‘I said to myself that he must be from a corrupt oil or mineral rich African country like Angola or Equatorial Guinea. The country, I said to myself, must also be a dictatorship. Diplomats from honest and democratic countries with a vibrant free press don’t wear $2,400 Clive Christian No.1 perfumes’
Recently I was in Paris for a conference on “media after Wikileaks”. During my panel I said I and a couple of colleagues spent days locked away reading the US diplomatic cables leaked by the whistleblower site Wikileaks when we laid our hands on them – fairly early, by the way.
That what most readers all over the world who followed the sensational stories about torture in Afghanistan and Iraq; First Ladies with plastic surgeries gone so bad they couldn’t smile; and the world’s c
orrupt politicians derived from the cables might not have realised, is that these stories comprised only a tiny portion of the cables.I said that contrary to the impression created by the media, most of the leaked cables were about mundane stuff like traffic jams, baseball games in Japan, poor harvests in Africa, and so on. However, this ordinary material revealed more about how big powers use information, than the more dramatic political material. Then I said, in passing, that in the materials I read, the scandals and juicy political were perhaps no more than 10 per cent.It was time for questions. A short, bald, stocky man in a fine suit stood up. He introduced himself as a diplomat from Angola. I had noticed him when he walked in – late, of course.
He was wearing very expensive perfume. Because he smelt terribly good and pricy, quite a few people noticed, and gave him cryptic looks.
He sat directly in fron
t of me. I said to myself; “ he must be from a corrupt oil or mineral rich African country like Angola or Equatorial Guinea”. The country, I said to myself, must also be a dictatorship. Diplomats from honest and democratic countries with a vibrant free press don’t wear $2,000 Clive Christian No.1 perfumes.After about five minutes, he dosed off.
So, here he was nearly two hours later. He said I had just argued that African news comprises only 10 percent of western media coverage (I had said no such thing, I had referred to the proportion of US leaked cables that were gossipy). He then plunged into the old story of western media bias, and lambasted them for only portraying Africa as a primitive continent plagued by poverty, war, famine, and corruption. There were great things happening in Mother Africa, he proclaimed, and they deserved to be covered. The western media must end this conspiracy to keep Africa down.
An African sister in the back supported him, and amplified the injustices Africa suffers at the hands of western media.
When the good man said he was from Angola, I smiled. I had guessed right earlier in the morning. I took the generous view that he might have drifted and only vaguely heard my last remarks, so he didn’t figure that I was talking about Wikileaks. I politely replied, although I had sworn long ago never to get involved in this debate about “negative media coverage of Africa”.
Yes, the western media does often paint a negative picture of Africa. But they don’t owe us. Every media serves its own people, and a part of that is often about stereotyping others, in order to make your folks feel good about themselves.
I remember a Kampala newspaper two years ago writing that the Central Business District of Nairobi, Nairoberry it called the city, was so crime-riddled that the area Stanley Hotel Sarova (almost directly opposite my office window) is deserted by 5pm. The truth is that the area around The Stanley never closes, it is a 24-hour operation. In fact a report on the decline of crime in Nairobi since 2003 that was released later, found that Nairobi’s CBD had one of Africa’s lowest crime rates. Hard to believe, if one is still stuck to the image of Nairobi as Nairoberry.
Even more outrageous, a respectable Kenyan newspaper ran a story about nightlife in Kampala. It said that the only place with cold beer in Kampala was the third rate Tickles in the suburbs. The writer was biased, because Tickles is a Kenyan outfit. But the story passed into print. Not even an idiot would believe that The Sheraton, Serena Hotels, and all the fancy joints in Kampala didn’t have cold beer. It is also a fact that Ugandans drink more cold beer than Kenyans.
Enough said. This, in the media of countries that are next-door neighbours!
More seriously, then, one of the problems is that the countries that complain about very bad coverage by international media don’t allow a free press at home. Angola has one of the worst press freedom records in Africa, yet these corrupt mineral-rich dictatorships are the ones with the money to do an African Al Jazeera or China’s CCTV, but they can’t – except whine.
South Africa is rich, is a democracy, and can do an African Al Jazeera. However, it can’t because it is still trapped in post-apartheid petty-mindedness. For as long as black South Africans continue to compensate for the indignities of apartheid with a superior attitude toward other Africans, they will never develop a truly pan-African mindset or a continental broad
caster. That’s one reason the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) tried to play that role and failed.The biggest pan-African media player is South Africa’s MultiChoice, owned by the Naspers conglomerate. Naspers is owned by white South Africans. It seems having been the dominant and oppressor group for long, white South Africans have less of a hang up dealing with the rest of Africa than our black brothers and sisters.
In the 1980s when this debate about the western media’s lousy coverage of the Third World broke out, Qatar, which gave us Al Jazeera, was still a largely primitive dusty little nation. China was in the grip of old-style communism.
Today, CCTV is cleaning house in Africa. It set up in Nairobi, from where it will do an African current affairs and news broadcast, and raided local TV stations, leaving one of them of them on the brink of collapse. The word goes that when they invite journalists for an interview, they first give them a tour of their Nairobi offices and studios. By the time the tour is done, the journalists have said “YES”—because compared to what other, otherwise very good stations, offer in Kenya, the CCTV studio are from another planet. The Kenyan stations have either been unable, or are unwilling, to fight to keep their people.
And, of course, there is Al Jazeera now. It is setting up a Kiswahili Channel based out of Nairobi, and it too boldly trawls the media market, picking the best offering of talent at will.
Once, Africa had the Pan-Africa News Agency (PANA) to tell our side of the story to the world. The thing was run down. Some years ago, immediately after the Organisation of African Union (OAU) was buried and the supposedly more forward-looking African Union (AU) was formed to replace it, African leaders decided that enough was enough, and PAN
A should be boosted.At one of their summits, they discussed PANA, and countries pledged money to revamp it. Big rich nations like Nigeria, promised millions of dollars. The smallest pledge came from tiny Rwanda. If my memory serves me well, Rwanda promised something like $175,000. Kigali was seen as a joker and virtually mocked out of the room.
A year later, the only cheque that PANA had got was Rwanda’s $175,000. To this date, it is not clear whether any of the countries that promised millions, paid even a penny. Rwanda, in the end, had the last laugh. That is Africa for you.
However, the biggest reason I don’t have much time for all the griping about how the rest of the world covers Africa, comes from watching our own TV channels. In Uganda, the semi-state Bukedde TV, is hugely popular. Large crowds gather to watch its “news” programme — dedicated to rape, murder, beheading, witchcraft, and adultery.
In Kenya, you get endless minutes of politicians foaming at the mouth vilifying their opponents; witchcraft (you can’t run away from witchcraft, and in Nigeria it is a national staple of the media); killings over land; men mounting neighbour’s goats; suicide; murder, name it. For as long as this is the best our own TVs have to offer, I would rather watch CNN’s “Inside Africa”.
Richard Dowden, tackles this Africa image problem in his wonderful book “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles”. He argues that Africa does not have an image problem. It has a reality prob lem. There is nothing wrong with the mirror. If we change the reality, that is what the mirror will show.
And so we go back to Angola…by way of Kenya. On March 11, there was a terrorist bomb attack at Machakos bus station in Nairobi. Three people were killed, and over 20 injured.
The government blamed Somalia’s Al Shabaab militants for the attack. However, Al Shabaab denied having a hand in the attack two days later.
CNN got itself in trouble with Kenyans over its coverage of the story. Other than calling it a “terrorist attack” or “bomb attack”, the American network painted the grenade blasts in Nairobi as “violence in Kenya”. The story gave the impression that the attack was a continuation of the 2008 post-election violence.
Kenyans took to Twitter in their hundreds to attack CNN’s silliness and inaccuracies.CNN correspondent in Kenya good old David McKenzie, apologised and said CNN was taking down the video of the report.Not the big victory it would have been if CNN had given an institutional apology, but it was still a small sweet win. The lesson here is not that Africans’ complaints about bad
western coverage will only be better heard through action, not sobbing at seminars.Above all, though, we need to heed Ivana Trump’s call: “Don’t Get Mad. Get Even”. That’s partly what the Al Jazeeras of this world have done. In the past the Americans have been so incensed at Al Jazeera, they bombed the network’s offices in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, if this had been Angola, there wouldn’t have been a successful Twitter campaign against CNN, because a year ago the iron-fisted government of Eduardo dos Santos, in a bid to crack down on a digital opposition campaign, cracked on IT use. It passed a law defining as terrorism any “electronic message” sent with the intent of endangering the function of the state institutions. The law had a chilling effect on social media use, and you don’t find the kind of freewheeling Twitter and Facebook use in Angola, that you do in Kenya, Nigeria, or South Africa.
Ultimately, we are our worst enemies.
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