Western reporting of Africa is still rooted in a colonial mindset, writes Opiyo Oloya in the New Vision. All most Western media are interested in is the latest disaster, scanning the horizon for any sign of vultures. Good news simply does not make the grade.
The other day I got a call from a student of media studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. She wanted to know my opinion on how Western media cover Africa. What bias do I see in the way Africa is written and reported about in the Canadian media, for example, she asked.
Does what is reported always accurately portray the situation on the ground? She wanted to know.
Well, I told her, the premise of Western media reporting is still rooted in colonial Africa. That was when the likes of colonial adventurers like John Hannington Speke, David Livingstone, Sir Samuel Baker, and others wrote of their encounters with deep and dark Africa.
The exotic African natives were the sources of hundreds of stories with which to regale the folks back home. Then, Africa was the place where, when you really wanted to show how courageous you were, you made a voyage to, and then you wrote about your trip, how dangerous it was, and how you almost got killed by savage natives and wild game.
Okay, time has changed and the reporting no longer speaks about savages in African jungles. Instead, the focus is on things that go wrong, on misery, pain, suffering and poverty. Now the vast majority of Western media flock to the newsy story of the day, the one that the folks back home can sit back and watch or read over a cup of cappuccino while shaking their heads at how lucky they are that they are not in that part of the world.
What this means is that the Western media – print, radio, television and now electronic media – jump to attention when something is happening such as a natural disaster, a coup, an intense civil war like those in northern Uganda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The problem with this type of reporting is that one misses other equally newsworthy stories that should have been told, but were not. Sometimes the oversight occurs because of what I call the misery fatigue, when constant reporting of all the suffering simply turns off the audience because they no longer want to hear any of it.
When the genocide in Rwanda began to unfold in April 1994, many Western media were probably tired of reporting about all the other wars in Africa – Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia, northern Uganda – that they dismissed it as just another one of those Africa's never-ending ethnic clashes.
Moreover, the US was still licking its wounds from the Mogadishu debacle of October 1993, when 18 Americans were killed in a 17-hour long battle. The bodies of two Americans were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Nobody wanted to hear another sob story from Africa. And then Rwanda happened.
Somehow, in the hundred or so days when the killings in Rwanda were going on, the Western media either willfully ignored the news seeping through or was caught sleeping on the job. By the time most woke up, all that was left were the pile upon pile of skulls of the victims.
After the genocide in Rwanda, many Western media seemed determined never to be caught napping again. The problem is that now, more than ever, the Western media practises vulture journalism – they scan the horizon to see if vultures are hovering overhead, thereby announcing a kill. They converge on the story, and cover it from the same angle such that they miss out the real story, yet again.
For instance, I told the student so much has been written about the child combatants in northern Uganda, so many studies done, and yet little attempt is made to find out what kept them going while in captivity with the LRM/A. How were those who survived able to do it? And where are they now, what are they doing? Where are the Aboke girls about whom so much was written?
Surely, they did not just disappear into a hole – since coming out of the bush many have probably fought even bigger battles in order to rejoin their communities and make something of their shattered lives.
Unfortunately, the Western media moves on, and like a rolling stone, never gathers moss. We heard about Darfur for weeks, and then Darfur fell off the radar.
Then we heard about the horrendous treatment of Congolese women caught up in the civil conflict, many raped multiple times such that they needed to be operated on. Then we heard nothing about them.
Yes, there are a few reporters who stay a while longer, travelling through Africa, mixing with ordinary people and learning more about their lives. These are the ones who attempt to set the record straight, to balance things out. Alas, these are also very few and far between.
The student wrote it all down – but, hey, she has to move on to the next thing, another assignment. That is the nature of the beast in this part of the world. You move on.
* This column first appeared in the New Vision on 9 February 2010.