African statesmen: Western media should look at continent’s bright side
By Tim Stoddard
Sir Ketumile Masire, former president of Botswana and BU’s current Balfour African President-in-Residence, called upon the Western media to be more fair and balanced in coverage of Africa at an April 13 press conference at SMG concluding the African Presidential Roundtable 2005.
Sponsored by BU’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC), this year’s conference of former African heads of state took place at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 8 and 9 and continued on April 12 and 13 at Boston University. The 12 other former leaders were Nicéphore Soglo of Benin, Major Pierre Buyoya of Burundi, António Monteiro and Aristides Pereira of Cape Verde, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, Bakili Muluzi of Malawi, Karl Auguste Offmann and Navinchandra Ramgoolam of Mauritius, Joaquim Alberto Chissano of Mozambique, Ali Hassan Mwinyi of Tanzania, and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. Kaunda and Offmann are former Balfour Presidents-in-Residence at BU.
After reviewing some 2,700 reports in major American newspapers over the past 10 years, Masire said, “we found [media] coverage of the continent to be anything but fair and balanced.” Absent from the record, he said, were any stories about South Africa’s sustained economic growth, Botswana’s soaring literacy rates, and the steady enrollment of children in primary school in Kenya. “The findings of this and other surveys indicate that coverage of Africa by the leading sources of American media is, at best, dismissive of the continent’s progress and potential,” Masire said, “and thus leading to continued ‘exotification’ and marginalization of the African continent.”
“At worst, coverage disregards recent trends toward democratization,” he continued, “thus betraying an almost contemptuous lack of interest in the potential and progress being achieved on the continent. Underneath the present major American media coverage are buried stories of untold and unpublished growth, reform, and sustainability.”
Masire outlined roundtable participants’ three potential remedies to the problem: developing a multimedia campaign to counter Africa’s negative image in the Western press, developing incentives for nongovernmental organizations to train Western and African journalists to more accurately report on news emerging from African democracies, and encouraging American schools of journalism to offer specialized programs focusing on emerging economies and developing democracies in Africa.
“We raise this concern about how Africa is covered not because we don’t appreciate the need for a critical and skeptical press as a guarantor of democracy,” said Masire. “Our complaint is the skeptical and critical coverage does not have to be cynical. Our point is simple: tell Africa’s whole story. The problems in African countries deserve to be brought under the light of public scrutiny, but the continent’s progress and potential also deserve to see the light of day.”
The statesmen also discussed issues affecting U.S.-Africa relations, such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, HIV/AIDS, and the recent report by the Commission for Africa, an initiative launched by U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2004 to encourage international support for African economic development. “ Africa’s importance to global commerce and development is unquestionable,” Masire said. “The issue is, will Africa ever benefit from its contribution to the global economy as much as the world benefits” from Africa?