As a former BBC correspondent in Ghana for 13 years, I’ve been ambushed countless times about how negative the international media’s coverage of Africa is. At one point I thought I should put my response on a CD and hand it out whenever I was confronted. That way, I wouldn’t have to repeat the answer over and over and over again.
Often, I would remind them of the BBC’s programming on African literature, music, religions and sports. We reported the wars, yes; but we also reported the peace agreements.
But I completely appreciated their concern. I’ve seen international reporters haul their gear into the thatched bedrooms of helpless AIDS patients heaving their way through their final few breathes. And I’m thinking, can you please leave this man alone, for death’s sake! If he must die, must he die live on CNN? Aren’t the dying and the dead deserving of dignity? How would you like SABC to film your dying mother’s half-naked bottom as a backdrop for a story about squalid health care in America to a gawking African audience?
Wasting African children hanging onto the empty breasts of their mothers, their bodies littered with flies and pus, have become the mascots of the African drought and famine story. The pictures could be from 1984. Or 1994. Or 2004. It’s the same images.
Why aren’t they telecasting the body-bags and coffins coming out of Iraq? After, say, an, a photographer might show us a teddy-bear with a clot of blood and spot of soot, a broken high-heeled shoe, a soiled passport and a ripped briefcase to give us a sense of who the victims were. Clever.
So where’s the creativity and sensitivity of these esteemed reporters and their fattened, cigar-chomping editors when telling the African story?
But African journalists and editors must share the blame. We’re unimaginative and lazy. We’ll go to the websites of the same international media we complain about, and happily copy their reports of stories that are within our physical reach and paste them in our media. How is it that a story datelined Accra is sourced from CNN or BBC?
Let me tell you a story. In 1995, a ship carrying hundreds of Liberian refugees roamed the West African seas searching for a haven for passengers fleeing from war. Neighbouring countries would not let the boat to dock and discharge the passengers despite the deteriorating conditions on board. Ghana Port security wouldn’t allow the media through to the dockside to film as the vessel sat floating off the coast of Takoradi. A clever Dutch freelancer rented a canoe and went out to sea to film, whilst local reporters and TV reporters packed up and went to pursue handouts at workshops, the mainstay of state media.
The Dutch reporter sold his pictures to ITN. That night Ghana Television had nothing of the story at Takoradi to show except the regurgitated ITN pictures.
This is the tragedy of the African news story today: an admixture of western voyeurism and disrespect, conspiring with African journalists who have gone to sleep.