LSE alumnus Waiswa Nkwanga argues that, in order to reduce the negative effects of international media exposure, African countries may have to copy the example of countries such as North Korea.
North Korea is notorious for its tight control of the media, even during major humanitarian crises. During the great famine in North Korea (1994-98) in which an estimated 600,000 to 2.5 million people died from starvation, the regime of Kim Jong-il refused to open its doors to international reporters to cover the crisis. The regime was heavily criticised for that, and justifiably so. A brief survey of the way the Western media has covered recent events in Africa – portraying countries as failed states, a mere “white man’s burden” and as places of neverending misery and barbarity- makes one wonder whether its leaders should consider restricting international media access. Bad exposure can be as bad, perhaps worse, than no exposure at all.
African elites, desperate for western aid and approval, frequently pander to international media: every drought, disease outbreak or conflict makes for good prime time TV and major newspaper headlines. What these leaders fail to recognise is that the media frenzy is often a double-edged sword.
Indeed the idea of Africa as an ungovernable space and a “white man’s burden” is the understanding one gets from Jon Anderson’s recent article, published in the New Yorker, about the conflict in Central African Republic (CAR). It reads like a scene in a zombie fiction movie, except that it is not.
“In the central market, women sell smoked bat and monkey, alongside pirated films from Nigeria and plastic jugs of locally distilled gin…One man posed for news cameras with the half-cooked leg of a Muslim man he had murdered, and took ravenous bites out of it…On one wall, near where the Empress Catherine had once slept, a soldier had drawn a scorpion in charcoal…Since 1960, France had sent its military some fifty times to intervene in its former African colonies, but an engagement in Mali the previous year had ended in a messy stalemate. The French public was wary of another intervention.”
The article is superbly written, but like many other stories on Africa in the Western media, its graphic details seem to underscore the way Africa has historically been portrayed. The writer could have written about the resilience of the displaced women and children trapped in this mayhem and trying to make ends meet for instance, but he chose not to. The article also speaks, more broadly, to how the media can tell the truth while simultaneously advancing insidious derogatory narratives that can sometimes seem as bigoted as they are dated.
I remember my country Uganda being at the centre of a media storm two years ago. In 2012, in a bid to expose the atrocities of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and the LRA, a US charity, the Invisible Children launched a film Kony2012 that went viral online. The film was a big success and culminated in international response to the “crisis” the most notable of which was the decision by the US to send troops to CAR to hunt Joseph Kony. To the people of northern Uganda, though, an intervention after more than twenty years of war was too little too late.
Nonetheless, just as the film succeeded in drawing international attention to the LRA and Kony’s madness, it also presented Uganda as a country too fractured along tribal lines and the government there as too weak to govern. This contradicts the fact that years before the film was made Uganda had single-handedly flushed the LRA completely out of the country. Yet this did not stop the filmmakers from giving the impression that there was still an ongoing war in northern Uganda. So much for educating the world and for humanitarianism.
There is no doubt that in this age of globalisation international media networks play an important role in informing us about major events in distant places. Indeed, more than developed countries, poor countries almost entirely depend on large international media companies such as the BBC for global news.
But when the media fails to bring about substantive discourses and understanding and instead focuses on stereotypes and sensation — as is often the case— it does more harm than good. Issues get polarised, communities get divided, fear, suspicion and tensions deepen, and stereotypes crystalise.
Even when it manages to mobilise the world to act, as in the case of the US response to Kony’s madness and to the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, such hasty moves are often indecisive, poorly planned, and end up being more about face-saving than about helping people. There is also the danger of sensational media coverage provoking a backlash on the communities that are often most vulnerable. Reckless media exposure and threats against unscrupulous violent groups can trigger retribution on local communities. Recent experiences in Iraq, Somalia, Kenya, and Nigeria prove this.
Moreover, in Africa the exposure has often come with huge price tags for ordinary Africans who must constantly deal with the psychological trauma, humiliation and even stigma outside caused by the media. Perhaps it is time for African elites to learn something that it is a dog-eat-dog world. A little control of the narrative about major crises that break out on the continent may be warranted to protect the continent’s image outside as well as that of its people.
Waiswa Nkwanga is a LSE alumnus.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
I agree with the title and broad sentiment but there are always multiple narratives of any event. If Africans know the truth about themselves why stifle freedom because we want a more positive image?Isn’t that just falling into the same trap of creating another problematic narrative? No North Korea style media governance for Africa please!
I think that a very strong argument is made here. That the way to stop the “white man’s burden” narrative is to not promote it in the first place. But don’t you think the solution being more like North Korea is a little extreme? Rich countries maybe shouldn’t step in to every battle, but surely if an African dictator’s policies were causing the deaths of a million people then the world should know about it.
Thanks Toni, Philip and all for your comments. You all raise a valid point regarding using North Korea as a model for African countries. A literal reading of this piece would really find that distasteful, but the broader message communicated here is, as Philip so nicely put it, ‘”the way to stop the “white man’s burden” narrative is to not promote it in the first place.’ But that still leaves one question unanswered, namely whose responsibility is it to stop the narrative? I wish we lived in a world full of perfect human beings, a world based on love, mutual respect and peace. But that’s not the case.
It’s not the coverage of events in Africa that is the problem. It is the way the narratives are framed and presented to the world. Imagine you visited New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles or East Oakland (CA) and your focus was on the homeless people, the smell of urine in SF, the drug wars, or the racial segregation in American cities. You would get a totally different picture of that beautiful country. Even the American media itself only occasionally covers these problems, but they are there.
The problem with focusing on stereotypes and sensationalism is that we never really understand the real problems, making solutions elude us. The international media might have helped expose the atrocities in Darfur and helped South Sudan secede. However, it gave the world only one side of the story. The other side is what we are seeing in South Sudan now. Most of these problems were discernible from the beginning; they just weren’t a priority for the international media and community and thus were never covered or addressed.
Or take the example of Somalia, where in the nineties the US was drawn into a conflict/intervention it neither understood nor prepared for – again because of media sensation. The intervention polarized the issues, increased suspicion and mistrust, and deepened the division among various factions in the conflict. It’s been twenty-two years and Somalia still can’t find a way forward. Then there is Zaire, now DRC, whose current problems can be traced back to the UN-US intervention in the 1960s. Again, the world misinterpreted what Patrick Lumumba was trying to do for his country. There are real consequences, my friends.
One last question, what does substantive media coverage look like? Again, let’s look at Somalia. Lat year, all the major international news organizations ran a story about Ugandan soldiers there engaging in sexual misconduct. What they don’t report is the huge sacrifice that the Ugandan and Burundian soldiers have made for Somalia. Although Somalia still has a long way to go, it’s moving in the right direction, thanks to those men and women. Uganda/Burundi’s intervention in Somalia, Nigeria’s in Sierra Leone (1990s), Tanzania’s in Uganda (1970s) that ended Amin’s madness – all could offer valuable lessons to the world, but they are ignored because they are ‘African’.