A young American journalist about to fly to his first posting abroad as foreign correspondent contacted me early in 2004. He said he had no previous experience, needed to talk to somebody who could possibly help him overcome this handicap, and my name had been recommended. In due course, he traveled by airplane and we had lunch in Cambridge and, on departure, I assumed he felt confident and prepared to face the new challenges ahead as African correspondent based in Johannesburg.
While his approach was certainly beyond reproach, our brief encounter left me with a great sense of misgiving. Was this vast African continent generally receiving the best coverage possible in the Western media? Could African journalists not make a greater contribution towards the coverage of their own continent in the Western media?
Citing certain alleged inadequacies on the part of African journalists, news organizations in Washington, New York, London and Paris routinely assign their own journalists, some with little or no previous experience covering a foreign country, to cover vast tracts of or even the whole of the continent of Africa. In some instances, this tradition effectively denies African journalists the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the coverage of countries they understand better than the average Western journalist. Because of this, they are also, therefore, denied an opportunity to improve their professional competence through association with the world’s leading news organizations.
Yet Western correspondents frequently file copy based on the input of local stringers or on what they glean from the output of local journalists in local publications. There must, therefore, be advantages in training local journalists to cover Africa directly for Western news organizations, and no evidence has been found that African journalists are impervious to further training or reorientation. Aside from eliminating the costs of relocating correspondents and finding accommodations for them in exclusive suburbs in Africa, there would also possibly be a significant improvement in the reporting because of African journalists’ familiarity with the territory covered. When Western correspondents fly in to cover an event at short notice, they can gain only a superficial understanding of the crisis and, also, they might have limited or no access to the most knowledgeable and relevant sources. And in places where dictators are in power, the locals can be suspicious of Western journalists, while government officials are fearful of association with them. Many correspondents are forced to take the line of least resistance into the assignment in hand.
Western Journalists Covering Africa
“Diplomats here say …” is a phrase sprinkled liberally in accounts sent from Africa by Western journalists. This is, however, a phrase that occasionally invokes a sense of bemusement among discerning African readers living in the West, while they wonder how any diplomat could possibly have become privy to such sensitive information or detail. For information, diplomats often depend on opposition activists given to embellishment to push their own cause.
A classic example of how journalists rely on sources from their own world to cover African affairs is to be found in the July 12, 2004 issue of Newsweek. An article on Sudan, “The Power of a Word,” highlights a certain concern raised by analysts—the appropriateness or value of some of the news sources Western correspondents covering Africa depend on. This article discusses the ongoing crisis in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where government-backed Arab militias have driven thousands of blacks from their homes and their land. In the article, the controversial question of when a massacre is deemed to have become genocide is raised.
This perennial question has been debated in other parts of Africa. At which point did the systematic elimination of hundreds of thousands of members of the Tutsi minority tribe by Hutu extremists in Rwanda in 1994 become genocide? Was the massacre of 20,000 peasants of the minority Ndebele tribe by President Robert Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in Zimbabwe, which received scant media coverage, genocide or not?
In the Newsweek article, John Kefferman, an investigator for Physicians for Human Rights, was quoted as saying, “This is genocide unfolding,” while U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s characterization falls short of such a categorical assertion. “What we are seeing is a disaster, a catastrophe,” Powell said after flying to Khartoum to give the Sudan government a last chance to stop the bloodbath. Paula Claycomb, a UNICEF official in Khartoum, was more graphic in her assessment of the situation. “The Sudanese government created a monster,” she said, referring to the marauding Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, “and they are having trouble putting it back in the cage.”
As an afterthought, passing reference is made in the article’s closing paragraph to the views of the men at the center of the crisis, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and his foreign minister, Mustafa Ismail, both of whom have denied that a crisis exists. Even though the situation in Darfur was high on the agenda of the third summit of the African Union (A.U.) held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—and the A.U. has more than 20 observers on the ground in Darfur and is engaged in trying to resolve the crisis—none of these African sources were in evidence in the magazine’s reporting.
The predilection to rely on Western-linked sources, as evidenced in this article, is consistent with general practice among foreign correspondents covering Africa. Foreign journalists, especially those correspondents recently posted to the continent or those covering events in one country while based in a different African country, often rely exclusively on sources who are the most easily accessible—the diplomatic corps, NGO’s and U.N. agencies—some of whom may not be not fully informed themselves. While few sources can be judged to be “fully informed” on an issue such as genocide, it is a serious oversight that the president of Sudan and his foreign minister are the only African sources quoted and no evidence can be found that other African experts were canvassed for their opinion or analysis. Had African journalists been the ones reporting this story, perhaps they would have at least referenced the ongoing effort by the A.U. or spoken to Africans who are the victims in this horrible crisis.
Curiously, during my many years reporting in Harare, Zimbabwe, I never met a foreign correspondent based there who took the trouble to learn either Shona or Ndebele, the country’s two indigenous languages. This includes those who remained in the Zimbabwean capital for many years. Yet political rallies and other meetings in Zimbabwe are invariably addressed in the vernacular. President Mugabe will throw in the occasional English sentence if he is particularly keen that foreign correspondents don’t miss a specific point he wants to make. Similarly, he is known to make serious threats against the white community in Shona, knowing that his comments would not be well received in the West.
This pattern has been followed for many years. I recall in January 1980, Mugabe addressed a massive rally on his return from exile to Salisbury (then the name of the capital city). More than 100,000 supporters turned up to hear the man who had become a legend, an enigma and, at once, a hero and a villain, address his first public meeting as leader of the party that was about to form the first government of an independent Zimbabwe. The foreign correspondents, many of them recently arrived to cover what was the most dramatic story on the African continent, were out in full force.
Even though Mugabe speaks eloquent English, the guerilla leader’s electrifying address was delivered in his mother tongue. A bewildered foreign correspondent, new to the capital, followed Mugabe’s discourse through the grudging assistance of a local journalist who was divided between the needs of his own important assignment and accommodating the demands of the visiting foreign journalist.
“What did he say?” the visiting journalist asked of this interpreter at one point as the stadium burst into a deafening roar.
“Nothing of importance,” the local scribe mumbled, as he wrote furious shorthand in his notebook. Had this local journalist been paid for his services, he might have been more cooperative.
“Journalists are not generally a sharing breed,” veteran African correspondent Michela Wrong points out sardonically in her book, “In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo.”
African Journalists Covering Africa
There might be merit in the assertion that the performance of some African journalists, especially in areas of professional specialization such as the coverage of economic issues, investigative reporting, and coverage of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, sometimes falls short of Western standards. The performance of Rwandan journalists during the 100-day ethnic purge was, indeed, deplorable. Two of them were jailed for life and a third was sentenced to 35 years for fanning the flames of the genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people in 1994. This marked the end of a landmark three-year trial during which the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda heard in Tanzania how the media played a major role in inciting extremists from the Hutu majority to carry out the slaughter of ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus.
Politically partisan coverage and analysis of issues, however, are not the monopoly of the African journalist, as Arab and some embedded American journalists covering the invasion of Iraq by the American-dominated coalition have shown.
Any suggestion that African journalists cannot, as a rule, cover Africa adequately or reliably has no merit. Jeff Koinange, CNN’s bureau chief in Lagos, is a citizen of Kenya. He is responsible for covering events throughout Africa He routinely flies in to cover Africa’s many crises—from the inglorious departure last year of Liberian strongman Charles Taylor from Monrovia to the 10-year anniversary commemoration in Kigali of the Rwandese genocide, from Zimbabwe’s controversial presidential elections in 2002 and attendant dispossession of white farmers of fertile commercial farmland to the recent bloodbath in strife-torn Darfur.
It is, however, with some bit of trepidation that Koinange approaches every new assignment, since as an African he surely feels a duty to be more knowledgeable than his Western counterparts about the many crises happening across this continent of 53 countries. Just getting from one story to another—as a TV correspondent—can be an overwhelming task. In an article posted on CNN’s “Behind the Scenes” series Koinange wrote about being in the Nigerian city, Abuja, when he received a call from CNN headquarters in Atlanta to “Get yourselves to Abidjan [Ivory Coast] as soon as you can. The story’s about to blow up!” As Koinange explained, it was “a tall order, indeed. You just don’t get anywhere quickly in Africa. But off we went, stopping by our bureau in Lagos to pick up our gear, all 23 cases of it.”
Koinange has proven beyond doubt that an African journalist can cover Africa for the West. So did Elizabeth Ohini, now Ghana’s Minister of Tertiary Education, when she covered Africa for many years as a correspondent for the BBC World Service. Koinange was educated in the United States, and this poses to some the question of whether this could have influenced his rise at CNN. His Abidjan coverage certainly contained the required American angle as some 101 Americans were trapped in that country in the midst of a military rebellion. The performance of Koinange and Ohini belie the perception in the Western media that news organizations must rely on Western correspondents to file stories, given that they want the story reported through the lens of Western interests. This perception also presupposes there must be a Western angle conveyed in reporting events; otherwise, there might be no coverage.
Zimbabwean journalists filing for Western news organizations soon learned that in their country’s ongoing political crisis, the story for the Western media was the plight of the 4,000 dispossessed white farmers, while the African journalist might have sought to highlight the plight of the hundreds of thousands of displaced farm workers, as well. When a white farmer was killed, a foreign correspondent filed the picture of his now homeless dog. Some African journalists found this coverage insensitive and argued that a picture of the now homeless workers from this farm might have served as a more graphic depiction of the crisis. And when three journalists from Harare’s only independent paper, The Daily News, and a Harare-based foreign correspondent were arrested, as editor of The Daily News I received calls from foreign news organizations outside of Africa. They asked me for details of the arrest and welfare only of the foreign correspondent. I had taken food to all four journalists in their cell, and so it was with a lump in my throat that I reminded my overseas callers that three of my own staff were also in custody.
Geoffrey Nyarota, a 2004 Nieman Fellow, was founding editor of Zimbabwe’s only independent daily publication, The Daily News, in 1999. He served as its editor until December 2002. He was arrested on six occasions. During an escalating campaign by President Robert Mugabe’s government to quiet criticism from independent newspapers, Nyarota was fired. The police visited his home at midnight two days later in his absence. He escaped to South Africa soon afterwards. Nyarota has received nine international journalism awards, including the 2002 Golden Pen of Press Freedom Award from the World Association of Newspapers, the 2002 UNESCO Press Freedom Award, and the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2001.