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Controversial Matters

The African Image

When the continent of Africa is mentioned, most often than not the first Image that comes to the average person’s mind is one of a “dark continent” characterized by primeval irrationality, tribal anarchy, civil war, political instability, flagrant corruption, incompetent leadership and managerial ineptitude, hunger, famine and starvation as well as rampant diseases, especially AIDS. Africa is seen as a homogenous entity comprising of uncivilized and heathen peoples who are culturally, intellectually, politically and technically backward or inferior, who are incapable of governing themselves, or at least embracing democratic principles of governance. The African continent is depicted as the “dependent Africa”, “crisis driven Africa” and “hopeless” or “pitiable Africa”. Without exception, the images have been negative and then sensationialize the “dark” side of Africa War, Poverty, famine, HIV and so on. This is the Africa that most people know, and believe to be true. However, though some of these negatives exist, on the contrary the general picture of what Africa truly is very far from this image that has become attached to it.

Africa is the second largest continent both in terms of land area and population, but unfortunately it is the poorest and least developed of them all. Many people in the Western world generally display a significant lack of knowledge about Africa. They have never visited Africa and most certainly, they never will. Yet in their minds, most of them have certain images of Africa that they hold to be “true” or “real”. They possess these images courtesy of the Western media through its representations of Africa – via television programs and documentaries, the movie industry, the Internet, as well as the print media including the newspapers, magazines, journals and books.

The persistent phenomenon of how the Western Media have continued to treat Africa negatively 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. This stereotyping archetype unfortunately has remained a hallmark of Western collection and dissemination of information about Africa. In many instances, Western media practitioners present fatalistic and selectively crude images of Africa to prove to their already misinformed audiences that they have visited the continent or are knowledgeable about its activities. This has impacted and continues to impact the continent politically, economically and socially.

I have always wondered why the Western Media has devoted a great deal of its resources and energy toward painting the continent of Africa in a negative light. Many African scholars have debated over why this is the situation in the first place. Many have wondered why despite the great developments that have taken place on the continent over the years, this negative portrayal continues to persist. James Michira identifies the following factors which reveal different explanations for the phenomenon commercialization of News and Corporate Factor: The media corporations that own the various media outlets in the West are driven by the profit motive. These corporations are, by law, required to make profits for their shareholders, failure to which they may face lawsuits. Therefore commercial interests shape the portrayal of the world events. The media select stories that can sell and omit those that cannot; then they report those selected in a way that makes them sell well. The result is the trend of crisis driven journalism of churning out news faster and faster, going for the quick and headline-seeking superficial coverage that seizes on the outrageous, the dramatic and the exceptional without bothering to place it in its proper context. Quality, professional, objective and balanced reporting takes back stage and instead “the bottom line” is what the GE/CEO wants reported and how it is done – usually the GE/CEO knows what sells. It does not matter whether the reports are biased, sensationalized or inaccurate, as long as they sell.

Monopoly of Ideas and Opinion: Western media dominate global news. The media is owned exclusively by Western corporate giants whose financial and technological wealth allows them to dictate not only what is reported about the whole world, but they also determine what is reported (or rather “exported”) to the African media about Africa and the world in general. As a direct consequence of the free market or competitive forces operating in the Western media sector, the giant corporations are merging and swallowing smaller ones and coming up with fewer and fewer conglomerations. These conglomerations not only own the production of the television programs, film and video industry, the Internet, newspapers and magazines, books, etc; they also control the circulation and distribution of the same. In so doing, there is no chance for diverse or alternative perspectives to anything that they report on. For instance, such conglomerations as AOL/Time Warner, Walt/Disney, Bertelsmann, Viacom, News Corporation, etc, control a huge market of the media in USA and Europe. Two news agencies – Reuters and Agence-France Presse – control an estimated 93% of the news that flow into Africa.

Foreign Policy and Western “Interests” in Africa: The portrayal of Africa as “dependent,” “in a crisis,” “facing a grim future,” “needing help” or even as “needing re-colonization” not only informs public opinion in the West, but also informs Western governments’ foreign policies. Such kind of images justifies the galvanization of the Western humanitarian agencies and governments to “intervene”. The images of starvation splashed by the western media during the 1984 Ethiopian famine led to and international response called Band Aid. In neighboring Somalia, the US government’s military intervention in 1991-2 was a direct response to the television images of starving Somalis. Nevertheless, the Operation Provide Relief turned out to be a disaster. Minear, Scott and Rienner succinctly put it thus: “pictures of starving children, not policy objectives, got us into Somalia in 1992. Pictures of US casualties, not the completion of our objectives, led us to exit Somalia.” When terrorists attacked Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the US and Western media in general gave it abundant coverage because US “interests abroad” were targeted. The American casualties were given more prominence; never mind that they were less a quarter of the Kenyans who died. A similar trend followed when just last month, the terrorists were back hitting an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa killing, 3 Israelis and at least 10 Kenyans. Israeli interests were under attack and, therefore, so were the US interests.

Textbooks and the School Curriculum: Unlike the average African high school student who studies not just African history but European history, American history, among other world histories, the average American student either is not exposed to the history and geography of Africa or is exposed to materials that contain inaccurate information. The textbooks that cover Africa only perpetuate the popular images by giving inadequate information, using popular constructs and featuring pictures of “wild” “exotic” Africa where the animals take center stage. Sometimes, such books highlight the socio-cultural representations of non- representative groups like the Maasai, the San and the Bushmen.

The images of Africa in the Western media are, by and large, images of misrepresentation. Whether this is a result of biased, unbalanced and subjective reporting, or is a consequence of a new way of perceiving reality where few corporate giants are creating commercialized representations of Africa in order to maintain their own businesses and ideological agendas (as Dan Chandler would argue) is not the issue. The issue here, it seems, is that these representations are always focused on the negative, the awkward, the weird and the absurd, the wild and the exotic. The fact remains, however, that these images are not all that Africa is about and, moreover, some of those images are not unique to Africa.

I believe that this unfortunate phenomenon has gone on for far too long and it is about time it came to an end. As Africans we cannot just sit down and expect the western media to suddenly change its approach to collection and dissemination of information about the continent. It is our continent and only we as an African people can represent her for what she truly is. It is up to us to be proactive and try to the best of our abilities to propagate true information about our beautiful continent through whatever means available to us. Be it through Art, blogs, books, websites etc. The Future of Africa lies in our hands as Africans, and it is up to us to determine what kind of future this would be.

List of sources

Africa in the Western Media
(Paper presented at the Sixth Annual African Studies Consortium Workshop, October 02, 1998) by Rod Chavis

Africa In The Western Media
Cycle of Contra-Positives and Selective Perceptions (Speech)

By Alhaji G.V. Kromah

Post-NWICO debate: Image of Africa in the Western Media By Tokunbo Ojo

Images of Africa in the Western Media by JAMES MICHIRA / DECEMBER 23, 2002

-Fofo Gavua


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