This contribution focuses on innovative media productions as a mode of political engagement for young people in the Republic of Benin (West Africa). The chapter explores, from a sociological perspective, the potential agency they stand to gain from their daily engagement with communication media, and argues that their popular recognition is linked both to their political credibility and their creativity as well as ability to continually forge close relationships with their audiences. Meanwhile, they are also promoting novel media genres that are triggering debates on pertinent societal issues and convey information. The careers of these young media professionals often entail a parallel process of enhancing their capacities while coping with the daily structural (censorship, low salaries) and technical challenges. The chapter1 links up to recent studies on youth and political engagement and new media actors in sub-Saharan Africa.2
Changing Media and Communication Spaces in the Republic of Benin
At the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, many West African states witnessed new waves of public protests against governments in Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. In particular, the events in Burkina Faso, the rebellion that led to the demise of the semi-authoritarian regime of Compaoré,
Actually, there are several, often competing concepts of youth in African studies. Most of these purposely relativize ‘hard’ facts such as biological age, biological puberty or maturity, and rather focus on social and / or political factors determining youth as a social status contingent on their particular positioning and perceptions of them by society; perspectives still differ with respect to the main criteria for the category of ‘youth’. Many classical anthropological studies hint at local classifications based on age-stratification, often induced by rites of passage. These tend to be even more complex when assigning age-cohorts and age-groups that continue to structure either male or female populations in later life-stages and may also become politically relevant. A strong reference to local (emic) categories certainly represents those visions that simply distinguish non-married people from those who are married with children. Other, more sociologically minded perspectives focus on people’s social positioning in society with regard, principally, to the factors
Before analyzing the role of young media producers in the Republic of Benin more thoroughly, I would like to sketch the general situation of media in the country. As a former French colony, Benin gained independence as the Republic of Dahomey in 1960. The country was marked by a period of political instability with several coups d’état from 1960 to 1972, and a longer socialist period between 1972 and 1990, which was characterized by a dictatorial system. In 1990, a national conference opened the way for a more democratic political structure and set the stage for considerable media liberalization, terminating the monopoly of the central state and its broadcasting house ortb (Office de Radiodiffusion et Télévision du Bénin); this subsequently led to new state-independent newspapers and rural radio stations (Grätz 2003). In 1997, a new media law also enabled the establishment of independent radio and tv stations (Carlos and Djogbénou 2005; Grätz 2009, 2014b). These are generally
Investigating the social history of the media field in Benin, we may distinguish four generations (as conceptualized by Karl Mannheim 1952, see Parnes, Vedder and Willer 2008) of active contributors. The first generation comprises those media pioneers working in press houses established in colonial times, especially as part of the colonial administrative service targeting expatriate audiences. These people often came from typical literate professions, working as teachers, pastors, translators or clerks. Some of them began to publish the first independent journals on political activities during the decolonization period. The second generation is related to the expansion of the state-owned broadcasting and press system in the mid-seventies. This cohort is associated with the establishment of larger tv and radio broadcasting houses in Cotonou and regional services in Parakou (after 1983), as well as the broader nationwide distribution of the governmental press, triggering the need for a greater number of media specialists who were trained at supra-regional educational institutions abroad.4 This generation includes journalists working as permanent state agents. The socialist period helped to enhance the corpus of journalists by extending media services, but hampered conditions for free and critical journalism against the backdrop of propaganda politics. The third generation consists of all those journalists and media professionals who emerged immediately after the political changes in 1990 and the increase in press freedom. The press sector in particular experienced a veritable boom; today there are up to 100 journals and newspapers. Members of this third generation often started their careers with one of the early independent journals, including student newspapers. Most journalists from this group, who often possess a high level of formal education, came from other fields outside journalism. They were trained on the job and / or in subsequent intensive training courses.
The fourth and contemporary generation of media professionals capitalizes on a multiplicity of emergent options in the field of media and the
Working as an emergent media professional in one of the state-independent institutions generally does not pay well. Salaries are low (between 50 and 200 Euro a month) and working conditions are bad, particularly because extra allowance is usually not provided for the production of features and the coverage of events. Consequently, many of these media professionals hold side jobs: either as mcs at private or public events, in the ad business, or as teachers or clerks at municipal offices. Technicians often run workshops at home, or offer technical assistance at private parties or public events. Many young journalists work simultaneously as presenters, journalists, technicians, djs, editors or pr officers for several media outlets. These struggles nevertheless keep them in close touch with various potential audiences and offer them substantial insight into the daily hustle of various parts of the public that inevitably shapes their methods of producing media content. In addition, per diem payments from one of the numerous workshops or conferences which media professionals are often invited to as ‘social multipliers’, are seductive additional revenues. These are supplemented by money for expenses journalists may receive for covering a particular event, meeting, opening ceremony and so on.5
Individual pathways to media engagement in the media field are quite diverse. They range, for instance, from successful editors and radio presenters with impressive careers to débrouillards (‘those muddling through’) struggling as permanent interns.
Aristide Balaro, 34, finished high school and studied agriculture at the University of Abomey-Calavi. He then entered the media business through an internship at the state broadcaster ortb and worked with the youth Radio Ado 3s, both in Cotonou. Furthermore, he was employed for a year by the newspaper Le Matinal. Subsequently, he attended a three-month media-training program offered by Ado’s Canadian partner ngo, and specialized in radio production and documentary film. Today, he works simultaneously with Ado 3S, hosting two shows – a quiz show and a business magazine presenting young entrepreneurs – while also lending himself to help the station’s management in training interns. In addition, he works as a freelance documentary
In some cases, young media professionals succeed in gaining a formal position at the state broadcaster ortb where they expected a greater financial security, but are often hampered in their activities.6
Despite a general openness of the media system and its growing plurality, a free and bold development of media and journalism in Benin is still disadvantaged by various constraints that are limiting unhampered activity of journalists in the country. These may comprise legal-institutional and structural-economic aspects, direct and indirect modes of censorship, professional attitudes and self-censorship, and finally the general relevance of media in everyday life in Benin.
On the first level, we have to look at the conditions that enable journalists to establish media outlets. To found a newspaper is rather easy, but radio and tv stations as electronic media are licensed by the haac only periodically after a call for applications along with procedures for assessing the documents. This procedure is, however, not always a guarantee of success. In 2008, the haac was in fact already licensing various new electronic media, including local radio stations, but the Ministry of Information refused the final signature because of technical reasons. Broadcasting frequencies are, in fact, not available to an unlimited extent, but in this case, the argument was played out at a moment when the president was not in favour of radio stations run by people or groups distant to his regime.
Secondly, once a media outlet is established, its daily survival is difficult to assure. In the case of newspapers and journals, which derive their budget from sales of their publications or from subscribers only to a very limited extent, sponsors, either from political parties or individual politicians or
Censorship in Benin includes a wide array of interventions and measures designed to shape the activity of journalists, including more direct interventions, such as lawsuits against media outlets or journalists, as well as indirect strategies like intimidating phone calls or bribing critical journalists to tame their output. In this regard, the country witnessed a certain shift of modes of censorship to more indirect modes of soft censorship (Podesta 2012) especially after president Yayi Boni was in power between 2006 and 2016 (Grätz 2015).
The role of the supreme media board, haac (Adjovi 2003a), has been, across its different mandates, a very ambiguous one. On the one hand, it helps to increase the standards of media production and assumes a necessary watchdog position to confront media professionals over any abuses of media. On the other, it does not apply the same standards to governmental media, above all the tv department of the ortb. In addition to that, many of its decisions seem to be quite severe and overdone, such as the closing of media outlets. Conversely, most journalists are themselves aware of the need to sanitize their profession, especially to reduce incorrect or commissioned information. Here, the journalist associations are trying to point to any abuse of media while offering training sessions and workshops to enhance the professional abilities of their colleagues.
Skills and Strategies of Media Production: The Case of Radio in Benin
In the following, I examine more precisely the activities of the young radio producers in Benin whom I was able to follow more intensively (Grätz 2014b). Radio is still the most important electronic mass media in the country. Although television is growing in its importance, with four local channels currently available, about 80 radio broadcasters are operating across the country, especially in the major urban areas such as Cotonou and Parakou. These metropolises thus offer listeners the opportunity to choose between various stations and multifaceted program schedules, including information, entertainment, advice and announcements. However, most radio stations remain underequipped, thus facing a multitude of daily challenges of a technical
On the basis of my field work data, we may discern four main factors upon which the attainment of young radio producers in Benin rests: firstly, working in an enabling environment, that is, in a radio station with less structured professional hierarchies, a large spectrum of broadcasting formats, with guidance and solidarity among colleagues and an openness to newcomers; secondly, personal creativity and skills in the development of successful genres and styles of presentations, and an apt appropriation and adaptation of media technologies; thirdly, a sensitivity to current topics and the opinions and information needs of their listeners; and finally, the maintenance of close relationships with listeners and colleagues both on and off air.
The most important aspects are certainly their skills, creativity and professional strategies. These range from informal reporting strategies to presenters’ particular rhetorical styles. Some are especially skilled in employing narrative styles such as proverbs in culture-related broadcasts, and also in their personal style of talking to and chatting with listeners who frequently evaluate a presenter according to his or her unique abilities to ‘talk the right way’, that is, to use the appropriate local vernacular. Evaluations of correct language hinge on adeptness in discussions of politics or issues of development, on the usage of appropriate neologisms, and presenters’ abilities to play with allusions. Furthermore, they need to know how to gain information when covering events or reporting from public life.
Young radio journalists and presenters try to avoid defamations, false allegations and rumour-mongering as much as possible in their productions. They try, however, always to enhance their room to manoeuvre in promoting critical debates and information. Most radio presenters usually maintain a large network of friends and acquaintances and use these connections to improve their shows by adding relevant information and news, or to gain access to interesting studio guests. In some cases, journalists prefer to keep their information at a semi-official or informal level, in order to retain the potential to publish it at an appropriate moment. An important aspect is the ability to cope with technological challenges caused by inappropriate or defective devices, power cuts or climatic conditions.
Berepa, a presenter from the community Radio Nanto fm in Natitingou, was caught in the crossfire in early 2011 after inviting both a representative of the state and one from the opposition to a studio discussion that revolved around the issue of the 2011 Benin NATIONALDAY festivities planned to take place in Natitingou. Callers complained of various(Interview in Natitingou, March 2012).
unfinished but promised infrastructural projects, and questioned the overall non-transparent budget for the event. The studio guest Kassa Mampo, President of the comité de développement de Natitingou and former member of the communist party and an opponent to all political regimes since, was particularly vocal about the issue of bad municipal governance. The debate very much fuelled the ongoing discussion and rumours in town. A rally took place on one of the preceding days with participants demanding more information regarding these issues. That demonstration in May 2011 was initially forbidden and subsequently dissolved by the police – causing altercations between police forces and citizens and the death of a young man. In the course of the inquiries about this incident, Berepa and the station’s director were called to report at the police station. They were issued a warning to avoid giving voice to oppositional positions. Simultaneously, Kassa Mampo was arrested and accused of being the principal instigator of the turmoil; he remains in jail.
The competition between radio stations, but also the desire to reach a larger audience and to convey political information, encourages a number of young radio presenters to develop new broadcasting formats: for example, inciting listeners to intervene in political debates. These may revolve around particular topics, or feature discussions with an eminent studio guest. People may phone in to convey their opinion or discuss the guest. This is especially the case with political talk shows, which are usually aired on Friday night or Sunday morning. Meanwhile, similar interactive debates are offered nationwide and in different languages. The most prominent shows of this type often become the topic of press coverage thereafter.
Another example is a type of radio program called grogne. Almost all radio listeners in Benin associate this term, which means ‘expressing anger’, with
A central concern for many in the field of media – and especially for media authorities such as the HAAC – has, almost inevitably, become that of the veracity of individual statements. Furthermore, debates have arisen around methods of avoiding abuse, addressing potential slander and simultaneously guaranteeing the freedom of expression of the callers, and the right of others to refute their statements. These shows have often been suspended by the haac but later resumed because of listeners’ and media professionals’ protests. Currently, debates continue to rage around the potential political misuses of such shows. The haac, together with representatives of journalists and media owners, decided in 2005 to interrupt these potentially politically charged radio programmes during periods of election campaigns (starting with the presidential elections in early 2006), in order to avoid misuse by individual politicians. Because of similar derogatory statements, most hosts of
Another quite telling example of a new media genre promoted by young media professionals was the success of a political comedy production performed by a group of young people hosted by Radio Planète in Cotonou under the title Bébête infos in which politicians and other personalities were imitated, in particular the President Kérékou and his political friends before 2006. It was successfully sold as a cassette series and later appeared on cd. Several young radio presenters (capitalizing on previous experiences in high school theatre companies) and the young station director, Yahouédéhou, who all also assumed roles in recording the show, prepared the scripts.
Finally, the acknowledgement of young radio producers in Benin depends on their day-to-day relationships with their active audiences, and a mutual closeness they may develop both in the physical and virtual world. With regards to the first aspect, people often recognize them in public, greet them, share their observations and critiques on the station’s programs, may sometimes invite radio personalities for a chat over a beer, or even to a private party at home. Conversely, radio professionals rely on their intense contacts to the listeners when recruiting studio guests or when collecting background information for news coverage. Young radio presenters of one of the new independent and community broadcasters are especially likely to engage in constant interactions with their audiences through their presence at local events, when reporting live or interviewing people ... or by feedings news to WhatsApp groups. Many presenters are supported by show-specific fan-clubs that often provide them with critical assistance and even financial help. Some of the younger, enthusiastic members of these clubs may one day eventually become radio producers themselves, after internships and the improvement of their talents.
To meet the expectations of their listeners, most young radio personalities purposely try to offer a wide range of very practical information. This does not only include health advice, announcements regarding public or personal events, services such as lost and found announcements, press reviews in several languages, and overviews on commodity prices, but also expands to include job offers that may even constitute the central topic of a whole program (e.g. Planète Emploi, Radio Planète, Cotonou) and services dealing with lost children.
As I have argued earlier, media-induced closeness is not only the result of a cultural and spatial proximity of radio production; individuals relate through the personal, intimate experience of listening to the radio. In this regard, interactive radio shows in particular may establish direct contacts between presenters and listeners. Encouraged by the boom in mobile phone usage and call-in shows such as grogne matinal, quiz and request shows are gaining in popularity. A very successful type of show is a call-in format discussing personal and intimate problems that addresses very sensitive issues like love, jealousy, adultery, divorce, infertility and conflicts between generations (see Grätz 2014a). The success of these programs accompanied the proliferation of independent radio stations.
It is primarily the new generation of radio presenters that is able to produce these programs that are very relevant to the advance of society, with an appeal to listeners. Despite their fragmented periods of job training, this nascent generation keeps content riveting without succumbing to the superficial or sensational, engaging in radio production both as a vocation and with a pleasure that guarantees their success. The appropriation of radio technology should thus be seen as a dialogic process between listeners and producers that blurs boundaries between these categories, especially during call-in shows. The main actors in these technological dramas are skilled young media professionals, particularly the currently rising radio journalists, acting as new cultural creators, that is, as mediators and translators at the interface of different realms of interest.
Working as a young media producer may be one moment in life that is simultaneously filled with changes and options, but also with compromises and haphazard situations. The fact that a job in the media field is rarely well-paid may contribute to the tarnished reputation of the profession. In this respect, the young generation of media professionals shares a similar position when compared to other educated urban young adults with precarious yet diverse job opportunities, revenues and activities. Young emergent media professionals in West Africa are striving to find new avenues for public communication. Competing with each other for public attention, they feature, nevertheless, a high degree of solidarity, especially when it comes to the exchange of news and job opportunities.
My account focused on young media producers in the Republic of Benin who have contributed to the creation of new communication spaces in that
My case study underlines a process in which today’s youth in Africa may both fall under the constraints of a liberalized, volatile economy, yet creatively seize some of its opportunities to gain recognition and enhance their political commitment. Young media professionals in Benin are part of an aspiring, still precariously situated urban youth who appropriate public spaces in constructing new realms of political agency.
BiayaTshikala. 2005. “Youth & Street Culture in Urban Africa. Addis Ababa, Dakar & Kinshasa.” In Makers & breakers. Children & youth in postcolonial Africa edited by AlcindaHonwana and Filip D.Boeck215–228. Oxford, Trenton, N.J, Dakar, Senegal: James Currey; Codesria.
Fieldwork was carried out in Benin from November 2008 to March 2014, funded by the DFG (cf. Grätz 2014b), mainly based on social-anthropological methods of media research (Peterson 2003, Bird 2010, Grätz 2015b) including long-term field work, participant observation, in-depth interviews and media content analysis.
Media production in Africa has recently received more intensified scholarly attention from social and cultural anthropology as well as from African studies; see Beck and Wittmann (2004), Wasserman (2011), Grätz (2011), Gunner, Ligaga and Moyo (2011) or Krings and Reuster-Jahn (2014).
The last attribution of frequencies was issued in 2013.
A proper curriculum on journalism has been established only recently, at university level and at the private Media College ISMA (Institut Supérieur des Métiers de l’Audiovisuel) in Cotonou. Most active presenters and technicians, often possessing a degree in other subjects, were trained on the job, across various internships with different media, seminars and training courses offered by NGO or private institutions.
Here entailing private / commercial, community / associative and religious broadcasters.
The young TV journalist Expedit Ologoun, for example, started to present a morning show at ORTB TV, featuring political debates with studio guests. The often critical positions taken towards the government caused the program to be suspended. The current Talon government, instead, helped and promoted Ologoun to become a leading Media Director.