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Africa: Is Western Media Biased Against Africa?

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In what has now become a subject on media bias and a debate on racism and white supremacy, a recent job posting by the New York Times looking to fill the position of Nairobi bureau chief continues to spark outrage over Western media’s skewed coverage and portrayal of Africa.

The right candidate according to the ad would have an opportunity “to dive into news and enterprise across a wide range of countries, from the deserts of Sudan and the pirate seas of the Horn of Africa, down through the forests of Congo and the shores of Tanzania. …”

The ad went on to describe the region as one that offered crucial story leads among them terrorism, scramble for resources and tussle between dictatorship and democracy. “There is also the chance to delight our readers with unexpected stories of hope and the changing rhythms of life in a rapidly evolving region,” the ad further read.

Beyond the twitter war under the hashtag someonetellNewYorkTimesthat was sparked by the ferocious Kenyans on Twitter commonly referred to as #KOT famed for viciously defending the East African country and mocking the Western media’s ignorant and ill-conceived nuances on Kenya and Africa, the job advertisement has once again rekindled talk on the role the western Media has played in shaping the African agenda as a dark continent only known for poverty, corruption, diseases and conflict.

One school of thought posits that the Western media is Africa’s number one enemy whose reportage is guided by tired and colonial-era stereotypes and guided by outside sources rather than those inside the continent.

At the beginning of this year following the deadly terrorist attack at an upmarket hotel complex in Kenya’s capital that claimed 15 lives and left over 30 injured, the New York Times ran photos of victims covered in blood, drawing the ire of Kenyans who criticized the publication for publishing insensitive information and practising double standards arguing that the media house wouldn’t publish such images if the attack happened in the West.

The backlash was backed by Kenya’s media regulator that gave New York Times an ultimatum to pull down the images from its website or have its correspondents deregistered. The publication stood its ground insisting that it was guided by its internal editorial policies.

When former US president Barrack Obama was to make his maiden trip to Kenya as commander in chief, CNN carried a story on the security threats the president was exposed to terming Kenya a hotbed of terror. Kenya netizens picked up an online war christened #someonetellcnn that saw 75,000 tweets sent in a single day protesting the negative trope which saw the network’s management apologize.

In the recent Ethiopian Airlines plane crash that killed all 157 passengers, major Western media houses highlighted the names and countries of victims from the West but failed to mention those from African countries including Kenya that lost 32 citizens, the largest for any country in the crash which was interpreted as insensitive to African families who were equally in morning. A TRT World news anchor insinuated that the Ethiopian national carrier had a poor safety record, a
claim that was disputed by an aviation expert who affirmed that the airline was safe and trusted.

The narrative on Africa as a hopeless continent has been sustained over the years with University of Stanford media scholar Toussaint Nothias in his analysis indicating that between 2007 and 2012 when he reviewed more than 282 articles that appeared in British and French newspapers, there was a pattern of portraying Africa with terms as darkness and tribalism being predominant, a narrative that seems to suggest that what Africa is, the West is not.

Dr. Maxwell Kihara, a communications expert argues that the numerous cases where the international media is quick to profile Africa in bad light depicts subtle racism and an extension of neocolonialism. “It is a clear sign of a generation of media that has predetermined mindsets guided by a narrative they only know about from the history books.

Africa has made huge strides in innovation and has produced some of the biggest icons globally yet those receive little or no coverage. Why can’t is there no balance in coverage by the Western press?” he questions.

But Anderson Asiimwe a journalism lecturer at Victoria University in Uganda argues that critics of the Western press are being unfair and are afraid of facing the uncomfortable truths about Africa.

“Even local news is awash with stories of tragedy and chaos in Africa. Journalism in the West as is the case with Africa is guided by the maxim ‘if it leads it bleeds. Bad news sell everywhere. What we need is for the Africa media to be patriotic to their continent,” Anderson says insisting that the gap in coverage of the positive side of Africa is because the African media that has the ability and the knowhow to tell the African story is not doing so.

For Dr. Kihara, the remedy is to have international media hire local journalists in African bureaus because they understand the region better. “What is the use of hiring a Westerner to come and cover African affairs? Why not hire local journalists who know the dynamics of the Africa, the cultures and way of life which they will then package into a story that moves beyond mere reportage to analysis and is also unbiased?” he asks.

By Bob Koigi

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