A Lecture Delivered at the African Studies Program
Posted July 26, 2008
The persistent phenomenon of how the Western Media have continued to negatively treat Africa is as topical today as it was nearly two decades ago when many Africans and other aggrieved proponents campaigned for the adoption of a new world information order as the best corrective approach. I suggest, not in any new way or fresh revelations, that the problem about Western media reporting on Africa goes beyond professional inadequacies and structural bias. Socio-cultural factors have continued to significantly account for the stereotyping archetype, which has remained characteristic of Western collection and dissemination of information about Africa.
For the purpose of this discussion, I shall highlight British and American media environments to explore the problem. And in this framework, it would be helpful to capture some of the complications that derive from the lack of energy or perhaps interest many Western news reporters and consumers demonstrate in ascertaining the real identities of their African subjects. In many instances, Western media practitioners present fatalistic or selectively crude images of Africa to prove to their already uninformed audiences that they have visited the continent or are knowledgeable about its activities.
We must also revisit the effects the nature of global media ownership has had on news flow from and to Africa. Equally important is the dilemma local journalists in Africa face when they serve as stringers and correspondents for the Western media.
This article must note some fundamental facts, which may allow us to appreciate the contradictions, if not hypocrisy, seen in the media's exercise of freedom and responsibility.
Some Basics of Africa Identity
Well, the fact is that Africa consists of more than 54 independent countries, and is the second largest continent next to Asia. It should not be difficult to understand that the continent's population of nearly 700 million speaks more than 1000 main languages. Historians sometimes refer to Africa as the Mother Continent for an important reason. Some 175 million years ago, Africa was the center of the landmass called Pangaea.1 It gradually broke up into the continents of North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Antarctica.
There is also abundant information about Africa being the origin of humans. Theories, supported by ongoing archeological findings, are illustrative. Even the two major seemingly opposing schools of thought about the origin of modern man, the Homo sapiens, point to a common African ascendant.
One proposition, commonly referred to as the Out of Africa Theory, suggests that between 50,000 and 200,000 years back, modern man emerged from Africa and moved on to other parts of the world. Another theory proposes that today's humans simultaneously appeared in Africa, Europe and Asia. The latter study nevertheless says all of these humans come from the Homo erectus species, which left Africa about two million years ago.
The Out of Africa theory received a boost two years ago when Swedish researchers used genome/DNA techniques at the Swedish University of Uppsala to demonstrate that Africa is indeed the origin of all humans. Prof. Ulf Gyllensten, who led the study, said their work was the first study in which the genome was being used in a sufficiently large number of individuals to come out with very strong evidence supporting the Out of Africa Theory. (Genetic study roots humans in Africa, BBC Online, Wednesday, 6 December 2000, London).
In a 1998 study published by the National Academy of Science in Washington, DC, professors at the University of Texas in the United States collaborated in a research that shows the Chinese are African descendants (DNA traces Chinese back to Africa, BBC Online, September 30, 1998). The Chinese and American experts used DNA tests to study 28 population groups in China, which mostly showed that the groups were African descendants.
Records of history are consistent about Africa also being the cradle of civilization. Spanning from ancient Egypt to Ethiopia in the northeast, to the ancient empires of Mali, Songhay, and Ghana in the West, Africa has flourished in civilization.
The Nile Valley along the northeast, remains historically credited for the inventions its African inhabitants bequeathed to modern civilization.
In his writing, African Peoples' Contributions to World Civilizations: Shattering the Myths, Paul L. Hamilton summarized the African people's accomplishments in the following categories:
1) The Sciences- Accomplishments in this area included astronomy, the 365 1/4-day calendar, the study of anatomy, embalming, chemistry, and mathematics (geometry and trigonometry), and the production of high grade steel and large scale architectural works such as the Pyramids in Egypt and the Grand Imperial Court of Timbuktu.
2) Inventions and discoveries: the Africans are credited for phonetic writing, paper and ink, aspirin, tetracycline, pregnancy testing, front porches and the house clock.
3) Social structures: national government, universities, libraries, and belief in one God, grand funerals and beliefs emphasizing the afterlife;
4) Social Customs: circumcision, dice shaving; belly dancing, and branding animals with hot
Psycho-Socio Legacy of Slavery and Colonialism
The brief African credentials we have outlined may lead one to wonder why then does Africa in the minds of some parts of the world, especially the West, seem to be notable only as a scourge of poverty, disease and savagery. What actually created the basis for the abortion of the development metamorphosis of Africa, the perpetual exaggeration of which is prevalent outside the continent? Perhaps a quick reflection on this may help us understand why many Europeans and Americans live with the selective perception that Africa is still struggling to get out of the Paleolithic and Stone ages.
History points to slavery and colonialism in Africa as two events that have had an overwhelming impact on the way Africans and Westerners think about each other. The two experiences effectively stopped the progressive growth of the technological society Africa had begun several hundred years earlier.
The psychological residue of slavery expresses itself in the mindset that the African, no matter his location in the Diaspora, has a fixed status below that of his Caucasian and other descendants. Slavery - particularly the buying and selling of black people between Africa the West - is the single most critical experience that seemed to have left the severest psycho-sociological impress in the American society. The black man and woman in America were useful only in helping to meet the labor demand of their masters. The indelible imprints of slavery have continued to threaten racial harmony despite the progress made to create a just society.
The perception of black humans as second class has accordingly made many Americans to view Africa and everything about Africa with jaundiced eyes. Unfortunately, not even formal education or position in government guaranteed that racial prejudice would not linger on. The great President Abraham Lincoln of the United States, in his debate with opponent Stephen Douglas in 1858, is reported as offering the following viewpoints: “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes – nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.3
When Liberia became the first African independent republic in 1847, the United States government did not recognize the sovereignty until 1862, though the founding of the country involved American efforts and ex-slaves. And indeed slavery was the underlying reason for the diplomatic delay. Washington thought it faced a dilemma over the kind of reception that would have had to be given to a black ambassador.
From European interaction on the other hand, Africa has never socially recovered from the disrepair inflicted by colonization. In addition to slavery, European colonizing and Balkanizing of Africa put forth a similar condescending imagery of the African. Notwithstanding European experiences in Africa, racial discrimination continues to be a problem in London, Paris, Rome, Lisbon, Madrid and other Western European capitals. The massive natural resource wealth that has continued to pour into the Western world has had little effect on determining whether Africa should be viewed as a partner or as a stepchild.
Slavery and colonization did not only crudely interrupt African real progress, but left a legacy that propels media coverage of Africa in a skewed faction. The equation provides that news is only news when it satisfies the expectation of the consumer whose mindset about Africa is little more than the pictures of Tarzan and gorillas. It then becomes a matter of a routine display of the symbolism that convinces the Western media audience that indeed what is being viewed, read or written is “African.” Except for the parading of malnourished and naked babies in front of television cameras, one gets the impression that Africa has remained in suspense since the days of the dinosaur.
For more than three decades now, news agency wire service has continued to be the most pervasive and fastest means of news transmission globally. The key world news agencies are owned by shareholders in Western countries. The Associated Press (AP) and the United Press (UP), founded in the United States, are two of the four leading wire services with monopolistic effects. According to its own information bulletin, AP, which was founded in 1848, is the oldest and largest news organization in the world providing news, photos and video for more than one billion people a day. The AP says it serves 5000 radio and television stations in the United States, and has nearly 9000 subscribers to its services from 121 countries.
Equally powerful are the Reuters news agency, operating out of Britain, and the Agence France Press (AFP) commonly called the French News Agency based in Paris. The AFP is the world's oldest news agency, founded in 1835, and like Reuters, it has stringers and correspondents around the globe.
These four Western-based and controlled wire services for several many years virtually determined what the audiences in their host countries heard about the rest of the world and vice versa. They set the tone and duration of international topical issues. Given the level of psycho-socio homeostasis produced by history, the news agencies tailored the news coming from Africa, whenever events were reported from the continent. From the subscription figures of the AP, one may exponentially determine the collective influence of the Western wire services.
In sharp contrast, the content of the TASS News Agency, the state-owned wire service of the defunct Soviet Union, did not only report events about Africa and other spots, but provided detailed background information and even wrote relevant commentaries about these events. At the Liberian news agency in 1970's, my colleagues and I often found the TASS dispatches more useful in our news analysis programs. And similarly, another state owned news agency, Xinhua of the People's Republic of China, loaded its reports with statistics and other detailed information.
Xinhua and TASS, which became ITAR-TASS after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, presented a form of competition to the Western wire services as far as the depth of stories was concerned. And as a result many news agencies and media houses outside of the West greatly utilize the services of the two news agencies. Xinhua has particularly become potent in its Southeast Asia sphere of operation.
The non-western news agencies' policy of avoiding the sensationalism identified with Western media reporting has been both a source of strength and a downside for all parties. Though African and other clients of the non-western agencies find the detailed reporting useful, state ownership of these news agencies often meant mixing their reporting with commentaries that border on some anti-Western propaganda.
With the Cold War at its height in the 70's and the 80's, my colleagues and I at the Liberia news agency and the Liberia Broadcasting Corporation carefully distilled the news from the propaganda. We eventually developed the skills to do this, and in the end we combined in a balanced and locally useful way, dispatches coming from all of the wire services.
The challenge posed to AP, UP, Reuters and AFP by TASS and Xinhua has not stopped the dominance of the West. Language and educational experiences have played to the advantage of the West. Russia and China found it difficult to compete with the heavy cultural European vestiges left behind by colonialism in Africa. Africans seek higher education in Europe or the United States. Besides, the media technology and news presentation formats are mostly English, French, or American.
The Western wire services have also effectively maintained their informal monopoly and superiority in providing news about Africa and the rest of the world to their Western audiences. Xinhua and TASS have simply not been able to penetrate. Their importance is noted only whey they carry critical reports that have critical implications for the West. As indicated in the large clientele of the Associated Press in and outside of the United States, the West-based wire services continue to supply their version of what is happening in Africa. The coloration of that reporting cannot run contrary to the social value system of the American, British and French corporate owners of the media institutions and their publics.
The technological revolution in international broadcasting - radio and television - has made an overwhelmingly diversified imprint on global society. Wars and disasters are telecast to the world as they happen. Competition among American television stations over their desire to report from the scene of events has pushed almost every American network and cable group to go international. The latest is the MSNBC, which has made the regional Middle East conflict and the Afghanistan operation as a regular feature of their nightly news.
MSNBC's Ashley Benfield has become the company's version of CNN's Christianne Amanpour, who acquired fame by reporting from the battle zone of Bosnia and Korsovo, as well as penetrating the secluded domains of power in Iran and similar places. Besides CNN, which has built some credibility for reporting to the world about the world, the American broadcast stations reporting on international affairs target the American audience. Catering exclusively to a particular national audience has always been fraught with parochial tendencies.
In this technological explosion and unprecedented excitement in journalism, Africa has not benefited. In fact, the advancement has been used to reinforce in vivid pictures, the stereotype imagery that has lived with the American and other Western audiences. If events in African countries ever make it to the news, it is presented to the audience as an exception to normal things.
It has been suggested somewhere that one way the imbalance reporting between the West and Africa can be dealt with is to deploy the services of local correspondents and stringers for the big western institutions. The experience in this area has not escaped one of the fundamental bottlenecks - ownership and policy. A British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) African radio program demonstrates the point.
The BBC radio news program called Focus on Africa has probably become the number one listened to international program in every African country that English can be understood. The daily program appears to have become a forum for Africans to vent their frustrations and also have the opportunity to criticize their leaders since that opportunity is not available under dictatorial governments. Recent civil wars on the continent, particularly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the Focus on Africa program virtually became the only means people in the West African sub-region and other parts of the continent could know what was happening.
Behind the façade of giving opportunity to Africans to air their opinion about national issues, a set of editorial policies firmly restrict the freedom. BBC stringers and correspondents report only what the London editors believe ought to be aired. And the criteria for transmission in many instances have little to do with professional journalism. If a guest in a pre-recorded interview said things that did not speak favorably of Britain, those portions are either edited out or the entire interview discarded.
Here is a personal example. I was in London in 1984 on an official mission as Minister of Information. The editor of the Focus on Africa invited me for an interview, and his first question was about the pending 1985 presidential elections in Liberia. He asked if I knew Military Head of State Samuel K. Doe was going to stand for the civilian presidential elections. I told him I did not know. He then asked whether the affair was a cloak and dagger business, and whether I was afraid of Doe. I in return asked him whether he was afraid of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher because indeed she was commonly referred to as the "Iron Lady." The interview was never aired.
While Focus on Africa does provide a platform for Africans to evaluate wrongdoing on the continent, it has also become a forum that gives chance for African personalities to be insulted and abused in a way that will never be condoned if the scenario involved British officials.
It appears that that this vicious cycle of controlling and tailoring impressions about Africa and Africans in the Western media can be interrupted from a sociological point of view. In the United States, a new program of education about Africa and the outside world has to be designed and aggressively implemented. Well thought out and easily understood forms of public tutoring on the realities of Africa can help discard the stone age perception still lingering in America about Africa and Africans.
It is true that prejudice and bigotry are hard to eliminate. But a sizeable portion of Americans, including African Americans, is just simply ignorant about Africa. Americans and their institutions interested in global understanding cannot rely on the media to change their attitude. The reciprocal entrapment between the media and their Western audiences on perceptions of Africa can be dissolved if journalists and their institutional owners wake up and hear members of the same audiences expressing knowledge of Africa beyond the Tarzans, tigers, and chimpanzees.
Ordinary people, including elders and children, must know that along with the huts, crocodiles and famine, African countries also have skyscrapers, multiple lane road networks, and other manifestations of modern life. Let people take the initiative, particularly in America, to teach the young children that Africa is not a single country and a single language. Let the children know that all forms of human beings come from Africa, and their geographical habitats were all once attached to the African continent.
While it is true that African countries and peoples have suffered because of the negative image, America has something at stake if ignorance is fermented. Knowing about the outside world, whether it is Africa or another part has profound dividends for the United States, which sets the agenda not only for the West, but the rest of the international community.
*About the Author: Prof. Kromah has from the University of Liberia a BA in Economics, an LL.B. in Law and has completed requirements for an MA in International Relations; from the various colleges of the American University in Washington D.C., an MA in Communication, an LL.M. in Law, and was accepted as a doctoral candidate in Law (SJD). He was Radio and television news director at the Liberia Broadcasting System, the national radio and television service before serving twice as the system’s Director General in the 1980’s. He became Minister of Information in the same decade. He has been a member of the Faculty of the University of Liberia since 1984, once serving as a Member of the Board of Trustees. He’s written several researched articles in the field of law, communication, economics and International relations. He is currently (2008) Senior Associate Professor of Mass Communication and Adjunct Associate Professor of International Law at the IBB Graduate School of International Relations at the University of Liberia.