When you have to choose between buying food for your family and purchasing a newspaper, the choice is simple.
Demonstrators picket Media24 offices in Johannesburg in 2014 to protest against media's profiteering practices
If you live in Africa, the type and amount of media you get largely depends on where you live, which languages you speak and how much money you have. Many people, particularly the poor, have little or no choice about the media they receive.
The reality of unequal media access is a mirror of the overall inequality of African societies. In cities across the continent, shopping malls and supermarkets are mushrooming, suggesting that purchasing power is increasing. But that is only true for a small part of the population. Most Africans are poor and their choices are limited.
While expensive private health care and education is open to the wealthy, the poor rely on state-funded, basic services. It's no different with the media. A small, middle class can choose from a variety of media; the poor make do with what they can access cheaply or for free. Corporate media outlets, like other private services, often exclude the poor.
Private and corporate media flourish all over the continent but are consumed by a minority middle-class audience that has the expendable income to pay for it.
Unaffordable and out of reach
Street in rural Lesotho
In Ghana, a newspaper costs nearly half of the daily minimum wage. In Kenya, the price of a paper is higher than a packet of milk. Many poor cannot afford such a 'luxury' item.
In addition, mainstream newspapers are mostly distributed in urban areas, out of reach of those in rural areas. In Botswana, 70 percent of newspaper sales are within 100 km of the capital, Gaborone.
Commercial radio and TV have mushroomed over the last decades – but again, access depends on where you live. These stations focus on urban areas and are often inaccessible to rural audiences, which form a sizable part of the population.
They also broadcast mainly in the languages spoken by the former colonial powers, so people rarely receive media in their native tongues.
Reception is hampered by a lack of electricity in many countries. In Zambia, around three percent of the rural population is connected to the electricity grid. In Uganda, it's four percent.
Private media coverage often reflects the interests of the middle-class audience. Stories about poor communities and their struggles are rarely reported on. The result is a lack of a diversity of voices, opinions and worldviews.
The perils of concentration
When a small handful of companies own most of the media, two things tend to happen: access to the media becomes expensive and a certain uniformity sets in, in that the same story may be featured across outlets owned by the same company. Diversity of content suffers.
In many African countries, the media market is highly concentrated with a few prominent players dominating each sector. Often, leaders in the print sector expand into radio and television. Radio owners with substantial capital buy out smaller competitors.
That means people on the ground have a lot less choice.
Research conducted by the Media Policy and Democracy Project in South Africa paints a dire, yet predictable picture of media in the country. The overall market is monopolized and each media sector is dominated by a few companies. For the poor, media content is almost entirely dominated by one outlet – the state-run, public-service broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).
The predominance of state-run broadcasters is similar all over the African continent. And the media outlets which run crucial exposés or publish investigative stories by brave journalists rarely reach the majority. Most people only see and hear the perspectives from state-run and state-influenced outlets.
Can online and community media fill the gap?
Independent online media thrives in Africa. In South Africa, blogs and news websites can be quite different in tone and coverage than corporate or state-run media. News sites such as groundup.org.za, thedailyvox.co.za or the dailymaverick.co.za adopt a more grassroots perspective to reporting and run stories more relevant to the interests of the South African poor.
Access to this content is free, but only for those who can pay for Internet data.
In Kenya, data comes at a price: unlimited monthly access costs 3,000 Kenyan shillings (26 euro) which is the same as a pair of jeans. Research published by the South African LINK Centre at the University of Witwatersrand shows that in poorer communities, people often have to choose between buying food and paying for data packages. When the cost of data is high, they're likely to use it for low-cost social media services, not downloading news articles.
Community media, such as community radio stations, are mushrooming in many African countries but they struggle to survive. Most rely on limited advertising revenue and frequently face political interference. Large media corporates often deliberately force community media outlets out of business.
Media diversity is important to society because access to a wide variety of opinions, ideas and worldviews is fundamental to the formation of individuals' views on society and politics. This is essential to democracy.
Therefore, if Africans are to be informed participants in their society, access to a wide range of good quality media is vital. It is crucial for access to media be easy and affordable, and the media to be in languages people speak. The predominance of media conglomerates and their emphasis on their own commercial interests form a high wall between the poor and everything that the media has to offer.
Julie Reid is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Communication Science at the University of South Africa and a project leader for the Media Policy & Democracy Project.
This article originally appeared ORIGINAL LINK as part of African Free Press – a collection of 40 essays by African journalists and media experts exploring the current state of media freedom in Africa. African Free Press, an online dossier and special edition newspaper, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, a landmark statement of free press principles adopted during a UNESCO seminar on promoting an independent and pluralistic African press. African Free Press is a project of the Media Institute of Southern Africa and supported by DW Akademie.
The original article was published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license and has been adapted for publication on #mediadev.