Nairobi, Kenya, 22 May 2005 - His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of the Ismaili Muslims and founder of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) today emphasised the importance of both press freedom and excellence in journalism in order to help build Africa’s future.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress and 54th General Assembly held in Kenya, the Aga Khan stressed the need for journalists to acquire deeper and broader knowledge of new and complex issues that confront Africa.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Underlining the need to better understand the implications for African countries of scientific progress in the 21st century, the Aga Khan cited the example of breakthroughs in stem-cell research, which have the potential to transform approaches to personal and public health. Likewise, the revolution in bio-engineering promises to change rural societies, just as new information technologies can transform education throughout Africa – including the most remote areas.
“I believe the best journalists are not those who think they know everything,” he said, “but those who are wise enough to know what they do not know. Excellence in journalism stems not from arrogant judgementalism but from intellectual humility.”
The Aga Khan pointed out that the IPI had raised concerns in its annual report on the erosion of press freedom in some African countries. “Respect for press freedom,” he said, “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 Congo, the Sudan,” he said. “But when we welcome diversity, we sow the seeds of stability and progress.”
The Aga Khan stressed the need to increase dialogue and communication among journalists and “the voices of civil society” namely, politicians, civil servants, business and religious leaders. He said that governments should place more emphasis on providing information to journalists to help them better understand policy issues. Background briefings are common in the West, but rare in Africa.
Several challenges have hindered the development of the profession of journalism in Africa: the lack of well educated people; the fact that journalism had not been seen as a desirable profession, and that journalists, particularly in Africa, are less well compensated than those who enter other liberal professions.
The Aga Khan said that these problems are not intractable. “I believe that a concerted effort to invest in the quality of African journalism can launch an upward spiral of progress,” he said, urging media owners and managers to be more conscious of the quality of journalism rather than being solely profit oriented.
“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,” he stated. “The damage that can be done by such distorted journalism is especially heavy in Africa, offending African value systems, distracting energies and mis-serving African development.”
The Aga Khan was speaking at the opening ceremony of the four-day media conference which brought together an audience of over 300 media owners, managers and professionals from around the world. The conference was officially opened by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki.
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The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a group of private, non-denominational development agencies whose mandates range from the fields of health and education to architecture, culture, rural development and the promotion of private-sector enterprise. Its agencies and institutions, working together, seek to empower communities and individuals, often in disadvantaged circumstances, to improve living conditions and opportunities, especially in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central Asia and the Middle East.
In Kenya, the AKDN operates a breadth of activities in the education, health and economic development sectors. It manages 13 schools and one university, and its three hospitals treat no fewer than one million patients annually. The Nation Media Group, also part of the AKDN, was established in 1960. Today, the Group has six principal divisions, and also operate radio and television stations and national newspapers in East Africa.