A couple of months ago the UK’s Mail Online ran a story headlined Brutal Central African dictator who rules his country with an iron-fist and ‘skins enemies alive and eats their testicles’. The story describes how the President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, is that country’s “torturer in chief”, and has plundered the wealth of his country while his subjects live in crushing poverty.
The story comes ahead of the trial of Mbasogo’s “playboy son”, who the Mail says is going on trial in France “on charges of plundering his country to fund a jet-set lifestyle in Paris”. He has already been forced by American courts to pay back some $30-million in embezzled and laundered funds in the USA.
A critical journalist or media analyst will quickly notice that this story has multiple problems. First, much of the story is a rehash of information easily found on Google and Wikipedia. Second, the “new” part of the report — that Mbasogo allegedly eats his enemies’ testicles, has only one source – one of the dictator’s political opponents. Third, no attempt seems to have been made to verify or fact-check the story.
The writer of this piece, one Thomas Burrows, could have easily verified this story or got more credible sources from the likes of Africa Check, Amnesty International or Transparency International, but never bothered. A quick look on Africa Check and Amnesty International provides several reports of human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea, including the death of at least one mercenary in the notorious Black Beach prison, but there is no official word on Mbasogo’s alleged cannibalism. If Burrows had done a thorough search, he might have found that, in fact, the allegation is laughably old. New International reported in 2006: “Periodic reports that Obiang practises cannibalism are assumed to be intended to deter his opponents.”
Let me be clear: I am in no way defending Mbasogo. It is the rightful job of the media to be watchdogs and to report on abuses of power, corruption and other matters of public interest. Rather, what I am doing is calling for responsible, well researched journalism on Africa.
The problem with articles like these is that they feed into racism, Afro-pessimism and bias against Africa. This comes at a time when a populist wave is moving throughout the West, with an attendant rise in nationalism and conservatism. In a study titled Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash, Harvard Kennedy School’s Pippa Norris and the University of Michigan’s Ronald F Inglehart (August 2016) examined this phenomenon.
Inglehart and Norris found that the backlash against progressive cultural change has increased in recent decades. Cultural changes brought about by technology and immigration flows have been seen to threaten traditional norms and values. This is indicated in a rise in populist parties in the UK, Europe and the USA, mainly among older and less educated groups. Typically these parties have “charismatic leaders” who express mistrust of the establishment and progressive “educated elites” in power.
In Europe, which has seen a twofold increase in support for populist parties since the 1960s (according to the same study), Africans are often seen as the immigrant threat. Articles like the one on Mbasogo serve only to promote this bigotry, confirming the bias that Africa is a hopeless continent full of savage dictators or worse. As we know, confirmation bias heeds the information that confirms one’s expectations, and ignores anything that contradicts it.
As a media analyst I realise that one instance doesn’t make a rule. So I’ve investigated, and my research shows that the problem with reporting on Africa is pervasive. And it is not just the tabloids that are slashing Africa’s reputation for page views or newspaper sales.
Last year media and international affairs scholar Sean Jacobs joined academics, writers and media workers from the diaspora and beyond to lobby 60 Minutes about the manner in which the US news magazine misrepresented Africa. In an open letter on AfricaIsACountry.com [founded by Abrahams] the group — which included luminaries like Achille Mbembe and Teju Cole – chided 60 Minutes. Citing a number of inserts, the collective wrote: “This anachronistic style of coverage reproduces, in condensed form, many of the worst habits of modern American journalism on the subject of Africa.”
AfricaIsACountry.com regularly takes issue with Western reporting on Africa, and includes an article by Imran Garda entitled Nine signs the journalism on Africa you’ve just encountered is trash.
It is not just the tabloids that get things wrong. The venerable New York Times reported that South Africa was being overrun with foreigners and was home to 5-million immigrants. Africa Check proved them wrong. In his September 2016 piece Reporting on ‘Africa’, UCT Media Studies professor, Herman Wasserman, pointed out how absent Africa is in journalism in the US and UK. He adds that when reporting on Africa is done it “reveals paternalistic stereotypes, or is based on a specific neoliberal ideal of Africa as an untapped market”.
Of course, one of the most cited examples of bad reporting on Africa happened over a decade-and-a-half ago. In May 2000, The Economist published a report on Africa entitled “Hopeless Africa”, which the publication’s Africa editor then used as source material for a book, The Shackled Continent. The bottom line of both was that the whole continent is doomed.
There was pushback from journalists throughout Africa. Emeka Chiakwelu, writing for The Geostrategists, noted that the report had amplified problems in only three countries, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Mozambique, and extrapolated this to the entire continent.
Research confirms that global news has clear bias against Africa’s narrative. A report by the Brookings Institute shows large discrepancies between international and local reporting on African topics. Looking only at the words found in headlines for Africa-related stories from 20 major Western and local (African) media sources in 2015, researchers found many more negative terms in Western media than in African sources.
In prominent Western media news brands stories on Ebola dominated at the beginning of 2015, and the migrant “crises” dominated in the latter half of the year. While these stories weren’t ignored in African publications, more attention was given to the Nigerian election, the Burundi crisis, and regional trade. While “business” and “oil” were the only finance-related words in the Top 50 of the Western media, “growth”, “trade”, “economy”, and “market” were all in the top 50 words in local media. In contrast the Western media employed far more negative terms, like “death”, “crisis”, “refugee” and “attack”.
In other research – a report for Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center – Karen Rothmyer writes: “Between May and September 2010 the 10 most-read US newspapers and magazines carried 245 articles mentioning poverty in Africa, but only five mentioning gross domestic product growth.”
And here’s research about how NGO’s influence reporting on Africa. In the paper, entitled They Wanted Journalists to Say ‘Wow’ – How NGOs Affect US Media Coverage of Africa, Rothmyer provides evidence that there is a disconnect between the data about Africa and the images that are prevalent in the reporting on Africa. She blames this in part on the role of international aid organisations and NGOs. In short, Rothmyer concludes that there is a strong incentive for these organisations to “present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep the attention and money flowing”.
Add to this the fact that Western journalists “scarcely question aid organisations” — a quote that Rothmyer takes from Dutch journalist Linda Polman in her 2010 book The Crisis Caravan. Polman describes aid organisations as “businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa … but that’s not how journalists see them”.
In Rothmyer’s paper, Lauren Gelfland, an American correspondent in Nairobi for UK-based Jane’s Defence Weekly, is quoted as saying that most journalists she knows string for four or five different news organisations. As a result, they can’t afford to do complex or time-consuming stories. When NGOs pitch ideas to them it is an easy sell. Gelfland also worked for Oxfam for a year, “on the other side of the fence”, and during which time she says the easiest “sell” was a celebrity visit to an aid project, while the hardest was a complex topic like trade or agricultural policy.
Globally, traditional news media is under increasing pressure to keep the commercial engine going. The broadcast television news model – once a major revenue contributor of stations – is crumbling in favour of bite-sized digital formats that draw less income. Newspapers, particularly, are struggling to monetise their move from the increasingly redundant printed format to digital. The failure of paywalls and the prevalence of ad blocking aren’t helping. In the past five years, global newspaper revenues (including printed circulation sales and print advertising, as well as digital subscriptions and advertising) have declined 4.3% overall (World Press Trends Survey June 2016).
Adspend is spread more thinly between a multitude of hard copy and online news sources. Increasingly, newspapers and websites are relying on newswire services with syndicated reporters placed in “trouble spots” in Africa. The result is the same story being disseminated to affiliates across the world.
Not only does this lead to a homogenisation of the story, but if, for example, Reuters gets it wrong, the whole of America gets it wrong. And Western reporters are often criticised for getting it wrong. Dependent on translators and pressed for time, English-speaking journalists will often miss the nuances of local dialect and patois, which is lost in translation.
The problem is multifaceted, but is Africa contributing to the problem? Good journalism needs data, sources and strong fact-checking to generate accurate news, so let’s look at the state of Africa’s national statistics. Analysts and economists rely on data to make comparisons and measure major trends, such as economic growth, which is an important contributor to global news.
But in many countries these numbers are not accurate, according to Morten Jerven, Professor in Development Studies at Norwegian University of Life Sciences & Simon Fraser University. Jerven says that GDP rebasing is not done as often as it should, and there is often no oversight and so no way of preventing governments from presenting a rosy picture in order to encourage direct foreign investment, or a gloomy one if they seek to elicit aid.
Jerven, author of Poor Numbers, How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It, spent several years trying to establish the accuracy of economic statistics (mainly GDP figures) in several sub-Saharan African countries, a frustrating experience he writes about in his book.
A case in point, Jerven says, was Nigeria’s rebasing in 2014. This wasn’t an indication of how much that country’s economy had grown, but rather how incorrect the previous numbers were. As Jerven put it at the time, “GDP in Nigeria doubled on a Sunday afternoon, and that is an accurate diagnosis of our knowledge problem.” Although the rebasing was accepted by the World Bank and the IMF, Jerven believes that there are problems with the numbers.
He writes: “What we are faced with is a problem of having a reasonably accurate picture of the Nigerian economy in 2010, and a reasonably accurate picture of the Nigerian economy in 1990 [when it was previously calculated]. Right now we do not know how they compare, and how much of the difference in GDP was due to different definitions and data in 1990 compared to 2010.”
Moving forward, there is much that we, as Africans, can do to rectify the poor image the continent has in the rest of the world.
First we need to do our homework and get our statistics in order, but accurate GDP figures from some countries will be elusive for some time.
Until that’s up to speed, considered, useful data is being produced and must be used. At the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), Prof Lyal White and his team at the Centre for Dynamic Markets (CDM) have developed an empirical index that measures competitive performance.
“We don’t just look at growth, rather we focus on applied research, which means that we look at the determining factors that shape the market — the social groups and policy makers,” says White. The Dynamic Market Index (DMI) is the result — a tool that indicates progress and potential in Africa by measuring six factors that indicate institutional change: how open and connected the country is, the degree of red tape, the socio-political stability, the efficacy of the justice system, macroeconomic management, and human capital.
The DMI relies on hard data rather than surveys, opinions or sentiment, White explains. And, one might hope, not on the unreliable reporting of governments and organisations with hidden agendas.
This is one way to get a better big picture of the African landscape. But what about the everyday issue of promoting a more realistic, less sensationalist narrative to the rest of the world?
Africa must tell its own story. And we must tell it well. Whether it’s through journalism or marketing or finance. The international media hasn’t righted itself, so it is critical that Africa supports fact-checking projects such as Africa Check. Also that continental and national brand projects challenge news brands that slur brand Africa. Brand South Africa, Brand Africa, NEPAD could play a role here as could Africa-wide media and journalism bodies.
There are many good stories to tell. Poverty rates throughout the continent have been falling steadily and much faster than previously thought, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The death rate of children under five years of age is dropping, with “clear evidence of accelerating rates of decline”, according to The Lancet.
Africa is “among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions”, according to the McKinsey Quarterly, and Chinese investment has grown from $1-billion in 1992 to $400-billion currently. By 2050, according to various estimates, the population of Africa will have grown from one billion to two billion, of which 62% will be urbanised — which indicates a huge growth in consumer spending.
The message should be promoted into the continent, as well as outwards: local products, from coffee to clothing to art, must be developed and supported at home, so that they may develop to a level where they can succeed in the export market.
With the massive growth in content companies, brands can tell the Africa story. Ornico publishes an annual magazine, Open Africa, which looks at marketing and branding successes on the continent. Companies like Absolut Vodka and Red Bull get this right, with music, sport and cultural projects that creatively promote a positive African self image with incredibly innovative projects. The work that NativeVML is doing for Absolut is stellar in the definition it lends to what it means to be African.
We must tell our own story. Let’s get the numbers right, let’s protect our brand image, let’s hold the global news media to account. Mostly, let’s tell our own story. DM