Opinion  :: Columns  :: Nairobi Notebook


Time to tell our own story
Patrick Mwangi
Published: 11-JUL-05

Nairobi - The past few weeks must have been a rather disturbing period for Newsweek, the international news magazine.

It carried a story claiming that soldiers at Guantanamo Bay, where America is incarcerating prisoners, had desecrated the Quran, leading to violent international protests in several Muslim states.

The situation was worsened by the fact that Newsweek could not demonstrate any attempts at getting authoritative verification of its facts. In the end it looked like the story was based on� well, rumours, really.

The saga has exposed critical issues around how a key member of the Western media operates, and how these people preach water and drink wine.

Newsweek�s modus operandi should be a good indicator of how the broader Western media operates � after all, they all display the same mindset.

The first issue is the shocking use of copy that is completely unsubstantiated or unauthenticated. Any trainee journalist knows that the cardinal tenet of journalism is to check your facts. If you cannot confirm something, you must let your readership know it is unconfirmed.

It was also quite a revelation that Newsweek passes stories for �review� by Government authorities in the USA, in what can only amount to prior censorship. If such a thing was happening in a developing country, the Western media would denounce it as interference with press freedom, etc.

Human rights organisations, especially those based in Western capitals, would be falling over each other to issue longwinded denunciations.

Another interesting aspect is the blithe disregard for the cultural and other sensitivities of people who are not like you. How Newsweek editors can let a story pass that eventually provokes so much angry reaction shows either an amazing level of carelessness, or a dangerous myopia.

Brainwashing and disenfranchising content

The Newsweek saga provided the perfect backdrop against which the International Press Institute (IPI) held its congress in Nairobi in May. IPI brings together editors, journalists and media owners from all over the world.

At the congress, the theme of the negative and prejudiced reporting of Africa and Islam by the Western media kept recurring. But even as African journalists rail against Western media, they themselves must stop to take stock of their role in denigrating the continent.

There was an attempt to push this agenda in the IPI congress, but it did not go far enough, given that media owners in Africa, who were well represented at the meeting, did not commit themselves to change their editorial direction.

There is a general trend by journalists in Africa to report on their countries as if they were observers. They report in a detached, removed and cynical manner on critical issues affecting their people.

Yet they are the ones best positioned to explain to the world the African situation and handle it with sensitivity. African media, more often than not, outdo each other in being negative about their own countries, convinced erroneously that this is the Western media paradigm.

To wean itself from the clutches of this mentality, Africa must also take radical measures to change content in radio and television. Currently it maintains a menu of foreign programmes, which only ends up brainwashing and disenfranchising Africa. In addition, this mentality has stultified the growth of local talent and production capacity.

People, we are missing something here.

Africa needs to tell its own story, in a sensitive and culturally-bound manner. We must not join the Western media in deriding any initiatives African.

The Newsweek saga has proved that the Western media is as fallible as any other. And the IPI congress in Nairobi, by failing to go far enough to determine a new course for the African media, missed a great opportunity to reflect the massive transformation taking place in the continent under our own very noses.

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