Countering negative images of Africa
“You must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the west. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. “
This was how Binyavanga Wainaina, the Kenyan writer, exceptionally summarised how Western media lenses view/interpret the continent in his essay for Granta, “How to Write About Africa”.
When the Western media write about Africa, images of slum cities such as Abahlali beBase Mjondoro in Durban, South Africa and Kibera in Kenya; famine, poverty, sickness, and war are entrenched in their minds.
Chaos, AIDS, crime, corruption and tribal warfare, are the related key terms that guide their thoughts.
The whole continent is sometimes lumped together as if it is one country and their reportage focus on crises and conflicts.
These stereotypes about Africa have been carried for generations, such that even as we are in 2013 these beliefs have not been fully thrown away.
The pessimistic perceptions of Africa have been invigorated by the Western media who have continuously declined to tell the “bright” story of Africa. It is no longer acceptable for the Western media to carry on this hopeless story on Africa.
As the late journalist Ezekiel Makunike once noted, “We hear about famines and coups, but not the rejuvenation of its cities and the cultural vitality of its village life … about oppression and massacres, but not education, economic self-help and political development … about poaching and habitat destruction, but not ongoing active efforts at conservation, reforestation and environmental awareness.”
He went on to say “As in Somalia, the ‘hit-and-run’ mentality of Western media makes it easy to briefly light up trouble spots, while the years of exploitation and deterioration that produced them are left in the dark.”
Its reporting clearly portrays its concept of agenda setting and opinion manipulation. The Western governments influence their media and as a result the coverage is biased.
For instance their reportage on Libya and Iraq after claiming they posed a threat to international security was to promote their governments’ economic and hegemonic interests.
The land reform programme in Zimbabwe was castigated by the Western media and to their humiliation it turned out to bear fruits as now the land is in the hands of its rightful owners. It is now a model for countries like South Africa, Kenya, Namibia and others.
At a media seminar organised in London in 2001 by the Conflict and Peace Forum’s Reporting The World Project, under the theme “Is coverage of Africa racist?” the New African magazine editor Baffour Ankomah said from personal experience, he had found five main factors that drove the Western media. These were:
National interest; This determines whether a story is published or rejected, and how big or small it is played; government lead, which decides who is a good boy or a bad boy to be praised or demonised.
Ideological leaning; The ideological inclinations of the various owners of papers and broadcasters — leftwing or rightwing — determined sympathetic treatment of stories.
Advertisers; Together with “readers power”, this influenced coverage and selection of stories.
Historical baggage; The Western media still seeing Africa through the eyes of the explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Baffour Ankomah also said that when it came to reporting HIV and AIDS in Africa, the Western media resorted to the use of black and white photos because black and white photos have the ability to convey ghoulishness and scariness.
He showed the seminar hard examples of copies of Newsweek, Time, Fortune, The Economist, and The Guardian (its weekend colour magazine) which all had everything in colour, except the articles on AIDS in Africa.
“What is the message here?” Baffour asked? “Are they out to frighten the Africans into submission or help them to understand what AIDS and its consequences are?”
A media expert Dr Tafataona Mahoso once noted “Henry Morton Stanley, who came to Africa assigned by the New York Herald Tribune in 1869, what was he looking for?
“He was looking for the North Atlantic agenda in Africa, he was not looking for Africans and he is not known for writing a story about what Africans were doing or saying, he is known for recognising a white man in Africa.”
The media, either private or public-owned, are supposed to be ethical tools for disseminating information to the people so that they make informed decisions.
In the journalism bible of ethical practice, truth, fact, and fairness are all qualities that have been preserved, but when it comes to reporting Africa, all three are quickly abandoned by Western media to advance their own interests.
BBC Focus on Africa, African Focus and This Week in Africa are some of the programmes that are used by Western media houses such as BBC World Service Radio, CNN and France24 to paint a negative picture of the African continent.
These media houses find it hard to see anything good in Africa.
For instance, the multimillion dollar indigenously-funded Green Fuels and Green Technology projects in Zimbabwe (Africa s biggest ethanol plant), and the booming fashion industry in Nigeria are not stories.
They do not see a story in the fact that the wealth the West is enjoying came from the pillaging and plundering of our resources and the toil and sweat of our forefathers.
They do not see a story in that Africa had six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world over the past decade, and that this trend is set to continue for the conceivable future.
There are many stories around us.
Such as how the Burundian, Lydia Nsekera, became the first woman in the history of football to join FIFA’s Executive Committee. She is the only female FA boss amongst FIFA’s 209 national associations.
Fatou Bensouda of Gambia is the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Rebecca Kadaga, Uganda’s first-ever female speaker of Parliament is Uganda’s third top-ranking politician.
Western media are not going to cover these stories. African media should define Africa from Africa’s perspective.
Dr Kwame Nkrumah had this to say in The African Journalist: “Our revolutionary Press must carry out revolutionary purposes. This is to establish a progressive political and economic system upon our continent that will free men from want every form of social justice and enable them to work out their social and cultural and cultural destinies in peace and at ease.
“(In this respect) the African newspaper is a collective educator- weapon of, first and foremost to overthrow colonialism and imperialism and to assist African INDEPENDENCE and unity.”
Twenty-four-hour television and radio channels that are controlled and owned by Africans need to be established to tell the true African story. The positive narratives need to be heard loud and clear both inside and outside the continent.
Media organisations like PANA, New African magazine and The Southern Times, with their cutting-edge content, should play pivotal roles in bringing an African perspective to international reporting on and of the continent.
African media should cover issues that are often overlooked by the western media and corrects the many misconceptions linked with the continent. They should bring Africa closer to the world and proffer a valuable view of the globe’s most diverse continent.
African television and radio stations and Press agencies should put more money into expanding their reach and depth to deliver to local and global audiences.
A culture of innovation ought to be nurtured in African media to counter the Western media.
Media organisations in Africa need to digitalise and come up with innovative ideas to improve their viability and relevance to the development agenda.
African governments should mobilise resources to spur and support the best innovations that strengthen African news organisations especially the broadcasting sector.
We should move away from the dependence syndrome of receiving aid from Western donors as this fosters cultural imperialism.
One scholar has argued that it is not by accident that the satellite’s entire output is planned for the African mind and that this dependence on satellites and other new technologies reinforces neo–colonialism.
We have the human and material resources to achieve what we must achieve.
Doctors, engineers and lawyers among other intellectuals are being churned out by African universities and these brains must be harnessed to transform the continent.
Chingolombe mines in the DRC provide 64 percent of the world’s coltan supplies for use in cellphones, laptops, video cameras, jet engines and other technologies but we are not tapping into this to expand our broadcasting.
There is need for broadcasting infrastructure modernisation and expansion to digitalise the sector, especially with the technological migration programme whose deadline, as set by International Telecommunication Union, gives Africa until June 2015 to switch from analogue to digital.
African media need to develop a content production industry, enhance skills development through institutions like the Zimbabwe Film and Television School of Southern Africa and the National Film and Video Foundation in South Africa.
This will also aid in reducing the dumping of cheap television programmes with their foreign cultures.
Africa should strengthen its policies to reduce media imperialism.
African media should be guided by laws that protect its identity instead of living on borrowed identities.
For instance in Zimbabwe, Section 70 (2)(e) and (f) of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act tries to ensure greater local control of the media sector. It prohibits foreigners from owning a mass media service. This limits foreign cultural influences and has noticeable consequences on the media content.
The head of the Mass Communication Department at the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria, Jerry Domatob, rightly argues that most black African television stations rarely show Africa or explain Africa to Africans.
Alien value systems continue to be imposed on the continent. Hence we see a proliferation of homosexuality and pornography.
A South African company, On Digital Media which runs Top TV and believed to have a significant Western stake, in January this year tried to get a license to broadcast porn. Fortunately, they failed.
The Africa Editors Forum and the Federation of African Journalists among other professional bodies should put their heads together and come up with policies to cushion the continent from this cultural onslaught.
They must have a counterattack approach.
For the African media to flourish in the medium-to-long-term, African governments should increasingly look to support media training schools around Africa. Such training must inculcate our values.
As Dr Fainos Mangena and Munyaradzi Madambi of the University of Zimbabwe point out, there is need for “… an education that fosters reflective judgment and a sense of Pan‐Africanism in journalism … that calls for the need to remain Pan-Africanist in our approach…”
Africa should avoid, by all means, getting into a situation where its frequencies are unregulated. If left uncontrolled the West, with its cunning character, will take over our broadcast sector.
Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information and Publicity Webster Shamu has pointed out that “broadcasting is a scarce and finite resource”. It needs to be protected and guarded jealously.
Bridging the Divide
In addition, the rural-urban information divide needs to be addressed by African states to counter the international media.
Western media can easily take advantage of the prevailing situation, where they have much room to use pirate broadcasts to infiltrate rural areas.
This calls for massive investment in broadcasting capacity.
As Prof Jerry Domatob asserts, the mass media are of crucial importance in rural areas of developing countries to run large-scale communication campaigns on health, agriculture and education.
“Equally important however, is their role in communicating the information needed for everyday for everyday’s lives from market prices and credit facilities to weather reports, music entertainment and culture,” he says.
He adds that “… mass media can reach rural dwellers helping them to be informed and to express their own concerns, thus fostering national identities and reducing the rural divide”.
Overall, African media should counter negative stereotypes such as the image of the starving Somali child as the definitive example of what this continent is about.
To quote Mariéme Jamme, the co-founder of Africa Gathering, “There is no single story of Africa or any African country … Africa also needs to be given credit for the exciting advances being made in terms of progressive leadership, social entrepreneurship, innovation and technology, health and the arts.”
Africa ought to tell its own story.