurately and without proper social, cultural, economic and political background often has real validity. To put it another way, there are problems of credibility on all sides. It is here that questions of repeated editorial sloppiness or misunderstanding can result in accusations of evil intent. It is here that this whole debate can quickly descend to emotion, anger and stalemate. Yet it is on this very tender area of editorial content that I feel we must see some quick, significant and visible progress. It is what brought the third world together on this issue in the first place. Many of these countries thought that the industrialized world, largely because of its press, was receiving a distorted image of their young nations and their cultures. They felt that their problems were being magnified, their accomplishments diminished, their aspirations ignored. They felt as though in a nightmare, screaming to be heard but making no sound. The channels and the content of international communications were a monopoly of the North, or so it seemed, and in this respect many people in developing countries felt as powerless as they had under colonial rule.

Ladies and Gentlemen, no matter what happened to this debate at the international level, these basic feelings have not changed. As a Muslim, one of seven hundred million, I live in daily astonishment about the incomprehension of Islam and its peoples.

Some western media have perpetuated misconceptions which stick like shrouds to the bones of historical skeletons, but in most civilizations the dead are buried. Professor Edward Said of Columbia University has recently illustrated this point in a brilliant article entitled “Hiding Islam”. The fact is that the quality of reporting from abroad is often unacceptably low. And there is need to rethink how to select and train these all-important foreign correspondents and foreign editors and sub-editors. Can you sincerely claim to be maintaining foreign staffs that are of the highest quality? Can you really reassure those developing countries who feel to the contrary?

I would like to hear some ideas about how the formation and training of journalists and foreign correspondents can be broadened to ensure that they will have both language and area expertise before being sent to explain sensitive issues to your readers. In journalism schools, is all the attention on learning the craft of editing, or is there also enough education on foreign cultures? Are foreign correspondents allowed proper time and encouraged to prepare for their new assignments? In short, are there enough incentives for young men and women to commit themselves to the long process of education and training necessary to shoulder the awesome responsibility of trying to explain other cultures to their readers?

There is a great deal of discontent in developing countries over what is perceived as the failure of the west adequately to respond to the calls for a new world economic order. The call for a new information order is of course linked to these new economic aspirations. It seems to me that efforts on the communications front could prove the West’s willingness to try to correct these world imbalances which it recognizes and on which it can have a significant impact. The high visibility of communications would accelerate this process. Exchanges – as in the twin newspaper idea – having a Muslim, for example, nearby a foreign editor to explain Islamic concepts – could help infuse this process with a new spirit of cooperation. It would be easy to throw up our hands and say we can move no further because of politics and ideologies. This must not be the answer. I have no miraculous solution but I am convinced that the new dialogue must be coolly focused on practical possibilities. I ask that we all go beyond self-defensive positions, and search our conscience. The International Press Institute is one of the organizations best placed to defend and enhance the profession of journalism and to help implement new and pragmatic solutions to the problems I have described. Let me conclude by emphasizing that the new approach must demonstrate to the developing nations that the media and governments of the industrial world are prepared to recognize the legitimacy of many of the third world complaints, that they are ready to re-examine their own performance and to respond in practical terms to the needs of the press in developing nations.

Finally, let us all proclaim – as never before – that the democratic concept of press independence is not only the most desirable but by far the most effective method of national and international communication throughout the world.