The Experience of IPS in Developing Telematics for Media in Africa, Peter da Costa

The Experience of IPS in Developing Telematics for Media in Africa,

by Peter da Costa

Democratising Communication:
The Experience of Inter Press Service (IPS) in Developing Telematics for Media in Africa.

Paper prepared for the African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development,
Addis Ababa 3-7 April 1995

By Peter da Costa
Regional Director for Africa
Inter Press Service

Frustrated by the problems affecting communication in the regions of the developing world, IPS has always sought new ways of effecting speedy, user-friendly and affordable reception and dissemination of its information products. It has also sought to democratise the availability of information that offers an alternative to the Northern-led news agenda by making it available to as wide a spread of constituencies as possible.

IPS - Inter Press Service is an international non-profit association founded in 1964 with the goal of offering an alternative, Southern perspective of world events and the processes that affect development. In recognition of its work as an international NGO in the communications field, IPS was granted NGO consultative status (Category I) at the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in May 1991. The organisation operates on three different but complementary fronts that distinguish it from conventional news media:

- IPS Third World News Agency, which specialises in in-depth contextualised coverage;

- IPS Telecommunications, a division created to help upgrade telecommunication in the developing world and through the transfer of technology and training programmes;

- IPS Projects, which executes a wide range of programmes in co-operation with donor agencies in the field of training, information exchange and the setting up of alternative networks that give communication access to “new actors” (such as rural populations, migrants, refugees, women and children).

IPS set up its Africa network in 1983, basing the regional centre in Harare, Zimbabwe -- from which coverage is co-ordinated and communications are managed. A key part of the IPS mandate remains to develop media telecommunications in the region. A number of news agencies and other media organs initially benefited from IPS computerisation projects, while IPS trained a significant number of technicians -- most of whom still enjoy IPS's technical support today.

Among them was PANA -- the OAU- and UNESCO-created Pan-African News Agency -- with which IPS signed an agreement in 1987, in line with its commitment to co-operating with other regional media institutions. PANA was one of several beneficiaries of a 1990 computerisation project funded by the Italian government and executed by IPS. Others APS (Senegal), SHIHATA (Tanzania), NAN (Nigeria), ZANA (Zambia) and AIM (Mozambique). Typically, IPS technicians installed networks based on the Patra system and Digital MicroVAX 2000 hardware. A network of leased 50 bauds lines linked IPS to the news agencies as well as to the IPS technical operations hub in Rome.

Since then -- speeded in its resolve by the increasingly untenable cost of multiple fixed structures as well as by the rapid advancement in the telecommunications field -- IPS has harnessed developments in telematics for delivery and dissemination of its products. In Africa, the ultimate goal, which while far from being realised is nevertheless well on the way, is to create a ‘virtual_ network that is efficient, accessible and cost-effective.

As IPS moves away from burdensome structures , it is also increasing the effectiveness of its networking with the civil society constituencies it considers key actors in the entrenchment of pluralism and other necessary conditions for sustainable development.

IPS products are now disseminated in more than 80 countries worldwide in 18 languages. The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) network, which boasts some 20,000 users -- a large number of them NGOs -- is a key IPS collaborator. IPS_s daily global feed has been available, with a three-day time delay, on APC conferences (e.g. ips.english, ips.espanol), through news digests sent as e-mail, and in “headlines” which appear twice a week and highlight new developments of interest to APC readers.

While this IPS/APC relationship has increased the flow of alternative information to the burgeoning civil and networking society, it has not been without problems. Unauthorised reproduction of IPS material, often without any attribution whatsoever, has been detected from Australia to Atlanta. Clearly, given the fact journalistic information is IPS_s main product, end users cannot be allowed to breach copyright laws. This phenomenon -- call it “cyberspace piracy” if you will -- is one of the downsides of the international electronic networking explosion that IPS is interested in curbing using the latest techniques. A coherent and comprehensive policy for distributing IPS material on-line (via databases, for instance) is in the making.

In a bid to more sharply define their collaboration -- IPS and APC are currently re- negotiating the agreement. Highlights of the re-negotiation include: increased cost recovery for the IPS feed from the APC; provision by APC members of full-text database access to IPS news archives; IPS providing real-time access to its newsfeed to selected subscribers, through private conferences; provision of gopher and Web interfaces for IPS material. IPS considers its relations with APC of the highest priority, given the shared goals of increased access, particularly to the non-governmental sector. In Africa, IPS is aware of the fact a number of APC affiliates, or partners, may not have the same capacity to access IPS products as full APC members. We are more than open to developing co- operation with APC partners in the region.

Given the dearth of a consistent operating framework, IPS_s desire to enhance advances in telematics proceeded on a trial-and-error basis. First, existing packet-switched data networks in The Gambia, Senegal, Cote D_Ivoire, Zimbabwe and South Africa were brought into the loop in a bid to phase out the vastly expensive and laborious filing by telex as well as to render more user-friendly its cast -- which because of the 50 baud fixed lines in place could only be read in upper case by clients. Today, the bulk of IPS_s collaborators file to the technical hub in Harare via packet switched data networks. Tailor- made software ensures innovative use of the APC network to retrieve and deliver IPS_s feed. Programmes developed in Africa are in use to deliver the IPS global cast to, among others, the APC.

Existing media networks with a commitment to telematics are a key part of the new IPS equation for Africa. One is the MISANET, launched by the Windhoek-based Media Institute of Southern Africa in response to the appalling state of communications in the Southern Africa region.

Since going live in August 1994, MISA has rapidly worked towards plugging a vast networking gap, both among the regional media and between ngos working on similar global issues, particularly human rights. IPS_s collaboration with MISA blossomed after a workshop IPS ran last April to increase communication between human rights ngo activists and media editors. Neither organisation has looked back since. Three weeks ago IPS and MISA signed a memorandum of agreement under which MISA clients now receive a minimum of 10 in-depth, analytic feature articles a day -- mainly from IPS Africa correspondents but also including a selection of Africa-related information from vital listening posts such as Washington, New York, Geneva, Paris and London. Using an automated e-mail distribution list, MISA offers IPS material to members, as well as to non-MISA clients both in the region and beyond.

The existence of MISA has lifted much of the burden of delivery in the Southern Africa region, and has increased IPS Africa_s access to global markets. And this is just the beginning. As a more co-ordinated and informed use of telematics for media evolves, IPS intends to work with MISA in a number of areas, key among them technical training. Ideas such as an alternative electronic picture and graphics service to support the feature material available on the MISA-IPS list may not be realisable in the immediate short-term, but neither are they beyond reach. A number of lessons will have to be learned, many from the new possibilities opening up with the eventuality of increased access by African countries to full Internet connectivity. But the seeds have been sown for a rich and innovative co-operation.

[It is a shame MISA could not be represented at this symposium. David Lush, its media co-ordinator, has asked me to apologise on his behalf , and to inform the symposium of MISA_s progress. Specifically he asked that I mention that MISA chapters are now operational in Zambia and Tanzania. Along with this paper I shall distribute a copies of a document originally written by David Lush for the MISA newsletter.]

In November last year IPS was endorsed by the Southern African Broadcasters Association (SABA) as the news exchange for a unique and ground-breaking project -- the SABANEWS Radio Exchange Trial. This project actualises the gathering and dissemination of radio news between the 10 or so SABA member stations, with the goal of regionalising as well as globalising the news national stations put out. SABANEWS consists of two bulletins a day, made up of information supplied by SABA member stations and information gleaned from the IPS global cast. The bulletins are disseminated via WorkNet/SangoNet, the Johannesburg -based network, which uses a ‘fax-server_ to reproduce and ensure delivery to SABA members of a single e-mail message sent from the SABANEWS editing centre in Harare via GreenNet. This project is particularly significant in terms of telematics and media because it is probably the first time such fax services are being used in the region to deliver in more or less real time, where the product_s value is contingent upon its timely arrival at the radio stations. The project was launched on 1 March, and has so far exceeded all expectations.

In close collaboration with SangoNet/ WorkNet, IPS is still fine-tuning the system and hopes by the next SABA AGM at the end of June to be able to report that a new and innovative use of telematics for media can be institutionalised for ‘real-time_ news provision. One of IPS_s desires is to see such non-profit service providers as MISA and SangoNet/WorkNet expand their activities. We believe that the proliferation of such networks, particularly in West Africa, will create a knock-on effect that can only result in increased access to information and increased networking -- for the good of the average user.

One of the many advantages of the fax service, for example, is the reduced telecommunications costs -- since all faxes are sent from Johannesburg, where rates are lower and billing is more efficient than say Harare, from whence the SABANEWS product originates. This desire for efficient service delivery, a strong infrastructure and relatively good regional access is behind the IPS plan to reconfigure and revolutionise its technical network in Africa, predicating delivery on a multi-faceted system run out of Johannesburg. Initially, IPS_s communications server will receive the global service via a 300 baud London-Jo_burg leased line, and retransmit to bureaux in the region using the public telephone system and where possible the X.25 packet switching network. IPS_s plans also involve direct access to the Net using the Internet Solution, the dedicated fibre optics node in Johannesburg. We intend to share an Internet ‘Web_ server with The Weekly Mail & Guardian, South Africa_s most authoritative newspaper which is accessible on-line -- complete with software to download -- on the Internet. IPS Africa hopes to market its hard-copy global issues bulletins, as well as its other regional and global services, through this Internet connectivity.

State paranoia over the establishment in many sub-Saharan African countries of autonomous Data and Voice (ADV) links has proved an inhibiting factor to planned delivery by satellite -- an option which is nevertheless still on the cards for the future. IPS_s archives are also going to be opened up to the public using software that combines classification-sensitivity and on-line database software. Not only will clients be offered tailor-made digests of the IPS newsfeed. They will also have the capacity to dial in and scour the IPS database, selecting what they want.

Wherever possible, the principle of cost recovery will be applied -- not to make a mockery of the agency_s not-for-profit status, but rather to offset some of IPS_s running costs. Sustainability will be a key yardstick against which all potential collaborations are judged. We do not believe in playing to the donor gallery and starting projects we cannot sustain.

Whereas in the past the emphasis was on doing business with national news organisations -- virtually the only media organs with a real presence in Africa -- IPS is rapidly and deliberately shifting its emphasis towards the independent media and the non-media, ngo sector. This effort to democratise communications is a sine qua non for IPS, as part of the belief in opening access to new and previously marginalised actors in processes affecting sustainable development such as democratisation.

With this in mind we find it a matter of major excitement that nodes are mushrooming all over the continent, whether they be ‘real-time_ of fidonet-type services. Our concern is that civic organisations and individuals have real and user-friendly access to information via these host computers, and as such we are making it a priority to fully integrate technical and networking in all IPS_s training activities. It is not enough for an organisation to run a node offering gateways to the Internet. There must be community- based outreach which gives people the know-how to choose when and in what shape and form they want to access information.

That said, the importance of bringing journalists and ngo communicators into the telematics loop in Africa is self-evident. Last year in Dakar, for example, IPS trained 40 francophone journalists in reporting human rights and democratisation-related issues. Apart from the fact that most of the trainees lacked basic journalistic tools, what struck the IPS trainers most was the near-complete ignorance these journalists displayed of basic electronic networking. Young talented writers and broadcasters in their mid-twenties working for the most progressive private media organs in their respective countries were still writing dispatches by hand and searching for telex or fax booths. Many had no idea that in their own countries there were packet switched data networks and groups of people working to give increased access to user-friendly means of communication.

Senegal is one country being touted as a market-leader in telematics, but how many Senegalese journalists and communicators can say they know about SENPAC or ORSTOM or RIO? Worse still, how many can even afford the hardware to communicate? This brings us into the area that others here are much better placed to examine in detail. All I will say about this is that progressive communicators must make all efforts to make their facilities available to as many people as possible.

The lack of co-ordination among users and developers of telematics in the region is one of IPS_s greatest worries. In a climate where donor funds are becoming increasingly difficult to access, isolated initiatives that are competing and clearly counter-productive are in progress everywhere one turns. This may be as much a result of inter-donor rivalry as the fault of the networks -- many of them simply seeking to create new spaces where none existed before without knowing that similar initiatives exist. The spectre of a new form of colonisation of the region -- one spurred by commercial Northern interests in cahoots with large multilateral funding agencies -- looms large in a situation where few governments, let alone private citizens, have control over the shape of things to come from outside.

In this regard, IPS is committed to working with progressive information providers in the region to develop a network that enhances rather than limits access to in-depth, contextualised information -- a network that empowers rather than disenfranchises. One such initiative is IPS_s planned production and distribution of an interactive ‘Early Warning_ bulletin on conflict, a project to be executed in collaboration with a vigorously pro-active African ngo specialising in policy advocacy; yet another is IPS_s resolve to collaborate with community radio, exploring ways of responding to the increased demand by this sector for journalistic information tailored to their needs.

Much as we are critical of the discordant and often downright discriminatory way the cake is divided, what is clear is that market leaders in the use of telematics for media as well as an increasing non-media constituency such as IPS cannot see their visions actualised without the sustained and enlightened support of both the donor and the ngo community. Support is clearly needed to invest in new hardware and software, but also critically in funding consistent and sustainable training programmes. Coalitions need to be strengthened between information providers and non -media communicators, with the ultimate goal of making information accessible to all. The importance of expert information providers in the telematics equation should never be forgotten.

It is not hyperbole to say that possibilities for enhancing new technologies at hand and in the pipeline towards the democratisation of information dissemination in Africa are well- nigh endless. But without a coordinated strategy and progressive partners (both in the domain of funding and implementation), much of the potential will remain unharnessed. Together we must strive to demystify the technology and the gobbledegook; we must promote participation in policies affecting the development and use of such innovation; and we must ensure as wide an access as possible to these new paradigms. They must not simply be allowed to be dominated by corporate, business and Northern-serving interests, but to serve the goal of interactive, increased communication by peoples of the region.

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D.
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