Africa at large: Media challenged to correct negative image of Africa
Mugo Njeru, Kenya
May 31, 2005
The 54th congress of the International Press Institute ended in Nairobi
last Tuesday with a proposal for African media experts to meet within the
next six months to discuss how best to promote positive coverage of their
continent . The chairman of IPI and chief executive of the Nation Media
Group, Wilfred Kiboro, told the 400-plus delegates in his closing remarks:
"In this regard, I would like to volunteer to take the first step by
working with like-minded people in trying to organise an African Editors'
Forum in the coming three to six months." Kiboro—who was re-elected for
the second time to head the organisation until the next conference in
Edinburgh, Scotland, next May—said the proposed meeting would give the
editors an opportunity to come up with strategies to report their
continent in a good light and how to pass this message to the
In a session on reporting Africa, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame said
African news from both local and Western media must be based on facts and
the various contexts which have shaped the history of the continent.
President Kagame, whose country is still recovering from the 1994 genocide
in which about 800,000 people died, said Africa was not seeking sympathy
from the West, "but rather, a deeper understanding." "There is a
fundamental need for change in the way we have been covered. The constant
negative reporting kills the growth of foreign direct investment. There
has even been a suggestion that it is meant to keep Africa in the backyard
of the global economy. You can help change this," he said. He added that
Africans must, however, take responsibility for the failures that occur in
their societies. "We in Africa must ask ourselves why we lag behind in
spite of the resources at our disposal. Why is it that the Western
journalists see only poverty, disease, corruption, civil war and conflict?
Can we give hope to our future generations?" he asked.
The Rwandan leader said that unlike the notion created by foreign media,
Africa "was never an aggregate of brute savages intent on killing each
other." Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, who officially opened the forum,
asked African journalists to use the power of the pen responsibly since
they too stood to suffer when things went wrong in their countries. His
Vice President Moody Awori said, "We cannot wait for the Western media to
tell the African story. It is incumbent upon us to tell our story the way
it is. I appeal to you to be patriotic— not sycophants of the
leaders—but patriotic." The Nation Media Group's editorial director Wangethi
Mwangi said the portrayal of the continent in a bad light was also partly a
result of some African media's "wholesale adoption of Western journalistic
values that emphasise the sensationally negative aspects of an issue in
the hope of grabbing readers' attention." Mr Mwangi said the inability of
African journalists to write competently on complex issues also led to
their taking the easy route of locking onto a sensational story.
He said although Western journalists tended to display open biases and
poor knowledge of Africa, "we perpetuate the negative coverage by
embracing the notion of a hopeless and failed continent. We celebrate
being slapped down by the donor community for our failures." Al Jazeera,
the Qatar-based satellite television station, was singled out at the
conference as an example of a media organisation which had consistently
reported on the Arab—and largely Muslim—world against odds from the
West. During the US-led attack on Iraq, the station was at one time banned
from covering the war after the West accused it of bias. But Al Jazeera
persisted in presenting "the other side." Said Wachira Waruru, the head of
Kenya's state-owned broadcasting station KBC: "We saw the bombing from the
Western media. But it was Al Jazeera that brought the story of the death
and destruction that was taking place in the homes in Iraq. Al Jazeera
told the story until it became part of the global media agenda. We in
Africa must set the pace by telling our own story." In a session on "Media
Coverage of the Islamic World," the Western media were again accused of
selling propaganda aimed at justifying the actions of Western powers,
while painting Muslims in a bad light.
The lively debate was kicked off by Salim Lone, a former spokesman of the
UN envoy to Iraq, who said: "Sections of the Western media are magnifying
differences between Islamic countries and creating tension through
careless or one-sided coverage—or more dangerously—through portraying
Islamic states and groups, or even Islam itself, as a font of terror."
But Western journalists defended their positions, arguing they had been
misunderstood. Alisha Ryu, the Voice of America's Bureau Chief in Nairobi,
spoke of difficulties that Western journalists faced in covering dangerous
assignments such as wars.
From The East African (Kenya), May 31, 2005. Cross-posted from
Africa News Update, June 2, 2005.
Mugo Njeru is a reporter for The East African (Kenya), as well as other periodicals.