Is Black Available in White? A Case for the Western Media


By Audrin Mathe In 1978, the London-based daily, The Guardian, observed that the third world finds itself presented as crisis ridden, without precise geographical delineation, inhabited by hordes of hungry and, occasionally, angry people. In 1998, Thabo Mbeki, then Deputy President of South Africa, observed in Swakopmund that when something goes wrong in Somalia, residents of Mississippi, USA, say something has gone wrong in Africa. In 2002, Hage Geingob, then Prime Minister of Namibia ,observed in Arizona, USA that the world has failed to report on positive developments about Africa because the media believes no good news is news. I quarrel, thus, that a fundamental axiom of democracy is that citizens of any country must have information and knowledge if they are to play an active role in the lives of their countries. I must underline the fact that free and responsible media are critical sources of information for citizens who want to choose the best leaders for their countries and make sound decisions about the issues in their nations. But then, the media must be balanced, objective and critical. I may add that criticism is not supposed to be always objective. It is, of course, supposed to be always intelligent. And more to the point, it is supposed to be always fair. Therefore, the relationship between objectivity and criticism is not constant – it is variable. But that is a debate of another time. The reports about hunger, war and poverty in Africa remain a challenge for the western media. The focus on war stories, for instance, often without any follow-up once they are over, is partly a response to the clients’ demands. The war in Angola is a case in point. The media have fallen silent since the demise of Jonas Savimbi. Perhaps Geingob is correct in his analysis that no good news is news – at least from the vantage of the media. It is widely recognised that when stories get covered only “white” interests are involved, as it so happened with the arrest of mercenaries in Zimbabwe. In Iraq, American and British casualties are highlighted non-stop – even if it’s one dead soldier. The truth is that ordinary Iraqis die every day, mostly unnoticed. While I dread the death of innocent lives, it is hard not to notice how the American media played out at the killing of 32 people at a Virginia school two weeks ago. The people of Darfur have been dieing and suffering in silence for sometime now while the best satellite dishes in the world are covering “Big Brother”, “Idol” and other entertainment shows, live 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whether this lack of caring is real or perceived, the world media has done very little to disapprove it. Basically, the western media risk feeding into the perception that Africa doesn’t matter, and it matters only when the west says it does. By neglecting to report on positive developments in Africa, the Western media perpetuates the stereotype of Africa as a continent whose people are unable to advance themselves economically, socially and politically. The only time the West’s role in a crisis situation in Africa is emphasised is when the West has the opportunity to emerge as a “Samaritan” figure – helping the Africa which is unable to help itself. This is often an opportunity for aid organisations to get some advertising. So you would have a story about the aid worker who risked his life to help, but nothing about the local people who deal with the same situation everyday. This should not be surprising as four-fifths of the public’s information derives from the three main news agencies based in New York (Associated Press), London (Reuters) and Paris (AFP). A large amount of news received by audiences across the globe is mediated through American or European eyes. I suspect you knew that. The extent to which news correspondents are distributed around the world has a major impact on how Africa is covered. The sad reality is that CNN has one full time correspondent dedicated to covering the whole of Africa with its 53 countries, sharing twenty-two minutes of news on Inside Africa each week. On the contrary, almost every European capital has a BBC or CNN correspondent. Each news organisation has daily news programmes exclusively devoted to European affairs. In the case of CNN, nearly half its broadcasts are anchored from London and Hong Kong, and the rest from its headquarters in Atlanta. Not even its flagship African programme, Inside Africa, is anchored from Africa. When African issues are discussed, Western “experts” on Africa are interviewed for an African perspective. An African scholar, quite appropriately, lamented: Is black available in white? I therefore ask the question:Who speaks for us? As we mark World Press Freedom Day, it is necessary for us as Africans to tell the world and the residents of Mississippi, USA that Africa and Namibia or Somalia are not quite the same. It is necessary to tell the world that good news is also news. It is necessary, perhaps now, for African governments to undertake an international public relations campaign to showcase our continent’s successes around the world. It is time to stop the laughter and see the world through our own eyes. Only then, can the developed world start believing that what we know is indeed knowledge. – Audrin Mathe is the spokesperson of the Roads Authority. He previously served as spokesperson to the first Prime Minister, Dr Hage Geingob and his immediate successor, Theo-Ben Gurirab. He later served as Executive Assistant to the Secretary General of the SADC Parliamentary Forum. He also worked as a Television Producer and later as Assistant Manager at the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation Television, amongst others. He is an Alumni of the United State Department of State. He holds four degrees, including a Master of Arts in Communication Science from the University of the Free State with special interest in Speech and Political Communication.