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Sunshine Journalism in Africa

It’s recently become fashionable to be “positive” when writing or speaking about Africa. We’re told that there’s been too much negative media about the continent in modern times. I suppose journalists were supposed to simply ignore the deluge of wars, genocides, tyrants, famines, coups, and failed states because they don’t always show Africa as a “happy” place.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation actually ordered its journalists to make at least 70 per cent of their stories “positive.” This sunshine journalism can be quite convenient for certain elites involved in questionable activities, since stories of corruption or malfeasance are considered “negative.” One of Benjamin Franklin’s quotes comes to mind here: “[if] all Printers were determin’d not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”

Journalists are told they should focus on what Africa has in abundance, which is “hope.” If they dare shed light on any of the continent’s myriad problems, they’re attacked as being “depressing,” disrespectful, or even racist. Journalists are often accused of going out of their way to find people suffering in Africa. But isn’t that exactly what journalists are supposed to do? Provide a voice for the voiceless and comfort the afflicted?

This new movement to “rebrand” Africa in a positive light (see here, here, here, here, or here for examples), often has less than innocent motivations. It is often, in the words of Robert Bates, writing at Think Africa Progress, “a facile PR exercise designed to encourage (mainly western) investment.”

I’ve heard both local and foreign journalists in Addis Ababa say, “I don’t want to show poverty in Ethiopia.” But poverty affects literally every aspect of society throughout black Africa, since most people are poor. It would be irresponsible to ignore it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that “negative” stories are more important than “happy” ones, because wherever there is suffering, it’s the Fourth Estate’s public service role to give the victims a voice. It’s not a journalist’s job to conduct public relations for Africa or anywhere else.

Having said that, the growth, entrepreneurship, and other “positive” stories must also be covered, for they are another crucial part of the picture. It’s true that most Westerners have a two-dimensional, largely negative perception of “Africa,” the world’s most diverse continent. Ryszard Kapuściński, who reported throughout post-colonial Africa for the better part of half a century, lamented this fact. “Europe’s image of Africa? Hunger; skeletal children; dry, cracked earth; urban slums; massacres; AIDS; throngs of refugees without a roof over their heads, without clothing, without medicines, water, or bread.” Kapuściński explains that the region is simply too big and complex to simply dismiss it as “war-torn” or a “basket-case.” “Africa is a thousand situations, varied, distinct, even contradictory. Someone will say, “There is war there,” and he will be right. Someone else, “It is peaceful there,” and he too will be correct. Because everything depends on where and when.”

However, replacing two-dimensional negative coverage with two-dimensional positive coverage certainly isn’t the answer. As Robert Bates puts it, “Un-contextualised, simplified and wholly positive stories will only lead to further misunderstanding.”

Lydia Polgreen, Johannesburg bureau chief for the New York Times, considers this new positive branding of Africa as condescending. Writing over Twitter, she asked “What is more insulting than the idea of “positive news” from Africa? As if the continent was a dull witted child in need of encouragement.” Elliot Ross at Africa Is a Country expresses a similar opinion. “[D]o we really need this kind of “positive image for Africa” stuff? At best it can be framed as a necessary corrective, but the whole PR “brand Africa” shtick is boring, patronising, and finally insubstantial in its attempt to transform the West’s time-honoured way of imagining the continent.” This is particularly problematic when those peddling this Brand Africa framework are not from Africa. “Positive or not, the chances are you’re selling something that isn’t yours to sell,” writes Ross.

Furthermore, this new Brand Africa paradigm equates a “good Africa” with a Westernized Africa. As Robert Bates points out, “[P]erhaps the central reason we are seeing all this “good news” in western media links back to the west’s own idea of itself and of Africa. Africans are now, “finally”, playing by the west’s rules; the supposedly redemptive power of capitalism coupled with the increasing adoption of liberal-democracy in Africa vindicates the Western Way.” Bates goes on to analyze this two-dimensional, often paternalistic framework.

“The Manichaean quality of these narratives is difficult to escape; the (good) trio of liberalism, democracy and capitalism seems to be talking hold in Africa – but only if “we in the west” can help Africa defeat the (bad) trio of traditionalism (“tribalism”), authoritarianism, and “poor macroeconomic policy” (usually an oblique reference to China). These reductive binary oppositions are signs of overly simplistic thinking, infantilising not only Africans but also the westerners who read about them.”

The Economist recently printed a much-discussed cover with the title “Africa rising,” which Time later copied. It came in stark contrast to its infamous “Hopeless Continent” cover story of a decade previous. However, both stories proved to be quite superficial and misleading.

Africa Rising Economist Time

The “Africa Rising” covers helped to establish a new trend of reportage, focusing on (usually neoliberal) economic development in Africa being seen as uniformly positive. Another commentator at Africa Is a Country writes, “discussions about “Africa rising” are by their very nature myopic, failing to acknowledge the complexities of the phenomena they describe. They usually omit, for instance, any discussion of the ways in which African economic development has entailed growing inequality both within and between countries.”

For example, Forbes printed a list of African billionaires without any sort of discussion about how they got their money (which often involved corruption and exploitation), or how they treat their workers.

Clearly there are many aspects of this economic growth that are positive, and have been written about ad nauseam. But there are also problematic elements that are often ignored. Scholar Achille Mbembe critiques the form that economic development in Africa is taking.

“[T]he result — or the paradox — of this type of growth is that, as we know, it is not creating many more jobs, it involves a process of deepening social inequalities, and Africa is still facing massive challenges in terms of investment in basic infrastructures, in roads, in communications, airports, highways, and railways. Moreover, the continent is still threatened by political instability, either in the form of localized wars, or in the form of social disorder.”

Most of this new growth has been driven by commodity demands from the BRIC countries, China in particular. But resource extraction provides very little employment and is usually extraordinarily damaging to the environment.

Africa’s massively growing labour force (122 million by 2020) is often celebrated, but in the context of massive unemployment and sluggish job expansion, this is not good news. Only 28 per cent of Africa’s labour force actually have stable jobs. The largest economy in the region, South Africa, has an unemployment rate of 25 per cent, which is 70 per cent for those under the age of 35. In urban areas of Nigeria, unemployment amongst people between the ages of 15 and 24 is 50 per cent. In Zimbabwe, unemployment stands at 60 per cent, and in Kenya, 40 per cent.

Articles often celebrate the rise of the middle class in Africa, gushing that one in three Africans are now members of this group, who are generously defined by spending between $2 and $20 a day. But 61 per cent of Africans still live on less than $2 a day, and 44 per cent live on under $1.25. And these articles usually fail to mention that 60 per cent of the middle class are part of the extremely fragile “floating class,” spending only $2 to $4 per day, and that very few manage to transition from this lower end of the middle class to a more stable position. Denoting a class based on consumption, rather than production, is also problematic, especially since that consumption is often unsustainable.

Six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa, but so are seven of the ten with the most unequal income distribution. Approximately 100,000 Africans were worth about $800 billion in 2008, controlling 60% of the continent’s GDP. A report from the Africa Progress Panel detailed the rising inequality in the region. “The deep, persistent and enduring inequalities in evidence across Africa have consequences,” the report said. “They weaken the bonds of trust and solidarity that hold societies together. Over the long run, they will undermine economic growth, productivity and the development of markets.”

Kofi Annan cautions against overly rosy depictions of economic growth in Africa:

“It cannot be said often enough, that overall progress remains too slow and too uneven; that too many Africans remain caught in downward spirals of poverty, insecurity and marginalisation; that too few people benefit from the continent’s growth trend and rising geo-strategic importance; that too much of Africa’s enormous resource wealth remains in the hands of narrow elites and, increasingly, foreign investors without being turned into tangible benefits for its people.”

Two-dimensional “positive,” or “happy,” stories are just as misleading as “the Dark Continent” style of reportage. Writing about Africa the same way as one would write about the Western world is silly, since the socioeconomic and political situations are vastly different. Portraying a relatively small, wealthy, well-educated, Facebook-using African class as the norm is inaccurate and deceptive.

There have been, and still are, a plethora of “negative” stories across the continent that need coverage even more than the positive ones. As Aidan Hartley, a former Reuters journalist from Kenya who covered Africa for a long time, recalls, “At any one time we had six wars, a couple of famines, a coup d’etat, and a natural disaster like a flood or an epidemic or a volcanic eruption, all within a radius of three hours’ flight from Nairobi […] I can’t say how long the bad news is going to go on, but we shouldn’t shy away from it.” Hartley also believes it’s possible to report these tragedies without using a tone of hopelessness (though if a situation is hopeless, it should be portrayed that way). “What interests me is describing how people deal with everyday life here, tackling it all with such tenacity and humour.”

Chinua Achebe once wrote that “the time has come for Africans to tell their own stories.” The BBC’s hiring of local reporters in Africa is an excellent initiative in this spirit. But that’s not to say that highly trained Western journalists aren’t also fully capable of good reportage in Africa or anywhere else. I don’t accept the view that journalists should only cover their own countries. Outsiders often see things that locals miss. The BBC and al-Jazeera’s coverage of North America is often insightful, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations about America were some of the most astute ever made.

Good reporting is multi-dimensional, nuanced, critical, sceptical, and often combative. The Fourth Estate’s most important jobs are “the traitor to expose, the tyrant to dare” and “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Let’s not replace one bad paradigm with another.

7 thoughts on “Sunshine Journalism in Africa

    • That seems an odd question. Now that I’ve left Addis, I can no longer write about any issue having to do with Africa? These last few essays are based on notes I’ve been taking and ideas I’ve been working on for months, and just haven’t gotten around to writing yet.

      • The problem is when foreigners live comfortably in Addis or Africa they praise it but when they face difficulties they start the blame game. Read the work of Henrichboll (spell) when they were in Ethiopia and after they left for good.

      • Blame game? Critical writing is different from simple complaining or pointless blaming. This essay has nothing to do with life in Africa. It’s a critique of a certain style of non-critical journalism.

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  3. I am glad I found your blog. In the 90s, when the warring Hutus and Tutsis were being killed in massive numbers in Rwanda, very few American “journalists” were paying attention to that holcaust. Some American citizens, such as my parents and myself, were following these few stories with an increasing sense of horror. It wasn’t until the movie “Hotel Rwanda” was released in 2004 that a multitude of Americans were made aware of ONE of the major issues in Africa–and this was far after the fact. If we rely, (as it seems we do), on Hollywood for our ‘news,’ then “Sunshine Journalism,” as you call it, will be what we see; nothing or very little of the history or the very real problems in so many African states will be made available to American citizens, and we will remain in blissful ignorance, slurping up the pablum of “nice” stories of philanthropic efforts in Africa–most of which are designed to bring accolades to the so-called charitable efforts by Bill Gates, et al. Thank you for having the courage to ask for true expository journalism which requires critical thinking on the part of the journalist. I am not optimistic about many people hearing what you are saying, as it conflicts with the thirst for and acceptance of “tabloid journalism,” (formerly known as “yellow journalism”), which has replaced real reporting, and which so many Americans prefer to see and believe.

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