Africa has great story-tellers but still can’t tell her story
By JOSEPH RWAGATARE
Kigali, August 2016 – How often have you heard this? Africa’s story is not being told as it should, or it is not told at all. And when it is, it is either a distorted or fictitious version that is passed off as the truth.
The major culprits in creating a false African narrative or twisting the real one are the media and some scholars, the so-called Africa experts.
To be fair to ourselves, it is not just lament. Action has been urged. Tell our own story, we are constantly reminded (at least Rwandans are).
Both the lament and call to action recognize the power of the media in forming and shaping public opinion and attitudes. It can be a force for good or a vehicle for evil; it can build or destroy.
And so when recently an opportunity arose to use it to advance the real African narrative, one thought it would be seized with such eagerness that henceforth the correct story would make all the headlines and swamp all the false ones and make us all sleep easy. That didn’t happen.
Editors of media houses in Africa were invited to an Editors’ Forum during the African Union Summit in Kigali in July.
The thinking must have been that being close to where important decisions were being taken and in contact with most of Africa’s leaders they would have access to all the news and tell the real story. Or, at any rate they would have a useful exchange with the continent’s top policy-makers.
The editors came all right, but they were few and not at the level that would influence major decisions in their respective organizations. And so the real story would still not be told as it should.
What was the problem? Was it because the more senior editors thought there was nothing to gain from the AU summit? Was it the fear that if they get very close to the establishment their independence will be compromised? Or perhaps it was the fault of the AU Commission which invited low-ranking editors because it does not want to engage with the more senior ones.
Whatever the reason, the opportunity was missed and Africa’s story will continue to be told the same old way – with distortions, inaccuracies and outright fabrications.
It has not always been like this.
At some point in the continent’s history, African media did influence events. It was an important weapon in the decolonization process. Certainly that was the case in West Africa, especially in Nigeria and Ghana, and in East Africa in Tanganyika (then), Uganda and Kenya.
However, in the post-colonial period, the media lost its progressive edge and in a number of cases became a tool of the ruling elites and told the story from their point of view. Where it stuck to telling it as it was, it was often suppressed. In other cases, it became part of the imperialist agenda.
In any case, independent African media was always at a disadvantage – and still is. It lacked the resources to gather and disseminate to a global audience the correct information about Africa. It is largely dependent on foreign media for news, training and equipment. It is hardly surprising that African journalists sometimes take up the biases of the latter.
The larger foreign media organizations, with correspondents in major African capitals and stringers all over the place, and wire services to propagate what they gathered dominated the news scene. With such a wide reach and a different agenda of its owners, foreign media created its own narrative of Africa and disseminated it across the world as the authentic story of the continent. Even Africans believed it.
We were made to believe in the impartiality and excellence of some of them, such as the BBC. Rwandans, of course, have a different view of its famed objectivity. It influenced the way we view ourselves. We judge our conduct and measure our worth against so-called international standards often set and popularised by the media.
Often, the African elite were encouraged to mock their own governments, institutions and people. And so the more derisive you are of Africa, the better and more independent journalist you are. Conversely, if you tell the story of Africa’s progress, you are dismissed as pro-establishment, biased and not free.
From the 1980s, another attempt was made to free African media from the domination of foreign news organizations. In 1979, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) formed the Panafrican News Agency (PANA), which became operational in May 1983, as a source of and vehicle for African news. PANA has not fared very well against the more established and better-resourced foreign news outlets.
Since 1979 and even as early as 1963 when another attempt at decolonizing African information was made with the formation of Union des Agences d’Information Africaines, the question of who will tell Africa’s correct story remains.
We cannot go on blaming others for telling our story differently. African journalists and intellectuals must step forward and meet the challenge. To do that, they must free themselves from imposed biases.
- This story was first published in Rwanda’s daily newspaper, The New Times, on August 2, 2016. The writer is a regular columnist for the paper.