International wire agencies and publications get a lot of flak for failing to cover Africa properly – for ignoring big stories and perpetuating stereotypes. This criticism isn’t always justified, and actually misses the point, which is that until Africa learns to tell its own stories – particularly the big ones that span the continent – we’ve got no choice but to publish someone else’s views tailored for foreign audiences.
Perhaps my finest moment as a journalist came while covering the 20th anniversary of Somaliland’s de facto Independence Day in 2011. I was the only foreign journalist in town, and given royal treatment all day long – unfettered access, tickets to the presidential banquet and an army Land Cruiser “technical” with my own armed guards to take me around.
But the best was yet to come. As a freelancer, I covered the celebrations for news wire Agence France-Presse (AFP) and the Daily Maverick, filing my stories before I went to bed. The next morning, I picked up one of the local English-language papers to read over a cup of camel-milk tea in a local coffee shop and found, much to my delight, that my stories dominated the front page. The AFP news piece was lead, the Daily Maverick column ran down the side and, at the bottom of the page, was an ‘exclusive’ interview the paper had conducted with a certain foreign correspondent they misnamed “Seminal Elson”. (This has become a nickname which has haunted my professional career.)
Exciting as this was for me, it felt very strange – wrong even – that local news coverage of one of the most important local events in years should be dominated by someone like me: informed and interested, sure, but someone not steeped in Somali history, the intricacies of local politics or even that familiar with the language. In essence, Somaliland’s media – or at least this particular newspaper – was allowing a foreigner to write its stories.
It’s a problem that plagues African media in general. Open the pages of almost any newspaper on the continent and you’ll see articles sourced from a litany of familiar names: Reuters, AFP, Associated Press, BBC. Even in the big countries with established media markets and a long track-record of strong domestic journalism – places like Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa – their continental and foreign coverage depends almost exclusively on the major western media houses.
Chinua Achebe used to quote a wonderful Nigerian proverb that says until the lions learn to write, the story of the hunt will always be told by the hunters. Well, the lions still have a lot of learning to do. It’s not hard to understand why Africa is struggling to tell its own stories. The major factor is money: there’s very little of it in African journalism. Salaries are generally poor. Overheads, especially for print and broadcast media, are large. There’s little training for journalists, and little financial incentives for the continent’s best and brightest to become journalists (I can testify to this: being an African journalist is not a lucrative vocation).
Another issue is state control of the media – in many countries, journalists are not free to write what they like, making it near impossible for them to tell their own stories accurately and honestly.
On the other hand, wire copy is relatively affordable (and free if published without permission, as is often the case), plentiful and already edited to a high standard, meaning it needs little extra work. Compared to generating our own news, it is the cheap and easy option.
When it comes to domestic stories, this is not such a problem. Foreign coverage of local stories is often picked up in local newspapers, as in my Somaliland experience, but in many countries this will be accompanied by local commentaries and analysis. More importantly, local audiences are usually familiar enough with their own context to know the background to a foreign news report and not always take it at face value. A far more serious issue is when it comes to coverage of the rest of Africa, and the continent as a whole. There is just one African media organisation with an extensive network of foreign correspondents across the continent, and that is Kenya’s Nation Media Group. By and large, however, our media is allowing foreign publications and broadcasters to dictate Africa’s image and explain Africa’s problems – even to an African audience.
And this image, created as it usually is by western correspondents commissioned by western editors answering to audiences in London, Paris and New York, is often criticised for being oversimplified, out of context and biased. This is not always justified: there is some excellent foreign media coverage of Africa, of course, but there is also plenty that’s superficial or flawed. And that bit about audience is important: big stories that should and do matter to Africans, such as famine in Niger or the internal politics of the African Union, don’t get the coverage they deserve because western audiences don’t really care. Which is fair enough, really; us African journalists should be telling those stories to our own audiences who do.
Along with the stories that are missed, there are deeper psychological ramifications to all this, argues Cameron Duodu in the New African. “If Africans in particular refuse to be wise and allow images – or more accurately, caricatures – of themselves created by others to penetrate their psyches, they will lose their self-confidence and thereby prolong their mental slavery.”
Duodo perhaps overstates the point, but it’s valid nonetheless. The longer Africa allows itself to be defined by imposed stereotypes and generalisations, the longer it is that decisions are made, laws are passed and investments weighted on information that is less accurate than it could be – with potentially disastrous consequences. So what can we do to fix the problem? Nick Kotch, Africa Editor of Business Day newspaper, said African media needs to start getting the basics right if it wants to be taken seriously. “Long-term investment in excellent journalism and the best delivery platforms, allied to strong ethics and independence, will pay the same good dividends in Africa as anywhere else in the world. We must simply believe in ourselves.”
Easier said than done, of course, and Kotch is matter of fact about the chances of African news organisations seriously competing with the established networks, history and budget of the big wire agencies. “It is impossible for any news organisation in the world to match that global quality,” he said.
He’s probably right. In terms of the breadth and depth of their global coverage, the likes of Reuters and AFP are hard to beat – even if they occasionally miss a story or get the wrong slant. But they’re not what need fixing. The problem is closer to home, and there are a couple of things African publications can think about doing to fix it.
The obvious solution is to set up a network of foreign correspondents in Africa, but this is expensive – and as already mentioned, there’s no money in African journalism. But there are plenty of good African journalists, and publications could look at setting up content-sharing deals with other African publications and employ an editor to edit the content to make sense for local audiences. That way, you get continental news with a local spin at a fraction of the price.
An even more direct solution is to plug the funding gap that plays such a big role in lowering quality. There are some excellent publications across Africa which could do wonders with slightly inflated budgets, so maybe the donors that are happy to splash the cash on endless conferences and capacity-building workshops should consider funding media instead. Even better, African businessmen and women should consider investing in the sector; they probably won’t see much in the way of financial returns, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile investment (for example: AmaBhungane, the team of investigative journalists that provides the Mail & Guardian’s biggest scoops, is entirely donor-funded).
Solutions, however, remain far away. For better or worse, the hunters will be telling the lions’ stories for a long time to come. DM
This feature first appeared in the Afropolitan magazine, and is used here with kind permission.
Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.