From November 16th through 18th over 10,000 representatives from governments, civil society and the private sector from all around the world will gather in Tunisia's capital, Tunis, for the 'World Summit on the Information Society' (WSIS). This important global platform should take the African context into account when discussing the future of the information society.
In a first summit in Geneva in 2003, 175 countries agreed on the importance to build a 'people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society'; meaning a global society in which the creation, distribution and manipulation of information are core to economic and cultural activities and development. Plans were made to put the potential of knowledge and ICTs at the service of development. The Tunis Summit is set to yield practical agreements between countries on who, how, what and when.
The fact that the information society is being shaped mostly in Western countries is evidently creating a digital divide. While the information revolution enables parts of the world to enter the so called 'global village', the vast majority remains unhooked from this unfolding phenomenon.
Where ICTs in Africa are used in an innovative way to cater for local information needs, these initiatives go largely unnoticed. If the information society doesn't become inclusive and accessible to all, this revolution might mean three steps forward for the happy few, and two steps back for the rest of the world. To create the global, inclusive information society that the WSIS is committed to, a few points should be taken into account.
First of all, it is important that the discussion not only revolves around implementation of ICTs, but also around who is using content, who is producing the content and in what language. The bulk of the current content on the Internet is produced by Europe, the US and Japan. The availability of Internet-based content written by Africans and focussing on their own local or national issues in their own local or national languages, is scarce. It is therefore not sufficient to focus on information streams, without considering what content is offered, who it provides for and in what language it is made available.
Secondly, in the implementation of ICT infrastructure, which is high on the WSIS agenda, it is important to look for solutions that are relevant to a specific local context. This is especially important in the African context, where several technological steps might have been 'leapfrogged', or where traditional information technologies are still more important for information exchange.
Jumping a technological level has, for example, happened where landlines were not available, and people started using mobile phones instead. This means that when upgrading ICT infrastructure, the introduction of landlines for connection to the Internet might not be the most suitable solution. The more cost effective and accessible approach might be creating wireless Local Area Networks via satellite.
On the other hand, in areas with high illiteracy levels, radio will still be the information source with the highest impact. Connecting this area to the information society might therefore be done through inclusion of streaming radio broadcasts to be accessed outside their region, and translation of information available on the Internet into radio friendly formats for local distribution.
Freedom of Expression
Lastly, to create a successful global ICT community it is important that information and opinions can be accessed and shared freely. This means that principles of freedom of expression and media freedom as put down in the 'Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa', Article 19 of 'the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' and other charters should apply to the information society as 'guiding principles'.
These principles should also be the basis for the development of national and international standards and legal frameworks for e-governance. In order to reach this it is important that African media (and other civil society stakeholders) participate in the development of national and international standards and the formulation of national legislation.
While NiZA itself, as well as several partner organisations with NiZA support, are engaging with the WSIS, it is the media as a whole that has to engage with the information society. African media have a key role to play in empowering themselves and need to take responsibility in the follow-up after the Tunis summit in a bid to ensure that we all take steps forward to close the digital gap.