Volunteers bury coffins during a mass funeral for victims of heavy flooding and mudslides in Regent at a cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone, last week.  Photo: Manika Kamara/AP
Volunteers bury coffins during a mass funeral for victims of heavy flooding and mudslides in Regent at a cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone, last week. Photo: Manika Kamara/AP

Barcelona hogs headlines, but nothing on Sierra Leone, CAR or Togo

By Azad Essa Time of article published Aug 22, 2017

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If there was ever a week to contemplate media hypocrisy, the past 10 days makes the perfect case study.

A landslide in Sierra Leone, 500 dead. A fire-fight between the Muslims and Christian community in Bria in the Central African Republic, 13 dead. An anti-government protest in Togo, nine dead.

Never mind that the disaster in Sierra Leone is being described as Africa’s worst flood-related disaster, or that the security situation in CAR is seen as “catastrophic”, or the protesters in Togo are demanding an end to 50-year rule by one family. More will be written about last week’s terror attack in Barcelona and Grace Mugabe’s calm escape to Zimbabwe than the three aforementioned stories combined.

This is not to say that the attack in Barcelona or that Mugabe’s escape should be ignored. They deserve coverage; victims ought to be remembered, the murderers and offenders chased.

But it is hard to ignore the asymmetrical news coverage of Barcelona and Mugabe and how it fits into a particular notion of what is important in this world.

The Barcelona attack will be used to further Islamophobia, and as fodder for white supremacists and anti-immigrant policies in Europe and the US. If all whites aren’t subjected to “random” searches for Nazi tattoos, or forced to undergo hypnosis to ascertain if colonial instincts sit in their subconscious, then surely Muslims don’t need to prove their humanity each time a group like Islamic State creates a ruckus.

Likewise, the Grace Mugabe incident will be used to excoriate the Mugabes and the South African government. Given everything we know about Pretoria’s realist approach to international relations, her quiet escape to Harare is important, but not surprising.

Ultimately, covering Barcelona and what it means for Europe, or embarrassing Mugabe is a marker of the concerns of a certain segment of the population.

How else would you explain the urgency of AfriForum to assist Gabriella Engels, the model beaten up by Mugabe, with a cord? If AfriForum was concerned with justice, it would talk reparations for people of colour instead of looking to tackling the Mugabes.

The lack of interest in Sierra Leone, the CAR, or the events in Togo smack of something different: a lack of concern for black lives.

This disinterest is completely analogous to the manner in which we cover the marginalised in South Africa on a daily basis.

We saw it in the coverage of the Marikana massacre in 2012. Then, the miners were presented as a morass of violent, inconsolable whack-jobs attacking police with sjamboks and home-made weapons. When they were murdered, many felt bad publicly but whispered justifications in private.

We saw it in the coverage of #FeesMustFall. The students were a mob; unthinking and ungovernable. And we see it daily in the lack of coverage of service delivery protests in townships. And when they are covered, we are told they are a traffic nuisance.

Why does it matter, you might ask?

The story in Sierra Leone is not just about a poor African country. The disaster has the hallmarks of the effects of climate change, and South Africa is likely to face similar in the coming years. Could it be that certain interests are willing to paint this as yet another “African disaster” in a bid to escape the scrutiny?

The crisis in CAR is a fight between rival militias over resources in a country on the brink in a part of the world continued to be run by outsiders.

Could it be that the media blackout on CAR or its simplistic Muslim versus Christian narrative suits those who are benefiting from the anarchy?

In Togo, activists and opposition leaders are demanding presidential term limits and an independent electoral commission to be formed. These are only the basics.

But then again, Togo is currently chairing the powerful Economic Community of West African States, and recently co-hosted the African Growth and Opportunity Act forum with the US in the capital, Lomé.

Then, in October, the first Israel-Africa summit will also be held in Togo, in what is being seen as a major coup for Israeli entry into the continent. It is Togo which is rolling out the red carpet.

This certainly forces one to ask: does the illiberal democracy suit the aspirations of outsiders?

It is easy to blame journalists, editors and publishers for failing to provide the complete picture.

But it is equally easy to forget that the media establishment is often a reflection of society.

We are a product of the bigotry, sexism and the structure of racist capitalism, and our agenda is often little more than the sum of the paying public. If readers are not going to demand more, they aren’t likely to get it.

And in the end, we all suffer.

* Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founding editor at The Daily Vox.

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