Monday, February 18, 2008



By Jerry Okungu

And the beat goes on and on as usual and as expected. Every media conference one attends anywhere in Africa, it is the same old song over and over again; that Western media is biased against the continent; that it depicts the continent in the most despicable way possible; what with pictures of misery, ethnic civil wars, famine, violence, poverty and corruption; no one can see any hope for Africa through the lenses of the Western camera.

This was the same song we saw played at the just concluded Nairobi Africa News Media conference early in early August 2006.

Other than the old song, Daytime News Editor, Amanda Farnsworth of BBC TV News couldn’t have been more blunt and defiant. In her presentation entitled Africa through the eyes of the Western Newsmedia, that she co- presented with fellow Briton, Lionel Barber of The Financial Times, Amanda Farnsworth displayed some of the most gruesome footages on Africa’s miseries. To an audience that went dead silent after the first pictures came rolling on big screen, it was a replay of exactly what hurts African critics of Western media most. When she was through with it, it was dead silence. There was an atmosphere of numbness as no one had the courage or strength to raise their hand- until the shock subsided.

When it was time to comment on the duo’s presentation, a number of issues were raised including the usefulness of feeding audiences with such horrible situations on their screens day in and day out. However, in responding to the delegates, Amanda and Lionel were as defiant as ever. They clearly stated that it was not their business to report Africa the way Africans want it. Reporting Africa the African way was the responsibility of African media!

As the conference progressed, several issues and scenarios emerged that were as contradictory as ever. There were African journalists, some of whom had suffered at the hands of their governments that felt that the media in Africa should distance itself from any African government as much as possible if they were to survive and remain credible. The same delegates were uncomfortable with suggestions to get African media houses working together by exchanging news stories and commentaries about Africa. Strangely enough, the same so called martyrs of African press freedom were the first to indicate that given a choice, they would use a Reuter’s story at the expense of a similar one filed by an African journalist from another corner of the continent!

If one listened to Ambassador Kiplagat of Africa Peace Forum and Wilfred Kiboro of Nation Media Group carefully, one would detect a clear message that the real culprit in Africa’s negative image was the African journalist himself. This theory was supported by delegates from Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, most of who were parliamentarians from their countries. In their view, African journalists were the continent’s enemies from within who saw nothing good in an African government.

Coupled with this tendency to vilify the continent in the eyes of the international audiences, a huge number of African journalists were grossly ill-trained and
ill-equipped to report news effectively and competently. A number of them were not in a position to grasp and understand the numerous challenges facing the continent.
They lacked skills and knowledge to do so.

Beyond skills and knowledge they lacked the necessary resources to compete with their Western counterparts in covering stories on the world’s hotspots.

Another challenge that the conference saw as an obstacle to professional journalism in Africa was poor packages for practising journalists either as full time employees or as independent stringers. This condition exposed them to the vagaries of various ills in society such as corrupt deals emanating from their associations with politicians, top civil servants and chief executives of the corporate world.

This condition was seen as even more serious than lack of training. In the opinion of the conference delegates, this poor remuneration was the root cause of all malpractices in the industry, maintaining that no matter how well trained a journalist was, as long as media houses kept on paying them wages below poverty line, they would always be susceptible to corruption resulting in unethical professional practices. It was therefore not unexpected when one of the resolutions at the close of the conference pitched for improved pay packages for journalists across the continent.

Going back to training, journalists identified two levels of training; one at the level of giving basic technical and professional skills at national institutions of learning like schools of journalism. The other looked at the possibility of setting up professional journalism labs for practising journalists to expand their world view and give them more background knowledge in their specialized fields. Institutes like the Pointer Institute and the American Press Institute in the USA came to mind, not to mention the Media Institute of South Africa.

It was this need that made Mr. Wilfred Kiboro announce the launch of a similar institute under the auspices of the Nation Media Group that he hoped would be supported by institutions like the Financial Times, BBC and the European Parliamentarians for Africa. However the irony was, as Kiboro was calling for this support, Kenyan parliamentarians that had been invited to the conference were conspicuously absent; not a single one attended, save for a good will message from one Kalonzo Musyoka!

In more ways than one, the conference recognized the widening gap between politicians and journalists in the continent. Parliamentarians saw journalists as a breed of prying hounds that specialized in distorting news and stories about them.
They saw journalists as a bunch of corruptible people who could be hired to damage reputations of individuals in society. This view was shared by Parliamentarians who just a few years back were practising journalists. However, it was noted that journalists and parliamentarians had a lot of issues in common that they needed to deal with. They saw themselves as watchdogs on governments in their societies.
As parliamentarians, their primary duty was to keep the government on its toes and ensure proper accountability for public resources.
This role was shared by journalists. However, journalists had the added responsibility of making sure that parliamentarians also performed their tasks as law makers in parliament.

But with Kenyan parliamentarians boycotting the conference, it remained to be seen how much will be achieved to bring MPs and journalists to work together on issues of common national interest.