The digital divide was never more stark.
Participants at the World Summit on the Information Society agreed last December that global standards for information policymaking needed to be established for both traditional and electronic media.
With little fanfare -- and equally little publicity -- the attendees at the conference in Geneva adopted a worldwide strategy that puts in place ethical and procedural guidelines for gathering and disseminating information. They deal with human rights, funding new technologies for developing countries and establishing virtual health education for the worldwide general public.
The action suited Western countries, whose Internet usage is at a point where they can afford to focus on policymaking, but much of the world's population is still in the dark when it comes to the Internet and the World Wide Web.
Among Third World participants at the WSIS conference, there was almost universal moaning by journalists from sub-Saharan African countries -- where economics and politics present problems that rich nations from Europe and North America could scarcely understand.
Emrakeb Assefa, an editor at the Ethiopian Reporter, an independent English-language weekly with a circulation of about 30,000, said at the conference that only one of the computers in her newsroom is connected to the Internet. Of the 25 journalists who work for the paper -- it has a total staff of about 60 -- only three reporters know how to use a computer for research, she said, and only two know how to write a story on one. Most of the staff, she added, has never worked on a computer.
"The majority of the newsrooms in Ethiopia are still using typewriters, or the journalists hand over their articles in a written format so that the typists type it on the computers," Assefa said in an e-mail. "In most cases, the editing is done on the paper, and retyped again from the paper."
For Ethiopia -- which has 50,000 Internet users among its population of roughly 72 million -- the technological challenges are immense, Assefa said. She noted that the Reporter owns only 10 computers, and they are made available to reporters and editors through a pool system.
Assefa said that two of the biggest obstacles to getting more journalists to use computers are the cost of acquiring the hardware and the lack of adequate training. No small matters in a country in which less than 0.1 percent of the population has ever seen the Internet.
That sentiment was echoed by journalists from other African countries. Yael Tidhar, systems manager at the Times of Swaziland, a 20,000-circulation English-language daily, is responsible for training reporters on accessing and doing research on the Web. Swaziland has a population of about 1.1 million, and 20,000 Internet users.
"I do sit with people and explain to them about the Internet. They're not really pushed into it, they're afraid of computers," she said. "The reporter, if he knows something, it's how to open Word and that's it. They're using e-mails a lot -- but I would say very few are using the Internet for their own knowledge and for information."
Megan Knight, head of the new media lab at South Africa's Rhodes University, said young journalists receive only minimal training in Internet use, and that access is sketchy at best.
South Africa is the only sub-Saharan nation offering a choice of regularly updated news sites -- including SABCNews.com, the Sunday Times and the Independent Online, which are free, and the Mail and Guardian and News24, which charge $2.95 a month to overseas users.
The fact that only 6.5 percent of South Africa's 47.5 million citizens have access to the Internet means it is still a "marginal medium," said SABCNews.com editor Rachel Stewart.
Throughout the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, access to media is largely an urban phenomenon. Newspapers and Internet cafes, though expensive, are available in every African capital; but in rural areas -- where it is often a struggle to achieve basic health care and education -- a newspaper is often a luxury, and the Internet is a distant dream.
According to statistics released last Feb. 29 by internetworldstats.com, there were about 900 million people living in Africa, of which slightly more than 10 million had Internet access -- and roughly a third of all users are in South Africa. However, the total number of Internet users on the continent represents a gain of more than 123 percent from figures released in December 2000.
Summit participants discussed strategies to tackle low connectivity rates while experts outlined ambitious plans to connect every village to the Internet via low-cost satellite access. The plans have been criticized by some who believe that higher priority should be given to health care, education, literacy, water and power.
And umbrella nongovernmental organizations, such as Catalyzing Access to ICTs in Africa -- have set up action plans with wish lists for low-cost computers, open source software and the networking of African radio stations. Governments in Geneva even wrote a joint statement supporting efforts to establish a digital fund for developing nations.
For some African summit participants, the issue was a classic rhetorical duel between the message and the messenger. The few sites that can generate their own content know that almost all their viewers come from outside Africa. Without more connectivity, the finest online journalism in the world would not be able to find its way to the local populace.
Sandra Nyaira, the former political editor of the Daily News, lives in London, but she was born and raised in a rural village in Zimbabwe. She illustrates the information divide: "In most instances I go on the Internet and read stories about my country that my mother [who still lives in Zimbabwe] doesn't even know are happening. The only papers she has access to are the state media: She cannot even afford to buy the Zimbabwe Independent [a weekly independent paper].
"You can write stories," Nyaira continued, "which are read by people all over the world -- journalists, human rights activists, the international community ? but those stories are not accessed by Zimbabweans themselves, the ordinary Zimbabwean who really matters, the person who's supposed to be the voter, who's supposed to choose what kind of government they want."
The Zimbabwe government has been criticized for suppressing the media; officials in the administration of President Robert Mugabe last year closed Zimbabwe's only independent daily paper, the Daily News. The paper was closed in September; and though it resumed operations last month, a government application to ban it is going through the courts.
Nevertheless, Zimbabwe has experienced an explosion of new Internet users: With a population of 14.7 million, there are a half-million people accessing the Internet, up from 50,000 in 2000. That's an increase of 900 percent, and the country's Internet penetration rate -- 3.4 percent -- is among the highest of any country on the continent.
Mugabe is by no means typical of the continent's leaders. Many nations, such as South Africa, Benin, Madagascar and Ghana, have successfully established independent media, as the Reporters Without Borders press freedom rankings show.
Wairagala Wakabi, a Ugandan journalist, writes for the Nairobi-based EastAfrican, a 40,000-circulation weekly paper that covers Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. He is a former online reporter for the MyUganda portal, and is a big proponent of speeding up digital development to train journalists about technology issues.
"When I was in Geneva," Wakabi said of the summit, "I was talking to policymakers from all over Africa, and it was incredible the level of ignorance about ICTs (information and communication technologies) among government officials -- the people who represent the government in forums like these.
"But there is tremendous potential in areas like agriculture, education, health -- areas that are critical to the development of Africa and the development of Uganda. So my thinking is if we are able to write very simple stories that policymakers can understand -- of what ICTs are and how ICTs can change people's lives -- that would be great. Educate policymakers, educate the public, even journalists -- that's what I think we need to be doing."
Assefa, of the Ethiopian Reporter, noted that the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa offers free computer training and Internet access to journalists through its African Information Society Initiative. However, she said that only about 150 of the 450 journalists working in Ethiopia have taken advantage of the program.
Knight, of South Africa's Rhodes University, strongly agrees with the idea of educating journalists on the new electronic technologies.
"This will mean that the journalists have access to news sources beyond those available currently -- access to a whole range of media, that can provide both information to be used in stories and inspiration and training for the practice of journalism," Knight said.
"It also means that journalists can use the medium to disseminate information far more widely than their immediate communities."
Nyaira is an example of this philosophy in practice. Getting online with the help of the British Council, she writes for AfricaWoman, an online magazine that hosts a monthly "virtual newsroom" where journalists discuss story ideas. According to the site, about 80 female journalists from Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Nigeria regularly participate in these discussions.
Nyaira said the chats are so popular that a group of women journalists in Nigeria books out an entire Internet cafe for the day.
As a result of these discussions, the journalists then write stories -- typically on underreported issues of importance to African women, such as education, gender issues, sexual health and AIDS -- that then appear both on the Internet and on community radio, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of Africa.
"AfricaWoman is the best thing to happen to the Internet in Africa," said Nyaira. "It's an initiative that has brought together women journalists from about nine, 10 African countries to pool their resources, expertise and knowledge -- to work on stories that come from their separate regions. In some countries, they actually go into Internet caf?s and spend all day there.
"The beauty of the project is that AfricaWoman fits into community radio stations -- so it goes out to women who are mostly our concern, who do not have access to information. This is one project that should be able to be developed throughout developing countries."
Despite being frustrated by being unable to work in her own country, Nyaira remains optimistic. "We have to start somewhere, so that bigger projects can come out of that."
WSIS participants will attend a second conference in November 2005 in Tunisia to evaluate their progress.