By Francis B. Nyamnjoh*
"The current context of globalization facilitated by the ICTs offers exciting new prospects not only for Cameroonian citizens and journalists to compete and complement one another, but also an opportunity for new solidarities to challenge undemocratic forces, ideologies and practices that stand in the way of social progress in Cameroon and globally."
When Dibussi Tande sent me an email requesting a preface to this collection of essays on politics and collective memory scribbled from his blogging den since 2006, I readily agreed in recognition of the outstanding contributions he has made in promoting the creative appropriation of ICTs by Cameroonian journalists, intellectuals and the blogging public. In three years Dibussi Tande has established himself not only as a leading and award-winning blogger, but also as a critical reviewer of African blogging in a weekly Pambazuka News column titled “Blogging Africa”. As I write this afternoon of March 20th 2009, his blog, Scribbles from the Den, has registered 305,045 page hits.
In collaboration with Emil Mondoa, Dibussi Tande established JimbiMedia in 2004 with the primary objective of using affordable blogging technology to give a solid online presence to powerful African voices – creative people, trendsetters, academics, journalists, etc. – through personal blogs that could easily be updated from any place that had internet connectivity. The simplicity of the platform entails that one does not need more than basic computer skills to be relevant, an aspect critical in contexts where many newsrooms still do not afford computers and the necessary technical sophistication to maximize their use.
In Cameroon where repressive laws and censorship have contributed to stifling freedom of expression and drying out vital sources of meaningful news and information, the press has been reduced to a level of underdevelopment that makes print runs perpetually difficult to predict, and yields little profits beyond what it takes to barely subsist. The result of repression has been a dearth in cultural creativity and production.The JimbiMedia initiative has thus been generally welcomed, particularly by the Anglophone community who have felt politically, economically and culturally marginalized since independence and reunification with their Francophone counterparts.
JimbiMedia has so far created blogs for 4 Cameroonian newspapers, 3 online and print magazines, about 25 intellectuals, and 5 cultural groups and non-profit organizations. It has also created one activist blog, France Watch and a collective blog, Imhotep. JimbiMedia’s main achievement – apart from giving African intellectuals, groups and newspapers a larger audience than they would have ever imagined – is its introduction of the concept of personal websites and blogging to Cameroonians, particularly the Cameroonian Diaspora. JimbiMedia blogs serve as forums for heated and informative discussions about key cultural and socio-political issues of the day. In his blog, Dibussi Tande has focused on social commentary bearing on politics, collective memory and socio-economic developments within Cameroon and of relevance to Anglophone Cameroonians in particular.
If one takes The Post newspaper for example, one sees how a skills inadequacy in the newsroom together with weak telecommunications infrastructure, prompted the paper in 2004 to launch its online version (http://www.postnewsline.com/) in collaboration with JimbiMedia. This version, which primarily targeted a diasporic audience, at the same time as it relied on the expertise and resources in the development and administration of its website, lasted till March 2009 when it was replaced by a more conventional website, after clocking well over 8 million visits. Writing on this experiment in 2005, Lilian Ndangam argued [In Rhodes Journalism Review] that this model of online publishing illustrates the nature and significance of transnational relationships in the diffusion and adoption of online publishing. It simultaneously reflects an alternative transnational practice through which African migrants engage with their home of origin from which they draw culturally to recreate identities in their host cultures. Dibussi Tande has been quite instrumental in this symbiosis, as The Post has regularly fed his Den, just has the Den has fed from The Post.
Both Dibussi’s Den and the other blogs within the JimbiMedia staple are very democratic in their design. Blog owners do not have to rely on a webmaster to update the blog as is the case with standard websites; the reader is not just a passive consumer but an interactive participant who is free to comment any story – usually anonymously – with little or no restriction. The challenges of connectivity posed by low bandwidth and high costs notwithstanding, Anglophone Cameroonians, big and small, at home and in the Diaspora, have over the past five years harnessed the ICTs (digital video, digital photography, interneting, cell-phoning, reporting, SMSing and blogging) in ways indicative of what has been termed ‘citizen journalism’.
Indeed, thanks to innovations in ICT, the structure and content of the conventional state and private media in Cameroon are being challenged and compelled to be more sensitive to cultural diversity and minority interests. The very same innovations facilitate new media cultures and practices through the possibilities they offer radical, alternative, small independent, local, community media and blogs. This is evidenced in the Anglophone Cameroonian journalist’s embrace of the blogging phenomenon as a means of circumventing in-house media gatekeepers and their appropriation of pseudonyms which protect their identity as they challenge hegemonic structures. Through their capacity for flexibility and accessibility, the ICTs that make possible new media, cultural communities hitherto marginalised are better catered for even within the framework of dominance by the global cultural industries. The current advantage being taken of ICTs by cultural communities the world over seeking recognition and representation should be seen in this light, and above all, as an example from which conventional journalism draw.
What is exciting about the JimbiMedia initiatives are the opportunities it provides for “citizen journalism.” I’ve had occasion in the past to criticize mainstream journalism in Africa for being so neatly detached from what is really going on in the ordinary lives of people and how they make news, how they gather news and how they communicate. It is because our journalists, by sticking to Western canons of journalism miss the point of African value added in terms of how people communicate and how they share communication with one another. And Africa has a much richer landscape in this regard that can inform journalism. Before citizen journalism came to the West, you had citizen journalism all over Africa. So, how did the excluded succeed in making news about their experiences and sharing this news among themselves? Today, with ICTs this seems like something new, but if we look at Africa, people have been using ways like ‘radio trottoir’ to obtain information, share it and create possibilities where normal channels were beyond their reach. So citizen journalism through blogging such as Dibussi’s and others promoted by JimbiMedia is something that helps readers overcome an old problem, that of devising and investing in popular forms of communication and blending these with conventional media for the best of society.
Journalism, to be relevant to social consolidation and renewal in Cameroon, must embrace professional and social responsibilities in tune with the collective aspirations of Cameroonians. In a context where economic and political constraints have often hindered the fulfillment of this expectation, the advent and increasing adoption of information and communication technologies (ICTs) offer fascinating new possibilities. While journalists are usually open to new technologies in their work, their practice of journalism has not always capitalized upon the creative ways in which the public they target for and with information adopt, adapt and use the very same technologies. The future for democracy and the relevance of journalism therein would have much to learn from the creative ways in which Cameroonians are currently relating to innovations in ICTs. The same popular creativity that has been largely ignored by conventional journalism in the past is remarkable today all over Cameroon and amongst Cameroonians in the Diaspora. There is abundant evidence that individual Cameroonians and the cultural communities they represent have mostly refused to celebrate victimhood. As we note from the essays in this volume, they seek to harness, within the limits of the structural constraints facing them, whatever possibilities are available to contest and seek inclusion. Hence the need to highlight the importance of blending conventional and citizen journalism through the myriad possibilities offered by ICTs to harness both democracy and its nemesis. The current context of globalization facilitated by the ICTs offers exciting new prospects not only for Cameroonians citizens and journalists to compete and complement one another, but also an opportunity for new solidarities to challenge undemocratic forces, ideologies and practices that stand in the way of social progress in Cameroon and globally.
The lessons for Cameroonian journalism of such creative appropriation processes underway are obvious. Comprehending the overall development, usage and application of ICTs within African social spaces would take the fusion of keen observation and complex analysis to capture structural, gendered, class, generational, racial and spatial dimensions of the phenomenon. A dialectical interrogation of the processes involved promises a more accurate grasp of the linkages than would impressionistic, linear and prescriptive narratives of technological determinism. Technologies are always shaped by the socio-economic, political and cultural forces at play in society. Power relations mean that access and content are often determined by forces independent of a given technology. For journalists therefore to effectively play a central role, there is need to understand the structural constraints to the empowerment of ordinary Cameroonians and their various communities, and to bringing about an enabling environment for ICT driven-journalism and development in the country.
If Cameroon journalism pays closer attention to the creative usages of ICTs by ordinary Cameroonians, Cameroon journalists could begin to think less of professional journalism in the conventional sense, and more of seeking ways to blend the information and communication cultures of the general public with their conventional canon and practices, to give birth to a conventional-cum-citizen journalism that is of greater relevance to Cameroon and its predicaments. Dibussi Tande, in this collection, shares with us a bumper harvest of essays that are instructive on how we could begin to go about the process of harnessing blogging and the ICTs in the interest of positive social change in Cameroon.
*Francis B. Nyamnjoh is a Professor of Anthropology, University of Cape Town, South Africa. This is the foreword that he wrote for Dibussi Tande’s recently published collection of blog posts titled Scribbles from the Den: Essays on Politics and Collective Memory in Cameroon (Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa RPCIG, May 2009. 232 pages. Available from amazon.com and African Books Collective).