Sunday, 8 June 2008

Parachute training

So, The Economist reckons journalism in poor countries is booming (this report is a couple of months old, but I came across it again today and thought it was worth another look). The growth in private media in the developing world is apparently spurred on by the demise of state-owned media in former Soviet-block countries, but also by the growth of private media and new technologies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The piece is not very critical but does touch upon the question of donors and governments trying to influence training content. The last line of the report also seems to offer a hint of irony at the Western journalism educators for whom introducing journalists in developing countries to the practices of Western journalism has become a luctrative venture. But the central question that is left needing further exploring, is what happens to journalistic frameworks - from ethical values to professional practices - when Western trainers meet journalists working in local realities that often differ vastly from the ones they come from and upon which their training manuals are based. As Francis Nyamnjoh has argued in his book Africa's Media, the dominant liberal democratic framework of Western journalism does not always fit African contexts very well, and this could go for other developing countries as well. For journalism training to be successful in the long run - for the 'boom' that the Economist reports on to be sustainable - it is therefore vital that training programmes are developed with the participation of local journalists. Parachute training is not the way to go.


Thursday, 22 May 2008

CNN effect or Compassion Fatigue?

The notion that global media can have an effect on diplomacy, geopolitics and humanitarian responses to disasters has been called the "CNN effect". But the global media is also fickle, with a short attention span. It often does not take long for "compassion fatigue" to set in, and for the global media to search for some gory news elsewhere. Clever governments, aid agencies and PR workers who know how the media works, can use this to their advantage. In an interesting piece in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins compares the way that the Chinese government responded to the recent earthquake, to the response of the Burmese junta to the recent flooding resulting from a cyclone in the region. The former managed to play up their response to the global media, in order to offset negative coverage of the country in the face of the upcoming Olympics. The latter continued to shun Western aid and attention, and the global media complied by averting their eyes from the Burmese victims and the situation in the country. An interesting dance, the one between media and power.
(pic: AFP/

Monday, 19 May 2008

Reporting Xenophobia

The reports about the past few days' xenophobic violence in Johannesburg directed against foreigners, mostly Zimbabweans, are shocking. While incidents like these are clad in the discourse of racism and ethnocentrism, they should in the first place be understood as directly related to material factors. No doubt some might want to construe these clashes as 'black on black violence' in the same manner as the state-sponsored violence between the ANC and Inkatha in the apartheid era was infamously described. Already the South African columnist David Bullard, fired from his job at the Sunday Times for his racist commentary, is gloating. But these clashes are firstly linked to the dire material circumstances in which the majority of South Africans live, almost 14 years into a democracy. In an environment where the competition for scarce resources is relentless, the poor are turning on themselves. Of course this also has to do with immigration policy (as suggested by The Guardian) and pres Thabo Mbeki's refusal to acknowledge the crisis in Zimbabwe, which prevented him from declaring the Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa as refugees and ask for UNHCR assistance; it also has to do with crime and an under-resourced police force ill-equipped to control the violence; it has to do with a general erosion of human dignity after decades of oppression.
The media's reporting of these events has as usual been largely event-driven, with little attempt yet to understand them as part of larger socio-economic circumstances and policies (although there have been some good analyses, for instance here and here). While front pages such as the one posted here (the Cape Town-based newspaper Cape Times, owned by the Independent group) raise familiar questions regarding the ethics of the representation of violent acts, there is also an imperative for the media to analyse these events holistically, as part of the precarious living conditions of the poor in the country, one of the most unequal in the world, and the political response these conditions demand. Journalism should be at its best when it defends human dignity and respect for life. This is such a time.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Disaster porn

Western reporting on the 'rest of the world' remains an important topic. Coverage of the natural disasters in Burma (Myanmar) and China provide some of the most recent examples of how the Western media often engages in what Frank Furedi calls 'disaster porn' (thanks to my friend Winston Mano for sharing the link). Furedi argues that Western media reports on these tragedies often serve as morality lessons about 'failed societies', and provide the opportunity for the West to display their superiority - hidden beneath a veil of compassion.

This veil of compassion is often seen in the reporting on Zimbabwe as well. While telling stories of individual lives touched by tyranny and oppression can provide context and a human dimension to the 'colder' reports of vote rigging and corruption, these stories can also become showcases for the reporter's own heroism of reporting under difficult circumstances, for instance. Today, the UK tabloid the Daily Mail in an editorial even hinted at the need for an invasion of Zimbabwe:
"It is nothing less than shaming that Britain - a principal architect of invading Iraq on a far flimsier pretext - is prepared to stand aside without intervening as Mr Mugabe begins the genocidal electoral cleansing of our former colony. "
Ah, yes, another invasion. Just what the world needs now.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Language as Camouflage

Truth is the first casualty of war, as we know. It can also be a casualty of journalism, as this report from MediaLens claims. It refers to the BBC's coverage of an attack on Somali militants, which it says obscures US involvement in the clashes between Ethiopia and Somalia. The reports, they say, manage to obscure the role of the US in this African region simply by using the passive form (which is also often associated with the journalistic mantra of "objectivity" and "balance"). This is an example of why "reading against the grain" should be a media literacy skill.
(Picture : BBC website)

Thursday, 24 April 2008

White stereotypes, black absences

I have contributed the post below about Louis Theroux's African Safari to Sean Jacobs' excellent blog, The Leo Africanus. Check it out.
There he stood, poor Louis Theroux.
Thin and civilised, black-rimmed spectacles and shirtsleeves, having to watch how an overweight Afrikaner, dressed in khaki, gets all excited about his daughter felling a wild hog with one shot from a crossbow.
Initially, upon watching his program ‘African Hunting Holiday‘ (BBC), one sympathises with Theroux to a certain extent - the dusty bush of Limpopo is no place for nuanced arguments or bookish chaps. As one of his interviewees less than delicately puts it in a heavy accent: “Africa does not have computers…it’s fucked, because we chop down everything and we eat everything. This (hunting) is a way of making money out what there is here.”
But Theroux’s posh indignitation at the bloodlusty, weird Afrikaner father-and-daughter pair becomes annoying when he insists on framing the farmers as the brutes, and lets their clients go scot free.
One cringes at the poorly executed machismo of the American clients who pay good money for the thrill of the kill.
Although towards the end it seems Theroux becomes a bit more sympathetic to the complexities of the hunting industry, what remains lost from sight is that these farmers play up an image of wildlife, the bush and ferocious animals to feed into Westerners’ fantasies about Africa.
On several occasions what becomes clear is that the farmers actually care deeply about the animals and the bush, and try to arrive at an ethical way of doing their job. But Theroux does not allow himself to dwell on these contradictions.
Rough farmers are part of the fantasy that the Americans come to enjoy, and Theroux actually is more complicit in upholding this colonial narrative than he would care to acknowledge. And then there are those parts of the fantasy which go wholly unspoken.
Theroux never complains about the black workers having to sit on the back of the truck or clean the bloody carcasses while he and the hunters engage in elevated debate about animal rights or enjoy the scenery from air-conditioned comfort.
Fantasies have many sides.

Friday, 29 February 2008

The media's response to racism

This week there has been international media outrage against a racist incident in South Africa, where four students at the University of the Free State recorded an initiation ritual where they humiliated black workers by, amongst other things, forcing them to eat a concoction into which they had urinated.
In an insightful response, Sean Jacobs hopes (but doubts) that we will see a serious discussion of the events in the media. It seems like the dominant responses emerging in the days after the incident still fail to connect this incident with larger, structural problems which continue to create the climate for racism in the country to persist. While the Mail and Guardian has done a good job of explaining the official attempts at transformation and student attitudes at the university, one hopes that they will continue to follow up with investigations into larger issues like the prevailing student culture that allowed a space for these type of initiations to take place. The M&G is also hosting a discussion event where the media's coverage of race will be discussed, which is a laudable step in self-reflection and civic engagement. But 'race' is not something that can be covered as a topic in isolation. It should be analysed in its relation to broader societal issues, relations and conditions. The M&G's report cites a posters at a protest march on campus: "Don’t blame the students, blame their parents". The fact that children can grow up in a democracy with such a sense of historical amnesia or oblivion to the structural privilege they still enjoy to think that serving urine-infested dog food to people is somehow a justified response to having to share their residence with black students, says something quite worrying about South African society. The media could be the place where the conditions that cultivate racist attitudes and create the opportunity for them to be manifested in the first place could be interrogated. The media should continue to remind the public of the vast power imbalances in the country that put idiotic white kids in a position to tell black workers to obey their commands, for the privilege of being able to clean up after them. It should continue to 'make strange' the social hierarchies, held in place by economic disparities, that South Africans often take as given. We need reports that relate these individual experiences and incidents with larger structural questions about the transformation of education in the country, access to secondary and tertiary institutions. The media should continue to provide hard figures about just how (un-)integrated campuses like Free State are. (A little symbolic touch is that the students could quite literally not even spell the Afrikaans word for 'integration' correctly in the video. Praat Afrikaans of hou jou bek, indeed). We need reporters to spend time with students (not only on the historically Afrikaans campuses, but the historically 'liberal' English ones as well) to conduct ethnographies of student attitudes and interaction. We need to know what are the social processes and institutions that have been shaping young people growing up in a democratic country to engage in the violation of human rights. In short: the media should report the Free State incident not in typical event-based style ('he-said/she-said/this happened/then that happened'), but use it as a springboard to do the long, hard and difficult work of understanding the complexities and contradictions of a society that was supposed to have been democratised almost 15 years ago. The other response we are seeing in the media is that the event is constructed as (yet another) 'isolated incident' for which a couple of individuals were responsible. Sometimes it even seems that judgement is reserved as to whether this is really 'racist' or just misguided fun. The Afrikaans media has given space to the students' parents to accuse the media of 'blowing things out of proportion', and Die Burger even dared to ask the question in a poll whether the incident should be seen as 'racism or innocent student fun' (with the results overwhelmingly in favour of 'fun').
This is not an isolated incident and the media should take care not to report it as such. By framing the incident as an shocking, outrageous event rather than as a symptom of more widespread, persisting racist attitudes in the country, the media reinforces the notion of racism as something individual rather than systemic. It then gives us the opportunity to voice our moral outrage (vicariously by framing the events as deplorable or directly by devoting web page or letter page space to responses). In rejecting the racist behaviour we obtain catharsis - of course we all deplore racism, of course we all find it disgusting and we all hate individuals like these who shatter our dreams of a new South Africa. Of course. So let's continue as before in the rainbow nation.
The point is that incidents like these show that the myth of the 'rainbow nation' continues to be exploded. Rigthwing extremism does not only take the form of a white schoolkid going on a shooting rampage in a township. It feeds off discourses, however subtle or disguised - on the web (racist rants from YouTube and Facebook to the blogosphere, where the Digital Divide ensures white voices are dominant), in popular culture (e.g. the De la Rey saga last year where young Afrikaners celebrated a Boer general who would symbolically deliver them from their perceived oppression), in sport (look at the response to the 'political appointment' of the new black Springbok coach as if redress automatically excludes merit). Instead of reporting events such as the Free State racist video only as scandals to be managed, punished or met with a political response, the media should start connecting the dots. Viewing these events as isolated incidents means that we can continue to cling to the dream that the South African transition to democracy is something that happened in 1994, rather than as something that is far from complete. Why are we surprised if we are confronted by the messy, bloody, ugly face of history that still stalks our social lives and our public discourse like a zombie that refuses to die? Because we treat incidents like the Free State race video as shocking but isolated incidents that run counter to our treasured belief that South Africans live in a new country, rather than interrogating the evidence that suggests that, in many ways, they are not. The Free State incident should create the opportunity for the media to take a long, hard look at the state of the nation. Let's see daily, weekly and monthly investigative work uncovering the attitudes, the economic structures, the social conditions and the institutional practices that continue to create a space for people like the Free State Four to somehow think that what they were doing was fun, or worse, a legitimate response to 'integration' that was forced upon them. The very fact that integration has to take place through quotas and and places in a university residence should already be an indication of how far South African society is from the widely celebrated rainbow ideal of integration. No wonder the students didn't even know how to spell the word.

Monday, 11 February 2008

The challenges of crime reporting

The South African Institute for Security Studies has highlighted the challenge of crime reporting in the country, highlighting distortions and omissions in the media's approach to dealing with this crucial issue. Much of their criticism pertains to things media can also be criticised for more generally, partly because journalism operates according to certain key 'news values' (probably the simplest way of defining a news is the old adage that when a dog bites a man its not news, but when a man bites a dog, well you've at least got a funny feature for the bottom of your front page). Some of the symptoms mentioned are: an event-driven journalism that neglects context or covers dramatic incidents but does not follow through with a long-term view; reporting focuses on crimes involving prominent or famous people; reporting is based on hearsay; statistics are misinterpreted. Read the ISS report here. pic:

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Globalization, European media and African football

Globalization has contributed to a wider appreciation of African football, Charles Onyango Obbo argues in the Ugandan newspaper The Monitor. His example of the African Cup of Nations now being viewed more widely on European television screens suggests that global flows of people (what Appadurai referred to as 'ethnoscapes') and media content (Appadurai's 'mediascapes') are closely linked. Although his take on free trade and the influence of globalization on African politics is somewhat too celebratory and uncritical, Obbo importantly points out that globalization has not meant that, - excuse the pun - the global playing field has become level, since it benefits individuals more than communities or nations.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Kenya, cliches and contraflow

As the post-election crisis in Kenya continues, attention has also been directed at the way international media have been covering the events. A number of commentators have criticized the 'tribalism' cliches that have been bandied about (a summary of some of the viewpoints can be found here). On the listserv H-Net Africa there has been an ongoing debate about the coverage of the conflict by the New York Times and other international journalism outlets, while the BBC has done some good introspection. While these debates rightly criticize the international media for often lazy or sloppy journalism, new media technologies like cellphones and the internet have facilitated a contraflow from Kenyan observers themselves. With a ban on live news reports in place, new media technologies seemed to have helped Kenyans circumvent official (silenced) channels. Cell phones were used to keep Kenyans in the diaspora in touch with stranded relatives, news updates were sent via SMS, while on the Internet several excellent blogs on sites like Global Voices and Pambazuka News (now also on Facebook ) have been tracking developments. Of course newspapers like the Daily Nation are also available online.

So there are alternatives to the 'tribalism' cliches available, and they are not that hard to find.