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Expanding Africa's muted voice and lessons from Al-Jazeera

By Jehron Muhammad | Last updated: Jan 29, 2019 - 1:26:55 PM

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(l) Paul Kagame President of Rwanda (r) Nana Akufo-Addo Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ghana

When viewing media reporting of Africa in American and Western mainstream publications, “the coverage it’s filtered through, what the Kerner Commission concluded in 1968, when looking at press coverage of the African American community, is from a White man’s perspective,” said Temple University journalism professor Linn Washington.

Mr. Washington, who is also a journalist and has traveled extensively in Africa, says there is a lot of “context and a lot of nuance that is just not received in what you get in American media on Africa. So to be fully informed, in terms of what’s going on, you need to read local (African) coverage, coverage generated by Africans.” 

Many of the negative “stereotypes” Mr. Washington says appear in Western press can be partially blamed on African leaders viewed from the lens of how the Western world  sees Africa.

A case in point: You can count the movies watched where the continent of Africa is referred to as if it’s one country and not 54 diverse nation states.

This negative stereotyping played out during the Obama administration where “well-behaved African heads of state … (were) rewarded by President Barack Obama with a chance to meet … in groups of four and have their pictures taken with him,” said one analyst.

The problem with this image is that they sat like American subjects, beaming as the president read their accomplishments.

“The wider symbolism was unmistakable,” wrote Elliot Ross. “These guys, Obama is saying, work for me. African visitors (unlike other heads of state) can be received in groups, as, they’re all Africans, don’t need to be spoken to individually. Politics? Negotiations? They’re just happy to be here.”

African leaders like outgoing chair of the African Union and president of Rwanda Paul Kagame, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, are working, not only to change this perception but the reality.  

As President Akufo-Addo said during a press conference last year in London, “We’ve run out of excuses for the state of our continent,” he said, adding, “If we work at it, if we stop being beggars, and spend Africa’s monies inside the continent, Africa will not need to ask for respect from anyone.”

Even where there is success, Africa fails to get its just due. Case in point, President Kagame’s critics say though Western media continues to deny him his props, his economic success is undeniable. Under his leadership, Rwanda has cut aid dependency by half every 10 years from 86 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2010, to 16 percent in 2017.

And with the entry of the African Continental Free Trade Area intra-African trade will become sacrosanct, eventually making Africa one of the world’s largest trading partnerships. As Kagame stated, “We gain immeasurably by trading with each other, and lose so much when we don’t.” 

But the West, even while recognizing these recent developments continues to see Africa as “the dark continent,” where wars and corruption are the norm and not the exception. Western reporting about Africa continues to follow the U.S. news mantra: “When it bleeds it leads.”

According to Khalil Charles, deputy news editor at the Istanbul-based TRT World, who once worked for the Sudanese government’s news service SUNA, “The world of violence is synonymous with any African country.” He said from his office  in Turkey, you don’t hear much about African success stories. “All these news outlets do very little to reflect progress,” he added.

Charles, whose parents are from the Caribbean said,  “You’d think that Rwanda under Kagame, with overcoming its history of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans massacred in the space of 100 days and going on to become a beacon of hope and inspiration for the entire continent, would automatically receive worldwide recognition and praise. And then topping that off, this land locked East African country under Kagame’s leadership after overcoming this genocide not only goes on to become the envy economically, socially, politically and educationally of all of Africa, even putting women in key positions in his administration.”

Even with these accomplishments, recognition where Africa is concerned is always slow in coming. Much of the Western  press in 2017 focused on Diane Rwigaa, a presidential candidate and leading critic of Kagame. Her arrest, she was later pardoned  and released, allegedly for tax evasion and forgery made headlines around the world.

Even the Economist magazine once struggled to give Kagame his props, grudgingly praising him for overcoming the country’s past genocide “but not, unfortunately allowing a true democracy.” 

Charles says sometimes the only positive news, though grudgingly given about African developments, is in the world’s financial publications, including Bloomberg, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. He said they have to report with much accuracy because their public is the financial world, which is “looking at how to capitalize on developing countries.”

A game changer has been “The Al-Jazeera Effect.” According to Charles, it was significant when Qatar-based Al-Jazeera in 1996 “came online and started talking about the region and giving voice to people who were otherwise silenced in their own country.” What it did “was open up for people to be more critical,” he said. Also, he said, it took the audience from essentially just listening to or reading government-owned journalism or propaganda to a wider base that included listening to outside the country views and appreciating what others were doing.   

The Al Jazeera Effect was actually a paradigm swing in terms of reporting major events and broadening the discussion of relevant issues. It reshaped the way global politics was reported.

In Philip Seib’s 2008 book, “The Al-Jazeera Effect: How the New Global Media Are Reshaping World Politics,” he says traditional ways of reshaping global politics have been overcome by the influence of new media, satellite TV, social media and other high-tech tools. What is involved as one reviewer of the book wrote “is more than a refinement of established practices. We are seeing a comprehensive reconnecting of the global village and a reshaping of how the world (actually) works.”

Africa has indeed benefitted from the Al-Jazeera Effect. Why doesn’t she own and operate a similar continent-wide, all-purpose media network?

 Billionaire philanthropist Mo Ibrahim and his Mo Ibrahim Foundation has said it won’t tell African leaders what to do but would continue to focus on what constitutes good leadership on the continent. 

That might be all well and good, but wouldn’t it be better to take what constitutes good leadership or good governance to the 1.2 billion people that make up the continent of Africa? Why can’t Africa create its own “Al-Jazeera Effect?” The only way Africa can monitor itself is by creating a continent-wide mechanism where all voices are represented and encouraged.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been traveling the world and meeting with the Ethiopian diaspora. Why can’t Africa create its own network where talking to the African diaspora is as simple as inviting a camera crew to your office?

Depending on your former colonial masters in the form of Voice of America, BBC and France24 to get Africa’s message out to the global community is neocolonial thinking. All news is local. Not giving local African news a continent-wide and a global voice is criminal.

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