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close this bookThe Courier N 158 - July - August 1996 - Dossier: Communication and the Media - Country Report: Cape Verde (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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close this folderCommunication and the media
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAidan White of the IFJ
View the documentFreedom of expression: the first freedom
View the documentCommission support for democratisation through the media
View the documentImages of Africa in the Western media
View the documentA message of hope on the Burundi airwaves
View the documentCatholic radio in Southern Africa
View the documentThe Voice of the Disabled in Chad!
View the documentTV documentaries and development
View the documentThe Internet and the South
View the documentThe press in Africa as a tool in the democratic process
View the documentBenin's press on parole?
View the documentCurrent media in the English-speaking Caribbean
View the document'Doctoring' the image

Images of Africa in the Western media

by Geoff Mungham

It seems difficult to find an African leader or African journalist who has not, at some time, been either fiercely critical or quietly despairing of the way in which the continent is depicted by the western media. Their grievances have come to form part of a now familiar litany. Claims are made that the reporting of Africa is now almost entirely in terms of what has been called a'coup, crisis and famine syndrome', and that the western media focus only on 'bad news' out of Africa and ignore the 'positive' achievements of many African countries. These criticisms go hand-in-hand with accusations that Africa cannot ' tell its own story, in its own way', because the global news market is dominated by powerful, westerr-owned corporations, who have their own agenda for reporting Africa. For many Africans, their continent is becoming increasingly invisible in the trade in global news. For them, Rupert Murdoch's cynical remark that 'the Third World sells no newspapers' would appear to have been uttered with Africa specifically in mind. Finally there are those Africans who are concerned about 'western cultural imperialism' undermining traditional African values and culture.

How true are these claims? Is Africa becoming once again a dark continent; one largely excluded from the glare of western media coverage? Are some of the correctives suggested by different African leaders worse than the problems they are complaining about? And if Africa is in danger of becoming a 'disappearing world' for news, to what extent are many African countries themselves to blame?

To begin with, there is no doubt that African critics have a case. First and most obvious, is the undeniable brute fact that global news and information flows are dominated by a small number of multinational operators, nearly all of whom - especially since the end of the Cold War - are western owned and controlled. This is true of the great international news agencies, whether the traditional wire services like Reuters or Agence France-Press, or the newer global television news services represented by WTN and CNN, among others. The major clients for their output are western news organizations.

At the same time, most African countries are in no position to mount a challenge to this world news order. The continent has recently been described as one of the 'least dynamic regions in the global economy, where buying power of consumers is low' and in which many countries are burdened with crippling debt payments. In the same vein, a 1991 World Bank report not only pointed to the increasing 'communications gap' between Africa and the developed world, but went on to suggest that most of the continent offered poor prospects for those wanting to invest in telecommunications projects. These are among the reasons why Africa scores so poorly in terms of putting in place viable national communications infrastructures, let alone being able to take on the global market leaders in securing a higher profile for Africa in the world's news rooms. The same factors also help explain why most African countries remain so dependent on western-controlled news sources.

This dependency is not simply a question of the easy availability of copy or other material from the western news agencies. Puri (a Tanzanian journalist and Managing Editor of Newslink Africa) presents other reasons why African editors are interested in what's happening in the West. These include the links between many African countries and their former colonial rulers, the realities of global and economic relations and his claim that African editors often have little interest in other parts of the continent. As he puts it, '...a newspaper reader in Botswana, for example, is not much interested in reading detailed reports from Morocco.'

At the same time, there is plenty of evidence to support the criticisms of the 'coup, crisis, famine' coverage. Examples are too numerous to cite here, but the following small selection is fairly representative of the broader picture.

Introducing the findings of a 'Global News Agenda Survey', Malik and Anderson noted: 'For the rest of the world, Africa means coupe, and largescale killings (covered usually only in the first few days), almost ritualistic famine relief... and the occasional travelogues in the guise of saving something or other'. Similar claims were made by Okigho when he wrote that while CNN and other satellite organisations have 'revolutionised international news coverage', the most common images of Africa still depict internecine warfare (in Angola, Liberia, Somalia), pogroms in Rwanda, political violence in Sierra Leone and ethnic conflicts in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. In contrast, says Okigho, the 'many positive developments' are routinely ignored.

A limited review that I made of wire service copy from the main international news agencies during the week of 13-20 May 1996, produced findings that seemed to echo some of these complaints. In this period, hard news stories were concentrated on a handful of the 50 plus countries of Africa; Burundi, the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), Egypt, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan and South Africa - together with stories of alleged financial irregularities in the World Health Organisation in Africa.

Copy about Burundi dealt with ethnic violence and attacks inside Zaire on Burundi by Hutu 'rebels'. Reports from the C.A.R. focused on an army mutiny, street battles and looting, but were angled on the mediating role of French troops (the C.A.R is a former French colony) and the fate of 100 Americans trapped in the capital, Bangui. Egypt was featured after its government accused Sudan of harbouring a 'vipers' nest of terrorists'. Out of Liberia came a torrent of wire copy about fighting in Monrovia along with assorted atrocity stories, but pinning the emphasis on the plight of foreign nationals (especially Britons and Americans) and the role being played by the USS Guam in air-lifting them to safety. Somalia rated a mention because of the release of two foreign aid workers (British and German) held by an unidentified 'rebel faction'. On South Africa, the wire services were fixed on further violence and killings in KwaZuluNatal, the result of ongoing struggles between rival supporters of the A.N.C and the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The 'agenda for Africa' sent out by the wire agencies, was replicated by the menu offered by Reuters TV and APTV. For instance, on one day during the study period, the former was offering ten picture feeds; only one was from Africa (on the C.A.R.) while the rest included such compelling visuals as the British Queen's visit to the Chelsea Flower Show. For the fifteen picture feeds being touted by the APTV on a single day, one featured Africa ('news pictures to offer on the airlift by US marines'), which competed for the attention of western news rooms alongside visuals of a US woman who collected hubcaps (140 000 of them, no less!), Hugh Grant arriving by boat at the Cannes Film Festival, footage of the Monaco Grand Prix and a 'fun run' in Sarajevo (whether or not pictures are available, the idea of a 'fun-run' in Bosnia still seems a difficult concept to grasp) But what these studies show is not the whole picture about Africa which circulates in the West. Nor should they necessarily be used to support the usual criticisms about the performance of the western media in relation to the continent. In the first place, not all news out of Africa fits into the syndrome the critics complain about. For example, a great deal of the coverage of South Africa has been 'positive' (if we trace the reporting of that country's transition to majority rule). So, too, have the moves towards multi-party politics in African states like Zimbabwe. Similarly, there is plenty of reporting of Africa's sporting successes (such as South Africa's Rugby World Cup triumph). Nor is the West unaware of the work of certain African musicians and film makers - indeed, it has been influenced by them.

And even if 'positive' coverage is sometimes hard to find, the critics may still be missing some key points. The first is to do with western 'news values' or rather a failure to appreciate how they work - whether in relation to Africa or anywhere else. The staple diet of much of the global news flow is about 'bad news' and, in this respect, Africa prob ably fares no worse or better than other parts of the developing world.

Second, a more 'systematic' reporting of much of Africa is still difficult. My point here is about a lack of efficient and developed communication infrastructures, but also a reluctance by many African leaders to tolerate - let alone actively encourage - free and honest open reporting. Too many African journalists have been, and are being, harassed, imprisoned or killed by their own governments. Much of the media in Africa - especially the broadcast media - remains under state control. Newspapers that show a 'lack respect' for the ruling party are frequently shut down. These realities help explain why some of the maligned western media are turned to by those Africans who want something more than state propaganda from their newspapers or broadcasters. This is why the BBC World Service has come to enjoy such a high reputation in many parts of Africa.

Third, the attempts made by the African states to try and take on western dominance of global news and information flows, have been misjudged. Two failed initiatives in particular are worth mentioning in this context; the launch in 1983 of the Pan African News Agency (PANA) and the long-time obsession with setting up a 'New World Information Order' (NWIO).

From the start, PANA has been dogged by financial and management problems. African governments owe $18 million, journalists have gone unpaid, lines have been disconnected and in 1992 a UNESCO-funded audit found evidence of financial mismanagement. The main source of information PANA traded in was material from the domestic news agencies of OAU member states. Since most of these are state-controlled, the 'news' they were offering was never likely to attract many western users. To try and give PANA a new lease of life, UNESCO are backing a rescue package, which would allow for private investors to be shareholders along with state-owned African national news agencies. But the pro posed partnership funding is unlikely to work, especially in one-party states where the ruling groups have always been suspicious of any media not under their direct ownership.

The NWIO project has chased even more impossible dreams. Any attempt fundamentally to change the global news order was always going to be beyond countries with severe national communication 'deficits'. Most African countries, with weak and undercapitalised information infrastructures were never in a position to take on the market leaders in the global news business. In pursuit of the NWIO idea, endless international conferences were held, declarations passed and ritual attacks made on ' western media dominance'. Nothing came of it all. If the sense of frustration which kept the concept alive was understandable, less easy to grasp was why African leaders focused on the NWIO idea, while their own grassroots communication systems remained impoverished and under-resourced.

The most recent attempt to develop 'top-down' communications facilities in parts of Africa comes with the attempts to push satellite-delivered payTV on the continent. Among the 'players' here are Multi-Choice (which will be offered to subscribers in over 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa), Canal Horizons (targeted on North Africa and Francophone West Africa) and Panafnet (also aimed at buyers in Francophone West Africa). Because these enterprises are subscription-based there will be a clear bias in take-up towards upperincome groups; and - certainly in the case of Multi-Choice - the output will have a 'strong UK/USA programming flavour'. It is hard to see how these initiatives will ever meet the real news and information needs of the vast majority of African consumers, who have limited spending power and are often deprived of the most basic communication tools.

As Hans Dieter Klee (former Head of the Africa Service of Deutsche Welle) has rightly argued, what Africa urgently needs is large-scale international media aid to help strengthen its own media. This aid should not be targeted at projects designed somehow to allow Africa to 'compete' with Western media congLomtes. It should, instead, be aimed at building up diverse, viable and professional local and national media enterprises in African countries themselves. In this, the EU can play a leading role, working through the links established under the Lomonvention.

Robust national communication structures in Africa will not, of course, alter the balance of global media power. They will be able to do little to stop the international news agencies reporting Africa in the way they have done in the past. And it will be a long time before most Africans becomes travellers on the 'information superhighway', since this, in essence, is an extension of existing computer and telephonic communications, which the continent lacks. But a vigorous local and national media, Africa-wide, would be good for Africa and the best barrier for resisting outside media influences.



Okigho: 'National Images in the Age of the Information Super Highway

African Perspectives', African Media Review, vol. 9,1995.

R. Malik and K. Anderson: 'TV: The Global New Agenda Survey', intermedia, January-February 1992.

B. Hicks 'North of the Limpopo', Cable and Satellite Europe, April 1996.