The Western Media and Africa: Issues of Information and Images

Amy Biney

Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 2

“CNN is the 16th member of the Security Council” – Boutros Ghali, 1995.

As we approach the millennium, with the triumph of the United States over Russia, capitalism over socialism and the market over planning, the depiction of Africa through the centuries has not changed considerably.

Africa has been portrayed as the dark continent in need of civilising, and its heathen peoples in need of enlightenment through enslavement and colonisation. Africa has been presented as a continent in the difficult throes of trying to become more like the societies of the Western Hemisphere. From the era of Africa’s enslavement and colonial rule, traders, missionaries, adventurers and explorers have all played a role in perpetuating and disseminating certain images of Africa. These images have on the whole been negative.

With the formal independence of most African countries in the 1950s and ’60s, anthropologists and modernisation theorists helped to portray a view of the dark, exotic Africa as being “emergent Africa”. The 1970s saw an image of “dependant Africa”, advocated by the dependency theorists who used the concept and theory of dependence in analysing Latin America, to understand Africa’s underdevelopment. In the 1980s and ’90s Africa has not only been portrayed has dependent Africa but as “crisis and pitiable Africa”.

Whilst from the 16th century to the 19th century, colonial administrators, missionaries and merchants were largely responsible for disseminating ideas about Africa, today this dissemination is carried out by various forms of print and electronic media: newspapers, television, radio and the Internet.

Misinformation about Africa has become a growth industry in the West. A vocabulary of metaphors is used in describing Africa. For example, “black on black violence” is a euphemism the Western press used in writing about South Africa in the 1980s, yet British journalists do not report on “white on white violence” when reporting the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Most Westerners have never visited Africa and may never visit the continent. Yet there is a particular image of Africa in the Western mind. When one is asked to think of Western images that come to mind when thinking of Africa, the overall mental images are of primeval irrationality, tribal anarchy, hunger/famine, civil war, managerial ineptitude, political instability, flagrant corruption and incompetent leadership.

These mental images of Africa have their deep roots in a historical relationship of slavery and colonialism which was imposed on the continent. It was a relationship which defined Africa and Africans as culturally, intellectually, politically and technically backward and inferior. These ideas continue to permeate the perspectives Western journalists, editors and academics adopt when writing about Africa.

More recently there has been open talk of recolonizing Africa. In an editorial entitled “Weep for the Lost Continent”, the Independent on Sunday claimed:

“Africa is so much without hope that it is difficult to believe that it can help itself. If western countries had the will they could recolonise the continent which they left in such haste. The Japanese and the Germans could run Africa, using the British, as professional ex-colonists, as their official agents.”(1)

In the Spectator, Paul Johnson’s went as far as to say:

“What the third world needs is a new form of imperialism: altruistic, internationally supervised, efficient and tough-minded … the factors which will permit the revival of colonialism are in place”.(2)

Patrick Marnham “wonders whether Africa can ever be governable” and claims that “in Africa no known system of government works,”(3) whilst Robert Kaplan warned US government officials of an impending anarchy of social disease, environmental decay, population explosion and civil war, commencing in Sierra Leone and embroiling the twenty-first century.

Calling for the recolonization of Africa by the Western media and academic community is an alarming and highly dangerous trend. It is a view that is as nonsensical and it is patronising and racist. It is an analysis which seeks to blame the victims and deflect any focus on the role Europe has played in the bloody mess of Africa.

These views are nothing but a modernised repackaging of the British colonial view of Africa and Africans as incapable of managing their own affairs. What all these views fail to take into account are the deep-rooted causes of the disintegration of the African state, which was undoubtedly exacerbated by the coming to power of an African elite which colluded with French, British, American governments and multinational companies to bleed African economies through Western imposed neo-liberal economic reforms.

Certainly, Africa has ruthless and corrupt Moi’s, Mobutu’s, Bokassa’s, but these leaders have been propped up (and in Mobutu’s case, installed) by Western governments. This is never given adequate coverage by the Western media.

Western news reporting in general is often portrayed as being neutral and impartial, and the journalist as a neutral and balanced arbiter. There is still a popular misconception that anything written or seen on television is true. This is often a huge myth which needs to be exploded. Firstly, “information” does not exist in an ideological vacuum. Information on Africa is often presented without a historical and analytical context to explain the roots of a conflict. On account of this lack of historical and analytical examination, most Western reports resort to attributing all conflicts in Africa to primordial irrationality and “tribalism”

Secondly, “information” of reporting on Africa sometimes underlies or informs Western governments’ foreign policies. How television images of starving Somalis in 1991-2 led to the US government’s military intervention will be examined later as a prime example of how the media can and do have a direct influence on government policy.

Thirdly, “information” also plays a big role in the formation of Western public opinion, both sympathetic and negative, towards Africa and African people. The image of “Africa needing help”, was the dominant image during the 1984 Ethiopian famine and Band Aid was an international response motivated by Western public sympathy.

Fourthly “information” is not neutral. The mass media is not neutral in the news it chooses to disseminate on Africa. Imperialist and racist attitudes are often reflected in the angle and more often than not, the language it employs.

I shall now examine how the Western media covered the conflicts in Somalia from 1991-1993 and Rwanda from 1994 to 1995. I have selected these two countries because they are highly interesting in themselves and show the interplay between three sets of Western institutions: the news media, governments and humanitarian organisations. These two conflicts also provide some concrete examples of the gross misrepresentations of issues and images of Africans.

In looking at Rwanda and Somalia as case studies, we have to ask four important questions. Firstly, how did the Western media portray these two conflicts? Secondly, what were the real issues that were concealed in the media’s misrepresentations? Thirdly, what kind of language was used to represent the issues? Finally, how did the media attention link with Western governments’ policymaking and Western humanitarian responses?

The Somali Crisis

Prior to 1992, when the country received international attention, there had been famine. 350,000 human lives were taken by the drought.(4) It was only when Save the Children Fund and other humanitarian agencies took action that international attention on Somalia was increased. In 1992 a US military airlift of 145,000 tons of food to displaced Somalis in neighbouring Kenya brought the expected media coverage. Somalia’s profile was raised by this “Operation Provide Relief”.

Why was there this turnaround in attention and action? Minear, Scott and Weiss put it down to three factors: Firstly, a herd instinct of the news media in which TV and newspaper crews compete with each other to get big scoops and stories for their employers. Secondly, in July 1992, the then Secretary-General of the UN, Boutros-Boutros Ghali, said that Somalia was the victim of a highly publicised “rich man’s war” in the former Yugoslavia. His comment stung Western governments into action. Thirdly, a small number of European and American- based humanitarian agencies used firsthand accounts of Somalia in a combined campaign to increase international attention to the crisis.

Of all the media forms, television was the major stimulus in provoking Washington’s military intervention and Washington’s abrupt withdrawal. The then Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger said “Television had a great deal to do with President Bush’s decision to go in.” Once committed to intervention, US policymakers sought and received endorsement from the media.

The reversal of the American intervention emerged with the deterioration in the security situation, faltering humanitarian operations and the American retaliatory attack on Somalis as a result of the deaths of 23 Pakistani troops serving with the UN, on the 5th June 1993. American bombing raids on Mogadishu in 1993 killed more than a thousand Somalis and turned the UN and US into a hated presence.

Then came the broadcasts of Somali video pictures of a dead US marine being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in early October 1993. By the end of that month, 21 American soldiers had been killed and 75 wounded. These pictures led to a direct and swift US policy reversal. According to the Chairman of a Congressional Committee:

“Pictures of the 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.”(5)

There followed a White House announcement of a countdown to military withdrawal. Secretary of State Eagleburger had initially believed that America could intervene “without any great danger of body bags coming home.” How wrong he was! US troops withdrew on 25th March 1994.

How did the Western media portray the Somali crisis? On television the predominant images were of starving people and gun-wielding soldiers. In the US, the American public were told that Somalis were stoned out of their minds everyday on the drug Khat, which is no stronger than coffee.(6)

What were the real issues that were masked in the media’s representation of issues? Firstly, very few journalists analysed the conditions that had helped generate the conflict. Western journalists such as Mark Huband attempted to do so. Huband made the point that in some ways the West and Russia who supplied weapons to Somalia are responsible for sowing the seeds of destruction and that the fracturing of society would not have been possible were it not for the external weapons Siad Barre received during his 21 years in power.(7)

Secondly, the predominant approach of the media was to portray the conflict in Somalia in complete isolation from the entire history of the Horn of Africa, whereby colonialism led to the direct carving up of the Somali people into different territories ruled by various European powers. Thirdly, in 1980, US Congressman Solarz advised the Carter administration to stay out of Somalia because it had neither strategic nor economic importance to the US.(8) Eleven years later, before the pro-US regime of Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, his regime had signed oil development rights with the American oil giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Philips. These companies were sitting on a mining fortune, yet this issue did not get one inch of coverage during the debacle.

The Rwandan Conflict

According to Minear, Scott and Weiss, before the genocide was unleashed in April 1994 in Rwanda, the signals of a possible crisis went largely unreported and unheeded by the news media, humanitarian agencies and governments. The slaughter of Batutsi and Bahutus took place amid total international indifference.

According to Africa Confidential “the carnage began barely an hour after the shooting down of the presidential plane” that killed both the Rwandan and Burundian presidents on the 6th April 1994.(9) The main African story in the media at the time was the UN withdrawal from Somalia. The world’s attention was also focused on the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, at which there were roughly 500 foreign journalists, compared to the 6 or 7 journalists in Rwanda.(10) It was the refugee exodus of July 1994 and the subsequent cholera epidemic which received considerable media attention. By late 1994 media coverage had petered out.

How did the Western media portray the Rwanda crisis? The relative absence of news people on the ground in Rwanda contributed to the general lack of understanding of the dynamics of the situation. Consequently, the conflict was immediately characterised as a tribal Hutu versus Tutsi orgy of killing. The portrayal of the conflict as n historical feud of latent primordial identities gave western governments a gladly received cover for inaction.

What were the real issues and facts that were obscured by the Western reporting of the Rwandan crisis? The biggest obfuscation was the simplification of the crisis into an alleged spontaneous conflict between two distinct tribes – Hutu versus Tutsi. The Rwandan crisis is not an ancient tribal conflict, but an intensely modern conflict about wealth, land and political power in a weak post-colonial state that was supported by the former Belgian colonial power and later by the French.

The media coverage masked the fundamental fact that the Bahutu and Batutsi and one people, known as the Banyarwanda. They are not separate and distinct tribes. Prior to Belgian colonialism the Batutsi, Bahutu and Twa subgroups practised a system known as Kwihutura, which allowed a Hutu to become a cattle owner ie a Tutsi and shed “Hutu-ness”. It also worked the other way, a Tutsi who lost his cattle could be demoted and join the ranks of the Hutu. This system therefore encouraged not only ethnic integration but intermarriage and social mobility.

The coming of Belgian colonialism dismantled the Kwihtura system because the Belgians based their colonial administration on “divide and rule” tactics. The Tutsi became the colonial agents of the Belgians and were set against the Hutu. After 400 years of coexistence, the two groups had become polarised. The legacy of Belgian colonialism is the engineering of tribal and political differences which were to lay the seeds for the politicisation of ethnicity, which then led to the genocide and bloodletting.

Conclusion

In the two case studies, I have tried to show how Western governments are heavily influenced by where television crews decide to place themselves. The media has acquired a powerful influence on Western public opinion which has then pushed governments and humanitarian agencies to act on international issues.

Undoubtedly, the Western media’s portrayal of Africa is influenced by certain criterion which severely constrain its selection of foreign news stories. These criterion are as Bosah Ebo outlines, commercial interests, socio-cultural bias and political concerns. In a field and profession that has been based on the old tradition of “detached neutral reporting”, this old journalistic orthodoxy has become nothing more than a smokescreen for disguising and simplifying the role Western governments and companies have played in the exploitation of African countries.

One of the many important roles of the press in any society is to communicate with its readers the way it understands and interprets the world. However, if that interpretation of the world is fundamentally flawed, then the media cannot hold a mirror up to the world, be independent, nor be the guardian of truth.

The picture of Africa that emerges in the Western media is often vastly different from the reality. Yet there are very good reasons for concealing reality, since the maintenance of the existing domestic and international power structures are at stake.


Footnotes

1. Independent on Sunday 31.3.91
2. The Spectator, “Colonialism’s Back and Not a Moment too Soon.” January 1993
3. Independent on Sunday 16.9.90
4. Mohamed Osman Omar, Somalia A Nation Driven to Despair. Somali Publications Co. Ltd 1996.
5. L.Minear, C.Scott, T.G.Rienner, The New Media, Civil War and Humanitarian Action. 1996. pp53
6. See “Somalis, the US and the Forgetting of History” in African Images, Racism and the End of Anthropology, by Peter Rigby. Berg 1996. pp98
7. Mark Huband, “The Disintegration of Somalia” and “Why Africa is in Agony”. The Guardian, 7.8.92 and 31.8.92 respectively.
8. New York Times 6.6.1980
9. Africa Confidential 6th May 1994
10. Minear, Scott and Weiss.

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