In Text-Message Reporting, Opportunity and Risk

Using their cell phones, Africans are avid consumers of electronic information. For reporters, text messaging is an essential tool. It’s a brave (and risky) new world. 

By Tom Rhodes


As votes in the Kenyan presidential election were being counted in precincts nationwide, reporters were relaying the tallies by text message back to newsrooms in Nairobi. The count, which was in turn updated regularly online and in other media, appeared to show opposition candidate Raila Odinga pulling away to a historic victory.

But when the official results were announced two days later, on December 29, 2007, the verdict was shocking: Incumbent Mwai Kibaki was the winner. International election monitors would later find fraud in the national vote counting, something Kenyans sensed from the earliest moments, thanks to the early poll reports from journalists using cell phone-based SMS, or short message service.

This powerful communication tool would soon prove both boon and bane as the country struggled through ethnic rioting that claimed hundreds of lives. Text-message reporting would circumvent government censorship and cast an important spotlight on the violence–even as many SMS users spread vitriol and threats across the landscape.

“New information technology is a mixed bag of blessings,” said Catherine Gicheru, editor of the daily Nairobi Star. “It definitely helped in the election coverage: You could be told in real time election results in far-off, remote constituencies. But the fact that anyone can send information to millions of people can also be dangerous, such as the mass hate messages sent by mobile phones.”

Across the continent, text messaging has become an important and commonly used reporting tool. Though Internet access via personal computer remains rare, Africans are robust consumers of electronic information through their cell phones. Opportunity and risk lie ahead.

Internet penetration in Africa is less than 4 percent, with broadband access under 1 percent, according to a 2007 BBC report. Nonetheless, advances in information technology have had an incredible impact on African media. Over the past decade, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report said, the number of cell phone users in Africa has grown twice as quickly as anywhere else in the world. MIT estimated the number of users in Africa jumped from 63 million in 2004 to 152 million in 2006. Even in tiny Rwanda, cell phone industry revenue is expected to reach $1 billion by 2012, said the country’s technology minister, Romain Murenzi. In a continent with a dearth of personal computers, the cell phone is the way that most people get connected.

“The mobile phone in Africa represents the opportunity for ordinary people to have a voice, and it adds a level of transparency to issues that was simply not available to everyday Africans in the past,” said Erik Hersman, a Kenya-based Web developer and technology blogger. “The ramifications of this foundational shift are just now rippling across the continent.”

Cell phones have been used in reporting all over the world for many years, but in Africa they have particular importance. African journalists use texting to overcome significant obstacles–including poor or nonexistent land lines, roads, and computer access that would prevent them from interviewing people, collecting information, filing stories, or just passing along notes to colleagues.

But the same technology that benefits journalists can undermine the profession. Text messaging can be used easily to threaten and intimidate reporters, as happened time and again after the Kenyan election. Because technology allows everyone to spread information easily and quickly, it has opened the door to unprofessional and unethical practices. The mere dissemination of information and opinion is not in itself journalism.

In Kenya, after the official presidential results triggered immediate violence, the government took a traditional step toward clamping down on news media: It banned live coverage and commentary on broadcast outlets. The ban created a real-time information void that was filled, for good and ill, by text messages and blogs.

Citizen journalists such as Ory Okolloh, a lawyer and blogger, drew from text-message reports to help create a valuable Web site that mapped violence and peace efforts across the country. Other bloggers used real-time updates sent via text message to report violent episodes well before the traditional media. Within a week, widespread ethnic rioting had led to the deaths of 600 Kenyans and the displacement of 250,000 others, according to U.N. estimates.

Text messaging and blogging had a powerful negative effect as well: Many used the technology to spread unfounded rumors, intolerance, and fear. (And those with high-end phones could use group functions to send text messages to a number of people at a time.) Writing for the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Joshua Goldstein and Julianna Rotich observed that “digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, were a catalyst to both predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and to behavior such as citizen journalism and human rights campaigns.”

In Africa, nearly every discussion about the real-time dissemination of information and opinion is tinged by the memory of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The inflammatory broadcasts of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines  helped incite and orchestrate ethnic violence that led to the killings of up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. There are major differences between those infamous broadcasts and the text messages of today, of course, but the specter hangs over each hate-filled SMS comment.

Though many Kenyans used text messages and blogs to urge a peaceful resolution during the post-election crisis, others encouraged violence. “We have to claim back what rightfully belongs to us. It has come to an eye for an eye, fist for a fist,” one Kenyan blogger wrote, urging ethnic Kalenjins to fight the Kikuyu, the tribe of President Kibaki. Journalists, particularly those seen as critics of Kibaki, received a torrent of text-message threats. Those targeted included senior editors and reporters from the Standard Group and the Nation Group, said press advocate David Makali, referring to the country’s two largest media companies.

CPJ has documented dozens of text-message threats made against journalists across the continent. Some of the worst cases have been reported in Somalia, a country torn by years of conflict. “When the phone screen says ‘private number,’ I don’t answer,” said Mustapha Haji, a veteran Mogadishu journalist and director of Radio Simba. “It means someone is calling to [say they will] assassinate you.”

Despite the risks, many African news managers say they believe they must embrace cell phone technology to collect and disseminate news.

In May, the AfricaNews Web site launched a project in which its staffers use phones enabled with GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) to send text, image, and video files. AfricaNews reporters shot video in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, just after the presidential election runoff, Editor Olivier Nyirubugara told CPJ.

“The advantage of the method is that the journalists don’t have to go to cyber- cafés, which are under surveillance, and they can film without drawing too much attention,” Nyirubugara said. That’s an important advantage in nations such as Zimbabwe. Reporting there was extraordinarily difficult during two rounds of presidential balloting between March and June. Zimbabwean police and security officers jailed at least 16 journalists and media support workers, according to CPJ research, and harassed or obstructed at least 23 other members of the press.

SW Radio, a London-based station that broadcasts into Zimbabwe via shortwave, found that the government had begun sporadic blocking of its signal in 2007, founder Gerry Jackson told CPJ. So SW Radio turned to a new model: It started sending SMS-based news alerts to nearly 30,000 subscribers in Zimbabwe. “The text messages definitely helped inform voters during the election period,” said Jackson who, like her staffers, is an exiled Zimbabwean journalist. “It also kept hope alive during that terrible post-election time when Mugabe unleashed such appalling violence … and we named and shamed when we knew exactly who was perpetrating violence in particular areas.”

Across the continent, traditional media companies are incorporating cell technology into their news presentations. Kenya’s Nation Media Group has already launched a cell phone news system. One of Nigeria’s leading private dailies, The Punch, is planning to start a specially formatted news presentation for mobile phone subscribers, Steve Ayorinde, the editor-in-chief, told CPJ.

Information is reaching more people more quickly, that is clear. Journalists are able to access the once inaccessible and send reports almost instantly. There are many risks and multiple potential traps, but the net result may be a richer, more diverse media culture. “Africans have traditionally relied on the foreign press for their own country’s news,” said Charles Luganya, editor of the independent South Sudan newspaper The Juba Post. Luganya’s staffers now use cell phones and text messaging regularly to relay news from remote locations that would have defied reporting only three years ago. Looking ahead, Luganya said, new technology could enable more Africans to get more news about their home from fellow Africans.

Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, reported on the Zimbabwe election from South Africa.

AFRICA: Regional Analysis
In Text-Message Reporting, Opportunity and Risk

AFRICA: Country Summaries

Cameroon Rwanda
Democratic Republic
of Congo
Ethiopia Somalia
Kenya Uganda
Niger Zimbabwe
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