Who Will Define Africa? the Time Has Come That We, as Africans, Take Responsibility for How Our Continent Is Portrayed, Writes Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa

Article excerpt

Everyday the African and global media publish articles about Africa, based on events that have taken place on our continent. In time, these stories begin to define who and what we are. In due course, as we come to believe the resultant image of ourselves, we also begin to act the part.

For some years now, our continent has been engaged in a sustained effort to change the lives of our people for the better. It is in this context that many on our continent and elsewhere in the world have, once again, as reflected in the reports we cite below, raised the issue of consistent and seemingly compulsive negative reporting about Africa.

On 23 May 2005, one of our newspapers in South Africa, The Mercury, carried the following story:

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"Nairobi--Rwanda's president has accused Western media of portraying Africa as a continent racked by poverty, war and disease, and he has challenged Africans to change that image. 'One of the reasons Africa is unable to attract enough foreign direct investment, which we need for our development, is the constant negative reporting,' President Paul Kagame said in an address to the International Press Institute World Congress on Sunday.

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"Kagame said it was a common belief on the continent that the international press gave Africa only negative coverage and ignored positive developments on the continent ...

"He said in his own country, the international media had portrayed the 1994 genocide as the result of primitive tribal killings, rather than an organised campaign perpetrated by the former government. 'Constant reference by the media to tribal killings, civil war, anarchy and chaos obscured and minimised the genocide that was taking place and the complicity and indifference of some powers,' he said. 'As a result, the UN member states were not called upon to recognise the genocide that was under way and did not feel compelled to take the appropriate action'."

More than a year later, on 9 August 2006, The East African Standard (based in Nairobi, Kenya) carried an article by Eliud Miring'uh under the headline "Western Reporting On Africa under criticism". It read in part:

"African and Western journalists differed sharply at a media managers meeting in Nairobi yesterday over the way the Western media reports on Africa. Whereas African journalists criticised the Western media for presenting Africa in bad light, their Western counterparts vigorously defended their position saying they could not ignore the continent's problems, which they described as 'harsh realities'.

"Some of the over 90 delegates from 25 African countries said that whereas the Western media was quick to file negative reports from Africa, it was slow in reporting on positive developments. The sentiments were expressed shortly after presentations made by Lionel Barber, the Financial Times editor, and Ms Amanda Farnsworth, the daytime news editor of BBC Television news. 'The Western media is not even-handed because there is some hypocrisy in the reporting of African issues,' charged Godwin Agbroko, the editorial board chairman of This Day newspaper of Nigeria. He said the Western media was not interested in the historical aspects that shaped realities in Africa such as colonialism and was only keen to view the continent from their own perspective ...

"Earlier, Barber said events in Africa had changed in the recent past and the continent was attracting sizeable attention from the rest of the world. 'Africa is no longer the forgotten continent because positive events have taken place and is commanding interest from the rest of the world,' he said.

"Barber defended the notion that the Western media was hostile to Africa, saying they could not ignore issues such as corruption, conflict, and dictatorship as practised by political leaders ... A delegate from Zambia wondered why major news agencies such as the BBC, CNN, AFP, and Reuters were quick to report on negative issues and slow to report positive developments on the continent. …