Speaking on the Free African Media panel discussing the role of a free media in furthering democracy in Africa on Wednesday, I credited the success of Al Jazeera’s coverage of recent events in North Africa to the focus of their reporting. Al Jazeera’s cameras, I argued, panned away from verbose politicians sitting pretty at podiums, away too from pundits playing expert and allowed the people on the ground to dictate the direction of the story. My argument ran that, for the media to be conduits of democracy in Africa, we have to begin gleaning a better understanding of an African reality away from the politicians to whom we’ve ceded our suffrage.
Like so many of my ideas, it all made more sense in the quiet of my mind than it did out loud. Later on during the discussion, a journalist in Kenya, who had tuned into the discussion via satellite link-up, acknowledged Al Jazeera’s victory in the broadcasting battle in Egypt, but asked why was an African news service, such eNews Channel, for example, not more prominent. Unlike my bumbling attempt to connect the dots between the triumph of democracy in Egypt and the focus of the cameras in Tahrir Square, his was a point more succinctly made.
For all the talk of pan-Africanism, we’ve yet to give a definitive voice to African news from within the continent.
Following the first week of the uprising in Egypt, three South African weekend papers all carried the same generic wire report of the first protests taking place across Egypt. There was scant South African inflection on the torch of democracy making its way across North Africa. There was damning proof, instead, of the homogeny of international news in our print media. Granted, Madiba had made his trip to the Milpark hospital in that same week, Zuma had been in Davos while the J&B Met had just been run.
There was a lot to be digested about what was going on at home before we had opportunity to look beyond our borders. So too, in the news this week, we have had to put out our own fires before catching up with what’s happening on the other side of our fences. A self-anointed first family has had to be scrutinised , a racist columnist has had to be lambasted and a mouthy government spokesman had to be called out. All of these stories individually pose a threat to the hard-won democracy of the country. By banging on about them we are able to protect the sanctity of that democracy in South Africa. And when we’re done discussing all of this, how much mind-space do we have left to think about what’s happening in some seemingly far-flung corner of the world?
The world’s had to adjust quickly from Egypt to Libya, from the land of antiquated pharaohs to an oil-rich one where a madman wielding a green book is fighting to cling to what would seem the last vestiges of a perilous reign. But Libya is not the only country in Africa currently embroiled in a political crisis. Ivory Coast, Djibouti and Cameroon are facing political upheavals and while Libya enjoys round-the-clock attention, Ivory Coast has received something of a passing interest. In complete contradiction of coverage on Egypt, the coverage of Ivory Coast has centred on the politicians talking to each other. There’s been scant word from the street and, because Internet penetration is lower in Ivory Coast than it is in Egypt or Tunisia, people in Ivory Coast are not as well able to force media attention on themselves.
When Al Jazeera replayed over and over again the voice clip of blogger Mona Seif describing through tears how she watched a boy being shot, she gave a human voice to what was happening on the ground. She gained the empathy of the world for the cause of the people in Tahrir Square. We have, conversely, not been able to build an empathy for the people of Ivory Coast. All we’ve heard about Ivory Coast is the South African naval vessel parked off its shore, a bevy of politicians talking to each other and, for variation, we’re hearing about the impact of the political crisis on cocoa production. If winning our attention were a competition, the Ivory Coast seems to need to rework its strategy.
And hey, while they go about their business in Libya and the Ivory Coast, there are now reports that Yemen’s president is not likely to last the year amid protests there, while in Bahrain new protests are set to escalate tensions between protesters and the ruling family. The Wordpress.com service suffered a huge denial of service attack that affected millions of blogs. And. And. And.
Yes, you’d be forgiven for burying your head in the sand.
Talking at TED earlier this week, Al Jazeera director general, Wadah Khanfar narrated how, in the midst of the uprising in Egypt, he received a call from someone in Tahrir Square imploring him not to turn Al Jazeera’s cameras over the square off at night for fear an attack may be made on protesters when the world was not watching. He immediately called his newsrooms, instructing them not to turn off the cameras. Nobody knows whether Egyptian security would have acted with a heavier hand had the world not been watching Egypt with a keen interest, but it proves that sustained attention can be overwhelmingly powerful.
But “at a time when we are awash in bits and bytes of bullshit”, as Damon Young put it in his book “Distraction”, the active participation in the news cycle that a free media requires to promote democracy is becomingly increasingly scarce. DM