Opening ceremony of the IPI World Congress and 54th general assembly

Mawlana Hazar Imam speaking at the opening ceremony of the International Press Institute (IPI) Conference in Kenya. Aziz Islamshah

Your Excellency President Kibaki,
Your Excellency President Kagame,
Mr. Fritz,
Mr. Kiboro,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

My thanks to you, Mr. Kiboro, for your kind words and to the International Press Institute for your warm welcome.

Twenty-four years ago I had the honour of addressing this organisation at its 30th annual conference, also held here in Nairobi. Twenty-one years before that, in 1960, I established the Nation newspapers here.

At that time, many African nations had freshly emerged from colonial rule, and I believed that good journalism could play a critical role in their development.

Some may ask why a Muslim spiritual leader would get involved in the media business. In all interpretations of Islam, Imams are required to lead not only in interpreting the faith but also in improving the quality of life for the people who refer to them.

This ethical premise is the foundation of the Aga Khan Development Network, which has long been serving the developing world without regard to ethnicity, gender or race. My commitment to African media has been within this framework.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the quarter century since I first addressed IPI, both the state of governance and the state of the media in Africa have shown encouraging progress.

Not only has Africa moved beyond the worst legacies of colonialism, but it has also moved beyond the rigid constraints of the Cold War. Old dogmatisms, both of East and West, have given way to a new pragmatism—a new freedom to innovate, to experiment and to find African answers to African challenges.

Africa has learned a lot about democracy in these years—its fragility and its potential. Increasingly governments are expected to change hands peacefully, to cooperate regionally, to attract the capable and to punish the corrupt. And the progress reaches beyond governments. As the Economic Commission for Africa concluded in its recent report: “Civil society and the media have increased their voice and power in the last decade of democratic reforms.”

But there is still a long way to go - in the media field among others.

Let me begin with a concern which IPI has raised in its annual report: the erosion of press freedom in some African countries.

Respect for press freedom, it seems to me, grows out of a respect for pluralism as a cornerstone of peace and progress. Pluralism implies a readiness to listen to many voices - whether we agree with them or not - and a readiness to embrace a rich diversity of cultures.

When our diversity divides us, the results can be tragic - as we have seen in Rwanda, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sudan. But when we welcome diversity - and the debate and dissent that goes with it - we sow the seeds of stability and progress.

My concern for diversity and open expression was reflected recently as The Aga Khan Development Network joined with the Government of Canada to establish a Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. Its mission is to promote pluralist values and practices in culturally diverse societies worldwide, including here in Africa.

The Centre will work with governments, academia and civil society, to enhance pluralism in every sphere - including the media.

But there is a second media-related question that I want to raise with you today, and that concerns the adequacy of journalistic knowledge in an increasingly complicated world.

What I often hear from Africa’s leaders these days are serious misgivings about the depth of that knowledge, and genuine doubts about the breadth of understanding that many journalists bring to difficult issues. Clearly, a deeper and broader knowledge base will be a key to the future of African journalism.

This means that journalists must move beyond a primarily adversarial relationship with those they write about.

To be sure, the role of independent critic can be a vital role - but it is not the only role.

If the dominating assumption of media is that the rest of society is up to no good, that the best journalism is what many call “gotcha” journalism, then the media will forfeit a more constructive and nobler role.

I believe that the best journalists are NOT those who think they know everything, but those who are wise enough to know what they do not know. Excellence in journalism , it seems to me, stems not from arrogant judgmentalism but from intellectual humility. As a wise judge once put it: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right.”

The major issues in Africa today are complex and elusive - and old approaches have often failed. But every day, leaders in Africa and elsewhere are thinking in new ways.

The revolution in bio-engineering, for example, promises to change rural societies as the old industrial engineering once reshaped urban landscapes. Genetic research – like the stem-cell breakthroughs which dominated front pages across the world just two days ago - will transform our approaches to personal and public health, including scourges like AIDS and malaria.

Meanwhile, the physical sciences offer new ways to think about the impact of climate change on Africa - and on its food and water supply. New information technologies will transform education throughout Africa - including the most remote rural areas, even as they re-energize non-industrial economies.

One of the most exciting aspects of scientific progress in the 21st century is that so much of it can be applied so directly in the rural environments of the developing world.

We no longer need to be urban in order to be modern.

My central question today, however, is whether we have enough good journalists who know enough about these subjects - and can help African audiences understand their African implications.

Good journalism is never easy - especially in an constantly-changing, impossibly fragmented and highly unpredictable world.

To monitor this world hour by hour, day after day, under deadlines pressures and often with inadequate resources - this is a daunting task.

But there are some ways to help.

For a start, we need to increase dialogue and communication among journalists and those they write about - politicians, civil servants, business and religious leaders, the voices of civil society.

There are models for such exchange elsewhere in the world, including programmes which permit journalists to spend time working within the institutions they report about.

I could be a bit mischievous here and suggest some possibilities that might result if all the media employees ran the government for a month or two - and all government employees ran the media! But I will resist the temptation.

My serious point is that the media and those it covers could do much more to build bridges of mutual understanding. On the media side, this ought to mean more rigorous research - what I call “anticipatory research” - at the start of the reporting and writing process. Cultivating knowledge is as important as cultivating sources.

But the sources can also do more to help. Off-the-record background briefings, for example, are regular and routine in the West, but they are relatively rare in Africa. Some journalists have difficulty getting responses even to their direct requests. The habit of sharing information is a habit which Africa needs to hone.

Another challenge for African journalism is that we cannot find enough competently educated people.

Good journalism requires the best we can muster in terms of disciplined learning, intelligent analysis, prudent judgment, and nuanced expression. Most particularly, it requires people who can write clear and compelling prose. These are not qualities easily found in any society.

But the problem is particularly severe in Africa. The continent is desperately short of the well educated people it needs, not just in the liberal arts, but in virtually every field.

In an ideal world, journalists would be educated in the nuances of the beats they cover - and new beats which are emerging. Scientific sophistication, economic acumen, political subtlety, legal and medical expertise - all these skills should be present in our newsrooms as matter of course.

There are understandable reasons why this ideal is still not realized. For one thing, journalism has not been seen as a desirable profession. Too many young Africans, for too long, saw the journalist as a mere propagandist. And for many years journalism was a highly dangerous profession. Between 1985 and 1995, 108 journalists were killed in Africa and that risk, while diminishing, is still a reality.

Low compensation levels are another problem. Most African journalists are paid substantially less than those who enter other liberal professions. In addition, the quality of journalism education in Africa has often been deteriorating.

But none of these problems is intractable. I believe that a concerted effort to invest in the quality of African journalism can launch an upward spiral of progress.

There is one other front on which the battle must be waged, however, and it has to do with media owners and managers. Too often, those who set the media agenda see it primarily as a business agenda. Too often the measure of media success is simply financial profit.

I think this attitude is wrong - it often makes for manipulative media, distorting and misleading in a narrow pursuit of readers and ratings.

It means that journalism is subordinated to entertainment, and that the need to inform must yield to the need to please.

Responsible and relevant reporting is NOT the priority in that business model. Instead, the power of the press is used to turn traditional value systems on their heads - to take what is really quite unimportant and to make it seem very important, to take what is trivial and to make it seem titillating. In that context, what is most truly significant must yield to what is most readily saleable.

The damage that can be done by such distorted journalism is especially heavy in Africa, offending African value systems, distracting African energies and mis-serving African development.

Manipulative journalism is not merely a nuisance here - it can have destructive power.

Yet journalism at its best can be a strong pillar in building Africa’s future.

One disadvantage, of being both a media proprietor and a media critic is that one is eventually obliged to follow one’s own advice!

I am pleased to tell you, therefore, that our own Nation Media Group has been taking on these challenges.

Our need for competent journalists has been expanding as we have grown in the last decade from a small newspaper company - publishing daily in one country, into a multi-national, multi-media company, with publications in three countries, along with a growing radio, television and internet presence.

To improve our human resource base, we have been organizing school outreach programs, designed to attract more of the best and brightest students to the profession. We have revamped our compensation systems - and put new emphasis on life-long education and training. And this work continues.

Ladies and gentlemen, one cannot work in international development for nearly fifty years without being optimistic about the potential for human progress.

That outlook, and my connections to this region going back to childhood, allow me to say with confidence that the Promise and Potential of Africa is great. Equally, forty-some years in the African media business have convinced me that the media can play a vital role in the African development story.

Working in partnership with governments, with the private sector and with the institutions of civil society, African media can - I am sure - be a burgeoning source of relevant and responsible information, a reliable locus of competent comment and insight, a constructive and cooperative partner even as it remains a free and independent player, commercially successful at the same time that it is socially responsible.

If that happens, then the African press will indeed be a leading force in fulfilling the Promise and Potential of Africa.