Within wider debates on the private sector's role in providing, protecting or respecting public goods such as safety and security, non-state media can have special responsibilities.
Last week I began preparing notes for a part in the EU Eurojust programme's network on genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, whose next meeting will consider the jurisprudence and practicalities around the potential liability of business entities and owners for complicity in, contribution to, or commission of the most grave international crimes.
Most attention focuses on classic scenarios such as a firm that provides lethal gas used in a death camp (IG Farben company's Zyklon-B gas in Nazi Germany). Colonial and post-colonial Africa yield some examples albeit ones that mainly have a less obvious chain of causation or imputed intention to profit from crimes against humanity.
The role of the media and telecoms sectors is less often considered, although a notable African exception is the role of a privately-owned local radio station in broadcasting hate-speech and incitement in Rwanda in the lead-up to that country's 1994 genocide. More recently, this year's Kenya elections witnessed a wave of efforts to prevent a repeat of the inflammatory private broadcasts and publications that occurred around the 2007-8 election-related serious ethnic violence. Across West Africa in the last decade, a flowering of non-state newspapers and talk-back radio has fuelled greater free political communication but has also witnessed private media houses acting as platforms for ethnic baiting and stereotyping of a sort that can have very serious consequences.
Such situations call for state regulation of private media self-regulation to constrain the production of harmful content well before it constitutes or contributes to the sort of conduct that raises the interest of prosecutors in The Hague. The inherent limits on freedom of expression and the normative weight of prohibitions on incitement to grave crimes mean that such situations raise merely obvious duties -- and not really any dilemmas -- for private media or telecoms outfits (although on-line self-publication raises particular challenges for internet service provider firms).
A somewhat different situation for media and telecoms firms around Africa involves not mass crimes or their precursors but the many ways in which commercial provision of communications services comes head to head with electoral or protest politics, mundane or menacing. It is where the pressure for self-censorship or altered operations comes from the state bureaucracy in a context where democratic principles and public order are both potentially directly at stake.
It is one thing if a valid law requires, for example, that in the interests of public order a private mobile phone service provider not enable political parties to send mass multi-recipient text (SMS) messages around election time. The issue becomes whether that law is reasonable and of general, impartial application. If not (for instance, if used by the state to suppress the voice of its political opposition or to monitor its communications), the telecoms company may need to make difficult calculations, including balancing its relationship with the government with its reputation or its principals' own principles.
In many cases, there may be no formal regulatory basis for state officials to request phone, media or social media firms to constrain their output or their customers' usage. Instead, implicit in such requests is a threat, for instance of non-renewal of broadcast or service provider licences in future. Where politics and business intersect in hard cases, it is far easier for armchair commentators to counsel firms to take a path of principled pragmatism than to have to actually walk it.
This week sees controversial elections in Zimbabwe to end the 2008-9 power-sharing arrangement. Homegrown independent mobile phone firm Econet has come under considerable pressure to agree to block mass SMS-sending by organisational users. Ostensibly, the request is premised on a need to preserve public order (Kenya took similar steps ahead of its 2013 election). Some argue that the net effect in the Zimbabwe / Econet case will be to favour one party over another. The firm has reportedly and perhaps understandably obliged.
Indeed, these Zimbabwe elections are showcasing more generally the evolving role of mobile and internet (and mobile internet) technologies in African electoral politics -- even if the vast majority of voters across the continent still appear to rely on radio for the bulk of their political self-education.
In addition to traditional media (a new private independent TV station recently began broadcasting into Zimbabwe from South Africa, via satellite), the country is experiencing new phenomena such as the 'Baba Jukwa' Facebook character who purports to disclose, from within the ruling party, its many intrigues; Google Africa has launched a one-stop Zimbabwe election hub site collating news and other stories; website votewatch263.org is attempting to mimic Kenyan 'crowdsourcing' experiences by providing a space for individuals to report issues related to the conduct of campaigning and voting; the Econet SMS measure is a first for the country even if state monitoring of communications there is not.
Democratic aspirations and political competition will continue to stimulate innovation in the use of mobile and internet technologies across the continent -- sometimes the innovation will come from pro-democracy groups, and sometimes from incumbent regimes (or indeed rebel or other armed groups who in Africa have taken a strong liking to platforms like Twitter).
By choice or circumstance, private sector providers will put or find themselves at the heart of this trend.