Another strong opinion piece on Africa’s image in the global media, this one by Ugandan journalist Charles Okwir for Think Africa Press.
I particularly like these points:
No PR firm on the planet could have delivered the positive coverage that the Arab Spring delivered for Tunisian and Egyptian pro-reform activists.
Al Jazeera has effectively deployed the expertise of African journalists who, by virtue of their local upbringing, experiences and cultural values, have a deeper insight into Africa’s intricate issues than foreign “experts” can.
Some foreign “experts” know their stuff, of course – Okwir quotes experienced journalist and Royal Africa Society director Richard Dowden at length. Dowden himself has been on the receiving end of criticism about negative reporting, and argues cogently in Altered States, Ordinary Miracles that bad news must be covered, as it would be in any other territory. Echoing Okwir’s point about the Arab Spring, he writes: “Change the reality, not the image.”
The problem is not the visibility of bad news per se, but how the bad news is framed and the lack of positive competing agendas.
I find it hard to lay blame for the latter at the feet of hard news journalists, who even when reporting on home turf are simply not in the ‘happy’ game. They’re culpable when the reporting is bad, but not when the news is. For me the lack of good news is down to the business, features and lifestyle desks. Dowden throws this barb at news editors:
Millions of Africans have never known hunger or war and lead ordinary peaceful lives. But that is not news.
And the harsh reality is that it isn’t. But human creative output doesn’t end at news stories. While the brickbats rain down on international reporters for getting ‘bad’ wrong and not covering ‘good’, few talk about the failure to bring ‘ordinary’ to life. Journalistic essays. Features. Profiles. Storytelling. Okwir talks about a ‘Pan-African media house’ – I suppose I’m talking about its This Pan-African Life strand.
Without voices operating in the zone of everyday life, doesn’t Africa’s image risk being divided between the stories of the poor and the stories of the rich and fashionable? That’s admittedly a drastic improvement on poor alone. But it also leaves the ‘continent of extremes’ meme, which has poisoned European and American thinking about Africa for centuries, very much alive.