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An alternative approach for African media

Publication Date : 09-05-2012


I recently read a New York Times opinion piece entitled "Africa's Free Press Problem" by Mohammed Keita and wondered which Africa he was writing about. Keita makes sweeping statements about the state of press freedom in Africa but ends up only citing the cases of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

The New York Times jumps to the simplistic conclusions about Africa that are typical of Western media reports, conveniently generalising situations in one or two countries to frame a diverse, 54-nation continent with all manner of stereotypes. It is quite clear that emphasising neo-liberal democratic ideals without considering the interests of African communities is one of the factors that fuels conflicts on the African continent. It is quite justifiable for the leaderships in countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia to elevate unity and stability over the freedom of the oftentimes irresponsible, sensational and inflammatory press. The fact is the media could fuel a new round of warmongering leading to the kind of horrors witnessed in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. The possibility of a renewed Hutu-Tutsi war is never too far from the surface. It must be remembered that the media was used in the Rwanda to whip up deep-seated ethnic hatred, and this ethnic hatred was first planted through the divide and rule policies of Rwanda's colonisers.

When countries are faced with challenges to their very survival, a more nuanced balance between press freedom and the needs of development is necessary.

The New York Times writer shows his true colours by demonising China's rising media presence in Africa. He ignores the fact that the Western media is a more entrenched and destabilising presence on the continent than the Chinese media. In Kenya for instance, it is a well-known fact that pandering to narrow political interests in the aftermath of the 2007 general election by some media outlets nearly burst the seams of an otherwise tranquil nation. But more significantly, most Africans are tired of the Western media's instance on portraying Africa as a continent of disease, war and poverty and nothing else.

If indeed unfettered press freedom is the one and only ingredient for development, why then have most African countries not achieved economic prosperity over the last five decades of independence?

Keita wonders why China is being embraced on the continent. There are many reasons. Perhaps the outstanding one is the fact that China is providing a different perspective to African media and society: a new approach where governments, the media and the people consider each other partners in development. Development, after all, is an imperative that Africa sorely needs if it is finally to put an end to poverty.

The New York Times article suggests that one of the roles of the media in Africa is to mobilise funds for emergencies such as famines, and that "with civil society, the political opposition and the press severely restricted, there is hardly any domestic scrutiny over how the government uses billions of dollars of international assistance from Western governments". But one only needs to read economist and former World Bank consultant Dambisa Moyo's book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa, to appreciate why and how Western aid has failed the continent and needs to be rethought. She argues that foreign aid is a cause of Africa's persistent poverty and fosters dependency and corruption, hindering economic growth in Africa.

China already offers a different approach to aid through investment in infrastructure and the real economy that aids development and raises people's standard of living.

In his conclusion, Keita, in a subtle way, seeks financial support for Africa's commercial media as well as press freedom organisations from the West to counter China's influence in Africa. This is the main thrust of his article. Well, both China and the West are engaging Africa with different models and the media sector is no exception. The Western approach to media assistance is informed by ideology. Its support is intent on changing entire social systems to fit into their Western-centric worldview. The Chinese approach is based on broader Sino-Africa relations that eschew preaching or exporting ideology to Africa, settling instead for pragmatic areas of collaboration. Africans should be allowed to choose between these two models themselves.

The writer is a Kenyan communications researcher based at the Communication University of China.


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