New York Times has never been Africa's ally
- New York Times has never been Africa's ally
By Okwaro Oscar Plato
Monday May 14, 2007
One consistent thing about the New York Times coverage of Africa in
the past 100 years is its paucity and inadequacy.
By any standards, Africa has been the most ignored. What is also
consistent is the pessimism and cynicism in the little African
coverage that makes it to the pages of the venerable paper. A few
articles by a former editor, now a special columnist for the paper, Mr
Nicholas Kristof, in the last few weeks, provide a window into the
history of Afro-pessimism, cynicism and distortion.
The writer may have intended to draw attention to the problems
ravaging Africa. He may have been trying to show sympathy, a friend
attempting to twitch international consciousness about the continent's
problems. But with friends like Kristof, Africa does not need enemies.
In pieces also published in the New York Times satellite publications
such as the International Herald Tribune, the replay of the old
Western media theme portraying Africa as the continent where nothing
works is evident. Africa is broke, Kristof declares, and invites the
West to come and repair it. This portrayal pushes the continent and
anything African to the margins of international consciousness.
There is no doubt that international media have played a role in the
marginalisation of the continent. Reinforcing the perspective after a
few days in Africa, the writer says: "Africa has largely failed. It's
time to rethink this continent."
His assessment is as bizarre as the solution he prescribes. He seems
to have little faith in what Africans can do. He subjects Eritrea, for
example, to savage treatment. To him, salvation can only come from the
West, not within Africa. Using a series of sweeping, but unsupported
statements, he condemns the continent region-by-region: "Central
Africa has been a catastrophe for up to a decade; West Africa seems
caught in an expanding series of civil wars and the Horn of Africa
regimes are 'starving their peoples."
He reserves some intellectual savagery for a few nations. For bizarre
reasons, he sees Eritrea, a young nation, as a representative of the
older African states. Eritrea, which came out of a 30-year-old war of
independence only a little over a decade ago, is seen as the
continent's `window into what went wrong'.
He says parents starve their children and the Eritrean Government its
people and rapes its women. Such sociological and political
observations, after a five-day visit to the Red Sea nation, known for
its philosophy of self-reliance, for being at the forefront in the
struggle for women's rights and for using resources to help famine
victims, are bizarre.
The sweeping statements are based on little knowledge about a complex
society with a long history. The question is: How do the wild
assertions pass editors at the New York Times? Other nations served
such savage treatment are Congo, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia. Good
intentions aside, articles such as Kristof's, soaked in pessimism,
cynicism and marinated in condescension about Africa can only repel,
not attract people to Africa.
Who wants to have anything to do, much less invest, in a continent
where the author says nothing works? Kristof's writing discloses the
role of the American media in the marginalisation and the devaluation
People wonder why a central region in the world is the most
marginalised. The answer is partially in the works of `parachute
journalists' who, with little knowledge of the nations, cultures and
peoples, make assertions after a short visit.
For example, the New York Times writer visited the Horn of Africa for
a few days. In a stunning mix of self-righteousness and ignorance, he
lectures African parents on parenting.
In Ethiopia, he says his heart was broken when he saw "healthy parents
cradling skeletal children". In his attempt to understand the big
`puzzle', he wrote: "I asked how the family ate" and made the
discovery that in rural societies "the man eats first and then the
children and wife".
Then he offers his grand solution: "Africans need not just more food,
but also above all education so that families eat together and
understand the need to look out for their youngest members."
In Eritrea, he meets a 14-month old boy `who came within a whisker of
starving to death'. However, he discourages potential donors from
coming to the aid of the child because the mother looked "healthy and
plump" and "wore a nice dress and had purple nail polish on her toenails".
It is a shame that such a journalist would go into societies that he
knows little about and make unsubstantiated statements based on a few
isolated bits and pieces.
This kind of coverage reinforces the distorted image of Africa that
the international media have cultivated in the minds of Americans. In
its attempt to justify the Scramble for Africa in the 1880s and
support for European colonialism, the New York Times described the
African as "incapable of developing or even retaining the benefits" of
Ten years later, the Italians successfully penetrated part of the Horn
of Africa and the paper hailed the event "as a conquest of
civilisation and Christianity over barbarism and savagery, over
unbelief, over habits of ferocity, over brutal ignorance of every
human law, religion, social and civil".
In the 1960s and the decades that followed, the Times continued to
exhibit the same attitude towards the continent's effort to be free,
especially through armed struggle, though the tone was a little
As a result, African movements had a hard time getting space or
fairness on the pages of America's leading newspaper.
However, there is one silver lining in this unending stretch of media
cloud: Kristof serves as a reminder that Africans should not let
others, especially those who know little about their culture and
history, define who they are.
It looks like the African story will continue to be distorted until
the continent develops media strong enough to be heard al Jazeeras
in broadcast and print journalism.
The writer is a political analyst
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