On Friday 20th Feb, The Centre for African Studies at SOAS held a highly absorbing conference on the media’s representation of Africa. Over the course of the day, expert panellists discussed topics such as the historical trajectories of representation of Africa in the UK, the politics of media and freedom of the press in Africa, the future of media and journalism in Africa and how funding plays such a big part in media and representation. Below are the ten most prominent things that I took away from the conference.
1. Access to funding and who the funder is affects everything. Finding a funder affects the story you tell and how you tell it. It can limit your freedom and define your boundaries. An example given was when a funder required a story be simplified to suit an international audience but by doing so, often damaging its integrity and accuracy in the process. Funding also affects which stories can be told. Solomon Mugera, Africa Editor, BBC, said that African news outlets struggle to report on other African states as they don’t have the resources or budget to get to them in time while big international outlets keep reporters on the ground in most areas of interest. This maintains the dominance of international broadcasters in reporting major stories on the continent. Barnaby Phillips, Europe Correspondent for Al-Jazeera, English agreed that people have a right to be sceptical about the neutrality of privately owned channels. Often the businesses funding these channels have relationships with politicians so face the same challenges as state owned TV.
2. African media, journalism, films and TV need to be more accessible in Africa. Although there are challenges with funding, Africans are producing high quality film and TV but as only a minority of Africans have access to the internet, most people living on the continent do not have access to African produced work. Most films are consumed in the west at Film Festivals and are rarely released in African cinemas. There is not the infrastructure in place to support African visual arts. Lindiwe Dovey, Senior Lecturer in African Film and Performance Arts, reminded us that we must not undervalue the importance of video halls in reaching ‘ordinary people’ in Africa and the power of film as an educational tool.
3. African media, journalism and film are booming and the future is looking bright! African film festivals are thriving with high quality African films. In a world of internet entertainment, people are seeking face to face experiences and film festivals fill that need. There is also a rich history of African film which is available in archives and should be accessed more! Western representation of Africa and Africans is also broadening. The BBC is now operating a BBC Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Somali and Hausa.
4. ‘Citizen Journalism’ is emerging as the dominant form of reporting in Africa. Frontline journalism is becoming increasingly difficult as ordinary people on the scene are uploading stories and pictures onto social media sites such as twitter and facebook before journalists are able to get to the scene. The Bin Laden story was on twitter within minutes of the US Seals arriving! Radio is still the dominant source of receiving news in Africa as producing it doesn’t rely on the human and financial resources needed by TV when reporting a story and is affordable for most people to access. Another positive of citizen journalism is that by uploading stories onto twitter and Facebook etc, the governments are less able to regulate what is said.
5. Africans need to be telling African stories. If you want a story told in a way that accurately reflects the situation or your perspective, then you tell it. This was the general feeling throughout the conference. There was a strong feeling that local talent needs to be appreciated when telling a story; that African talent needs to be nurtured and that African media needs more support and funding. However, to offer balance, Richard Dowden, Director, Royal African Society, raised a vital point. He said that it would be dangerous to move towards only Africans telling African stories as the world would fragment and people would be divided. We need to be interested in hearing and telling each other’s stories to avoid becoming narrowly focused and ignorant of each other.
6. Aid agencies play a large unseen role in shaping representation of Africa! Aid agencies provide media outlets with images and stories from conflict areas as most media organisations cannot afford to keep staff on the ground full-time and aid agencies are often already operating in a conflict area. Aid agencies sometimes have access to areas to which news agencies can’t go and as they have templates for crises and are prepared to move into an area as soon as an emergency hits, they are able to reach a new conflict before the journalists arrive. Finally, journalists rely on aid agencies to get to news stories, they rely on aid agency vehicles to reach remote areas and often stay in aid agency accommodation when in a conflict area. This was perceived as a potentially dangerous development that gives aid agencies too much power in shaping the news agenda.
7. ‘The state is not the enemy or the only source of media salvation’ said Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell,Director, Policy Centre for African Peoples ‘The media needs to build healthy partnerships with anyone willing to implement the African Agenda’. The relationship between state and journalism can be a very complicated one, Omar Ben Yedder, Publisher, IC Publications, argued that governments will fund media outlets to get coverage and will often take any coverage. Conflict arrives when the government wants to appear to have a free media but also wants to contain the media within approved boundaries. In many states, the media need the support of the government. For example, in Kenya, the government is the biggest buyer of newspaper advertising so the health of Kenyan newspaper depends on them.
8. Fiction is fantastic! Lindiwe Dovey described fiction as ‘telling the stories that the news can’t’. Fiction takes news stories and goes deeper into the imaginative and finding the unnoticed story, bringing it to the surface and giving it an audience. She suggested that Africa is often relegated to a literal space which denies Africa its imagination and assumes that it merely consists of its politics, history and geography. This mindset, she argues, needs to be broken and imaginations let run wild!
9. Let’s put a stop to the culture of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’! There was a criticism of the partiality of both African and international news outlets to be more drawn to reporting on Africa when the story reflects chaos, disturbance and blood. We were reminded to of the positive and uplifting stories coming out for Africa and to remember the human story! Bimpe Nkotchou, Vice-Chair, Africa Centre, stressed the need for more human interest stories, to bring African life into the mainstream which will be a big part of contributing to changing the narrative.
10. ‘Africa is just a state of mind, you don’t need to be in Africa to report on Africa’, said Omar Ben Yedder. Magnus Taylor, Editor, African Arguments, suggested that there needs to be a vision of what a sustainable domestic funding system for journalist in Africa looks like – as many journalists, struggle to sustain a journalistic career on the wages paid by most Africa-based publications.
If you are looking to get involved in media and visual arts; there are exciting things happening to promote African talent in journalism and the visual arts, including the Royal African Society’s Gateway for Africa, which got a mention from the floor. Bimpe Nkontchou, at the Africa Centre spoke about the need for the diaspora to get involved in changing the narrative and changing the representation of Africa in the UK. Ola Ogunyemi, Principal Lecturer, University of Lincoln reiterated this in saying that it may be ‘their money and our story but that story is often being told through a lens which isn’t ours’.