RWANDA: Reporting Africa - paper by Wilson Rutayisire 1998.12.8

RWANDA: Reporting Africa - paper by Wilson Rutayisire 1998.12.8



Reporting Africa: the way forward

Wilson RUTAYISIRE, Director, Rwanda Information Services, ORINFOR

The way Africa is covered in the International media is not only charged with a partisan view but also responsible, to no small measure, for the perpetuation of prejudices that exacerbate Africa's problems. Although the media coverage Africa receives is not the principle cause of the problems Africa faces, it provides the superstructure within which Africa is perceived and foreign policies on Africa are prescribed. Reporting Africa is therefore a very important issue at this moment in our history when crucial decisions governing African people are made from without the continent.

The principle cause of Africa's problems is found in its underdevelopment. This phenomenon is not self inflicted by Africa. Africa can only be responsible to the extent that it was too weak to resist it since the advent of colonial rule up to now. Poverty, indebtedness, lack of tolerance, political and economic pressures from donor communities constitute the root causes of our problems. But it is the latter which is most subtle because sometimes it comes in form of offering solutions and therefore difficult to deal with. International media seem to be part and parcel of such pressures.

In this brief paper, I point out three main aspects in which international media has served to sustain Africa's anxieties rather than being a source of constructive information on Africa. First, coverage of Africa in the international media is inadquate. Second, reports on Africa are by and large made out of context thereby obscuring circumstantial data by ommission. Third, much of the information on Africa describe it without analysis or with highly superficial and simplistic backgrounds. After this I will give a proposal on the way forward in reporting Africa.

First, media coverage on Africa is very small. International air time or space in international news papers devoted to Africa is very marginal and not sustained. Africa only comes in the media picture in times of crises. If you judge Africa by international media coverage, you would think that where there is no trouble, then Africa is dead; Africa is devoid of news during peacetime! This is not only unfair to Africa but also to the European and American public. The former is denied the right to be covered comprehensively by being portrayed as a continent of people who are incapable of taking charge of their own destiny, while the latter are drilled into believing that Africa is a continent to feel pity about, contribute to its humanitarian emergencies and finally forget it between one disaster and the next. Nothing good should be expected out of the continent is the negative impression reporting on Africa gives as of now.

During the genocide in Rwanda we were receiving an average of 50 journalists per day for the period between April 1994 and July 31, 1994. They reduced to an average of 5 per day between July 1994 to December 1994, because the refugee camps in Congo became the focus as cholera broke out. Since then, it is difficult to talk to a stringer about economic recovery progress, resettlement of the refugees, progress of justice, state of widows and orphans, food security, health situation, education and any other development in the social sector. They reappeared recently with the break of rebellion in Congo once again to probe the presence of Rwandan troops in Congo; and how it might lead to "all-out-African war!"

There exists excessive Afro-pessimism air in the international media arising out of deep-seated paternalistic prejudices that Africans can not do anything for themselves other than exacerbating already bad situations for themselves. This is why the media on Africa is always full of calamities. If it is not war or conflict, it is famine or other forms of extreme phenomena. Much as these reports could be correct, it is also true that not every piece of the story is told because Africa is depicted by the media outside the background of unfavourable relationship Africa has had with the west for many many years; and how they affect and keep influencing continental issues today.

The unfair balance of payment arising out of reliance on relatively low value exports and importation of ever appreciating manufactured goods by African economies is the bedrock of African poverty. The west is the sole partner in this trade and should recognise the responsibility associated with the trade. For example, my country has just read its 1998/99 budget. In its report on 1997/98 budget, it revealed that Rwanda earned US $ 82 m. from its exports and spent US $ 326 m. on imports. What this means is that we have dived US $ 244 m. into yet another deficit. We have moved the country further into mortgage by US $ 244 m. This phenomenon of unfair trade is as old as the time of colonial rule and subsquent building of the type of economies we run to day: economies based on export of primary agricultural raw materials like coffee whose viability to sustain an economy is lacking both in its supply and demand aspects. In 1983 Rwanda would need three tons of coffee to buy one Peugeot 504. Now we need 10 tons to buy the same car.

These are the issues explaining the base of our poverty, indebtedness, frustration, intolerant behaviour, lack of democratic culture and everything to do with social insecurity. What is happening on the continent therefore, is not accidental. What should be surprising and worthy of being news, for the sake of this conference, is how we survive as a people; and not the obvious that we live in abject poverty prone to conflict. After 100 years this disparity has created the calmities apparent on the African scene. By upholding it as the acceptable feature characterising Africa, the international media have risked shelving the responsibility of the west and pinned the victim to solitary blame. I am not apologising for the failures of the Africans but simply saying that Africans themselves are product of a bad situation which is half way articulated by International media, leading to poor diagnoisis and prescriptions by key policy makers of this world. This is why the African question has been relegated to humanitarian assistance, N.G.O.s, Emergency Aid etc...

These organisations are becoming full-fledged new missionaries for the 21st century managing a multi-billion dollar industry to offer cosmetic relief to the excesses of the unfair balance of payment problem - the root cause of organisational problems that have engulfed Africa since independence. To us, reports on Africa by international media agencies appear to be mere public relations (read propaganda if you want) for this new humanitarian industry.

So the reports rumble on to emphasise how undemocratic African leaders are but never point out the hard reality that, no single African dictator has been on stage without an invincible backing of a powerful country from the "democratic" west: when you talk of the rule of Idi Amin, you have also to find the hand of Israel and Britain in his assumption of power; you talk of Bokasa and Habyarimana, then find the hand of France, you talk of the rise of Mobutu, then you will find the hand of the U.S.A. The list is long. The arguement here is that while the international reports on Africa purports to champion democratisation on the continent, and narrows its frustrations to African dictators; it never brings out clearly the western influences in African democratic crises. The western role appears in media only when the crisis reaches humanitarian catastrophe; that is when the west emerge as a good "samaritan".

The media hypocritically then drums up the crisis to summon humanitarian missionaries while it had kept quiet over the role of a certain powerful country in its meddling in the generation of a crisis in the African country in question. Therefore reporting Africa by International media is not only partial but also contributes to the sustainence of the African crisis rather than seeking to resolve it. Some are even intrigious and divisive. It is fashionable to refer to Rwanda's Vice President as the "strong-man" of Kigali, as if to imply that there exist no systems and separation of powers in Rwanda, everything is decided by one man. It is disturbing to listen to these divisive insinuations.

Perhaps its partiality is demonstrated by its practice of reporting Africa. If you monitor reports on BBC, RFI, Voice of America or DeutscheWelle, agencies like Reuters, AFP or AP; particularly on issues you know very well, you will wonder if the reporter had some agenda, is ignorant or simply too lazy to carry out a better researched report. I will give examples of how ry in its meddling in the generation of a crisis in thtent the issues in East and Central Africa. No single report in Rwanda is ever an event, occasion in its own right. It has been made to carry the tag of being Tutsi or Hutu orchestrated. All national institutions have been characterised as Tutsi dominated by the western media: the army, the government, the parliament. The motive for such ethnisation of state institutions is clearly politically charged, and in our case serves to sustain anxieties left behind by genocide which was committed in a bid to clean Rwanda of all the Tutsis. It could also be construed by genocide perpetrators, who are still at large and committed to their genocide programme, as a vindication to the cause of genocide since international understanding is that Tutsis have excluded the Hutus from all the state life.

Therefore to us, we take these ethnic tags very very serious and conclude that international media reports on Rwanda do not seek to support reconciliation but seek to exacerbate ethnic anxieties; may be with the aim of cultivating grounds for sustainence of political crisis which ultimately could end in humanitarian crisis. Yet there is no reason why all these media agents can not get true information on Rwanda since they could be well represented in Kigali if what was primary was reporting the truth. If I am to give the benefit of doubt to these reports, and assume that they are done without an agenda, then the only remaining rationale for such unfair representation of Africa would be lack of serious attention on Africa, laziness and resort to generalisation of Africa into one stereotypical reporting style influenced by prejudice and forget-it- attitude. Nevertheless the reports can not be exonerated from their responsibility in aggravating Africa's problems because positive attempts in specific areas or countries are never promoted in international media. Instead they are submerged by a lot of reports on the general bad situations on the continent. Worse still these bad situations are not given correct analysis.

The war in Congo now is widely known in media as Tutsi- led rebellion in the Congo. What does this mean in real terms? If you look at the rank and file of the movement rebelling in Congo, you will find that the Congolese of Banyamulenge constitute a very small number compared to other Congolese whether in leadership or the army. If you look at the popular cause that led to the rebellion, it has nothing of particular interest to Banyamulenge which is not shared with other Congolese. Reducing it to Banyamulenge rebellion is the problem of media which view us in ethnic mirrors, but also derogatory to malign the cause by making it appear tribalistic and undemocratic. This anti-rebellion tone, for the sake of it, prevalent in international media express the fears the west have over anything that would shake the establishments in which those who call international shots have vested interests, the suffering of Congolese people notwithistanding. Lack of correct analysis in reporting Africa by international media distort the truth on Africa and never bring out the whole truth. Even on the question of ethnicity which have been made to characterise our politics is not put in its proper perspective. Ethnic qualifications are mere creation of the middle class politicians in our countries in their cut throat competitions for cheap popularity among the local population. Left on their own our ordinary people both in towns and villages are not as divided in their day to day lives as the media projects the ethnic factor. Moreover this ethnic element in our politics is a subject of a mode of democracy prescribed to Africa by the west. Yet when it breaks our societies usunder, African people are dismissed as tribalists, sectarian and incapable of running a democracy, in spite of the fact that no mass murder to the extent of a genocide is recorded before colonial rule as it is today during the periods of high indebtedness and subsquent social unrest. When g enocide broke out in Rwanda media reports described the massacres as ethnic fighting as a result of the death of President Habyarimana. It was not until after two months into genocide that it became clear it was a genocide conceived, planned and carried out by the government over a long period of time. R.P.F. had warned about it during the Arusha talks in 1992. At the time no one had bothered to investigate the reports of planning a genocide in Rwanda until the catastrophe fell in April 1994. This is one glaring example of media reports on Africa lacking in depth and analysis.

If this had been done maybe early warning to the international community would have been possible. Because it was not done, the media was caught unawares and rushed to the wrong conclusions of ethnic violence thereby complicating the international awareness of what was happening in Rwanda. Indeed it took a very long time for the UN Security Council to accept that the massacres in Rwanda were a genocide.

To us therefore ethnicity as political practice in our countries is a consquence, not a cause of our problems. The quarrel we have with international media is that it has played in the hands of few selfish politicians to elevate ethnicity to prominence in our politics, to the extent that it has appeared as a root cause of our problems, due to incomplete and superficial reporting on Africa.

If we are to move forward as human race in one world depending on each other then international reporters need further training which would reduce the arrogance with which they report on Africa. There exists a lot of assumptions whenever they string about Africa. I have delt with many European journalists since 1990 up to today. But their common behaviour is that all of them come to Africa with their mind set on what they understand about Africa. Some even manifest extreme ignorance of a situation, not much that it is surprising especially if someone is not informed but so much out of conceit arising out of misinformation about a situation in a particular area of Africa. They should shed off this we - know - it best mentality first, and come prepared to learn and discover new and alternative appreciation of a situation. Otherwise coming to look for few facts and fit them in one's mind set and build a story hurriedly for the next broadcast is detractive and grossly unfair for Africa. It overtly frustrate s domestic efforts because it supports divisions and misdirects international support away from building national consesus. Reporters on Africa should not only physically be on ground but also go deeper and wider in their coverage of Africa. It is okay to report on disasters but also cover and applaude certain achievements on other aspects of our lives. This can only be done if European and American reporters can forge a stronger patnership with their African counterparts on a common and level-ground basis not on instructive basis. International media reports need shed off much of the Eurocentric tones if their coverage on Africa is to be constructive and beneficial to both the continent and the-westem public.

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Date: Tue, 8 Dec 1998 09:51:22 -0300 (GMT+3) From: IRIN - Central and Eastern Africa <> Subject: RWANDA: Reporting Africa - paper by Wilson Rutayisire 1998.12.8

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