Africa is portrayed in the Western media by its extremes, observes Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo, a managing editor with the Nation Media Group in Nairobi, Kenya. Stories about its civil wars, human rights abuses, government corruption, disease and poverty abound, but these have been joined by Western reporting that, in Onyango-Obbo’s opinion, can be too willing to celebrate the promised reforms of emergent leaders for whom greater journalistic scrutiny should be applied. The result: “… the leadership in Africa became not only complacent, but also used the flattering international coverage to muzzle internal critics and vigorous independent reporting ….”
As a BBC special correspondent who has reported on Africa for two decades, Fergal Keane says he is “a disenchanted member of the television Africa corps, tired of hearts of darkness coverage that reduces every African problem to questions about tribalism or native corruption and refuses to recognize sprouts of hope where they exist.” He argues for a reporting paradigm in which Africans tell their stories and help viewers, listeners and readers “recognize the energy and vitality of this continent.” Radio correspondent Jason Beaubien, whose African coverage is broadcast on National Public Radio, writes about a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that began with the hope of telling stories of year-long reconciliation efforts of its power-sharing government and ended as he confronted bribery and fled the country to escape the escalating riots. Photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale has worked in the DRC since 1999, and with words and images he explains why he strives to overcome huge obstacles to report stories of people’s suffering. When an editor responds to a story proposal with the words, “We have covered Africa this year, so we won’t be doing anything for a while,” he bristles.
The Boston Globe’s Africa correspondent John Donnelly explains why many statistics about Africa that reporters rely on can be so wrong and what inaccuracies can mean. His advice: “Just use caution when the numbers come out of Africa. Remain skeptical. Ask tough questions, and find ways to let readers understand the dilemma the numbers pose in their telling.” While he was Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Nairobi, Davan Maharaj proposed “a story about how Africans live on less than one dollar a day.” His idea turned into a six-part series called “Living on Pennies,” with photographs by Francine Orr. As Maharaj writes, this “was an attempt to pull away the statistical curtain and reveal a close-up view of how these Africans go about their daily lives.”
Hilaire Avril, who writes for IRIN, the U.N.’s humanitarian reporting service, examines aspects of reporting relationships among journalists and aid workers. “Humanitarian workers have a growing skepticism towards journalists, especially those who ‘parachute’ in to do one story and then leave,” he writes. Thierry Cruvellier, editor of International Justice Tribune, explores some consequences of the absence of adequate local coverage and “close independent scrutiny from the mainstream international media” of Africa’s international criminal tribunals and reconciliation commissions. “To fill this information gap, international nongovernmental organizations have assumed the role of independent, private media companies,” he writes.
Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole offered readers a way to see the human toll of Liberia’s civil war, and images from her series, “Monrovia Under Siege,” which won her the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, open a series of stories about Liberia. As managing editor for Liberia’s leading independent newspaper during the war’s early years, Gabriel I.H. Williams went into exile in the United States because of death threats due to his work as a journalist. He writes about a trip he made back to Liberia earlier this year and the difficult circumstances Liberian journalists face despite regaining their freedom. He suggests ways to restore the country’s independent media that was once “regarded to be one of the most vibrant in West Africa.” Liberian photojournalist Gregory H. Stemn recalls grave dangers he faced when he tried to document the government’s brutality.
Geoffrey Nyarota, founding editor of The Daily News, Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper (which has ceased publication), describes how much better coverage of Africa would be if more African reporters told the stories to Western audiences. Shyaka Kanuma, cofounder of Rwandan Newsline, a former independent newspaper, tells why “it is an act of extreme courage for African journalists who are inclined to freedom of thought to keep publishing or broadcasting their opinions and views.” Luckson A. Chipare, who directs the Media Institute of Southern Africa, writes about attacks against journalists as he details media repression in several African countries. Pippa Green, head of radio news at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, explains what her country’s transition to democracy means for journalists. “We’ve tried to establish the obvious journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness, but we need to find ways to combine these standards with the ability to spot and tell a good story,” she says. Excerpts from a speech given by Gwen Lister, editor of the independent newspaper, The Namibian, address difficulties of managing—financially and editorially—an independent news organization during times of national crisis and offers lessons learned in the struggle to maintain press freedom. Yvonne van der Heijden, a freelance journalist in the Netherlands, interviewed Wilf Mbanga, founding chief executive of The Daily News in Zimbabwe, about government harassment of the press. Mbanga is now in Tilburg (The Netherlands) as part of the Cities of Asylum network that van der Heijden describes.
Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, writes about using the Internet to document a pattern in which Western news coverage is strongly connected to a nation’s wealth. Following Zuckerman’s analysis is a sampling of African stories that the United Nations put among its “Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About.” Frank Green, a reporter with the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch, teamed up with freelance photographer Joseph Rodríguez to report from Africa on AIDS in Zambia. In writing about his reporting trip, he acknowledges that a grant from the Dart Center made this story possible for his midsized newspaper. Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union in Albany, New York, answers two questions, “Why would our newspaper send a team [reporter Paul Grondahl and photographer Steve Jacobs] to one of the poorest nations on earth [Malawi], far away from the community we serve? Why would we publish a full-color, 24-page section featuring these journalists’ reports and devote countless hours to creating an ambitious presentation of this project on our Web site?” And Wilson Wanene, a Kenyan-born freelance journalist based in Boston, reviews “The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands,” written by journalist Aidan Hartley, who was with Reuters’ Nairobi bureau during the 1990’s.