The media at the 5th Nile Basin Forum
At the end of October I attended the Nile Basin Development Forum (NBDF) in Kigali, the bi-annual event organised by the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) bringing together water professionals, policy makers, researchers, international institutions, NGOs, and journalists to discuss the status of the Nile and to promote transboundary water cooperation. It was my first time at the NBDF, and I got surprised by the attention devoted to the media. The opening speeches by representatives of the hosting government – Rwanda – , the NBI and its donors – Germany and the World Bank – was immediately followed by a long and participated ceremony celebrating the Nile Media Awards. Journalists from different Nile basin countries got awarded for their TV, radio, and press (both printed and online) reports. Here‘s the NBI press release with the list of the winners. Fredrick Mugira, coordinator of Water Journalist Africa – our partner in the project Open Water Diplomacy – awarded the prize to Bassem Abo Alabass, the winner in the category “digital” for this article on the egyptian Ahram online. Congratulations to Bassem and to all the other winners! We are looking forward to host their stories on the geojournalism platform InfoNile.
The winners of the Nile Media Awards (credits: Nile Basin Initiative)
The Nile Media Awards ceremony was opened and closed by the Nile Project, a collective of musicians from different Nile countries using music to generate curiosity about the Nile and spark debate on the distribution of its waters. After enjoying the awards and the dancing, I begun asking myself the reasons behind all this cherishing and debating about media. In the past months both Egypt and Ethiopia have been under state of emergency. In many Nile basin countries, limits to freedom of expression have become the normality, particularly when it comes to issues like the Nile, considered of “national security” and therefore closed to open public scrutiny and debate.
So how shall we interpret all that attention to the media at the NBDF? Is this a way to better control the journalists and to co-opt them in disseminating the official discourse of national governments or international institutions? Are the media able to set the agenda of international politics on the Nile, the so called CNN effect, after the role that global news TV outlet played in stirring the international response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq?
The famous broadcast of President Morsi’s meeting with Egyptian political leaders openly discussing the option of attacking the site of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a telling example of the role media can play in exacerbating conflicts and tension around transboundary waters. Indeed scholars refer to the media as an influential actor in shaping transboundary water politics. For instance Hussam Hussein and Mattia Grandi argue that “the media headlines contributed to securitize the Nile waters management and the hydropolitical relations between Egypt and Ethiopia” (Hussein and Grandi 2017). But how does this process unfold? Or Mark Zeitoun and Naho Mirumachi affirm that “the view that water is an increasingly likely source of violent conflict appears to be part of a very broad and pervasive mindset, perpetuated in part by sensationalist media pieces” (Zeitoun and Mirumachi 2008). How media contribute to influence such mindset? And what’s the role that scientific communication or epistemic communities play in this process?
In fact, in the plenary and panels sessions of the NBDF there were several references to “the impact of negative or inaccurate media reporting”, as well as many discussions about the need to ground the decision making process on “facts instead of perceptions” (…or emotions, or opinions). With the idea that science accounts and represent the former – facts – while media tend to spread the latter – perceptions, emotions, or opinions. This assumption overlooks the fact that there is not just one science, rather a scientific debate, and that science does not simply describe facts but can actively contribute to manifacture reality. Therefore I think that we should also ask the question which scientific knowledge and disciplines are summoned in media debates to present or counter hegemonic discourses over the Nile?
The media are increasingly targeted by several international institutions (NBI, SIWI, IWMI, Media in Cooperation & Transition,…) offering training for journalists on water related issues. Could the attention devoted to media at the NBI be also explained by the attemp to educate journalists to report technical information and scientific data in a more accurate way? How does the relation between media and science unfold in such endeavour? I believe that we can learn from what is happening in the field of climate change, where the role of media in disseminating fake news, conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” has been hihgly debated and studied. Luckily there are also good practices. This report on “The Uninhabitable Earth” (we always focus on journalists but maybe we should may more attention to the editors who make the titles…) published last summer by the New York Magazine and later edited in an annotated version incorporating and addressing comments raised by several scientists, represents a meaningful example of dialogic conversation pointing at the complexity and uncertainity of socio-natural problems.
We are preparing a surprise to further discuss all these interesting questions, and hopefully to find some answers. Stay tuned on the NileWaterLab!