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 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 international media.

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.