Media agenda keeps African tragedies off the radar
A landslide in Sierra Leone, at least 500 dead. A fire fight between the Muslims and Christian community in Bria in the Central African Republic (CAR), 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 that 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 Zimbabwe first lady Grace Mugabe’s calm escape to her country than the three tragic stories combined.
This is not to say that the attack in Barcelona or that Mugabe’s escape should be ignored.
They certainly 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 very 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 the subconscious, then surely Muslims don’t need to prove their humanity each time a group such as the Islamic State creates a ruckus.
Likewise, Grace Mugabe will be used to excoriate the Mugabes and the South African government. Given everything we know about Pretoria’s realist approach to international relations, Mugabe’s quiet escape to Harare is important, but not surprising.
Ultimately, covering Barcelona and what it means for Europe or embarrassing Mugabe to the hilt, 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 by Grace Mugabe, with a cord?
If AfriForum were concerned with justice, they would talk reparations for people of colour instead of looking to tackling the Mugabes.
The lack of interest in Sierra Leone or 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 morass of violent, inconsolable crazies 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 campaign. The students were a mob, unthinking and ungovernable. And we see it every day in the lack of coverage of service delivery protests in the 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 the CAR is a fight between rival militias over resources in a country on the brink in a part of the world which continues to be run by outsiders.
Could it be that the media blackout on the 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 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, Lome. In October, the first Israel-Africa summit will be held in Togo in what is seen as a major coup for Israeli entry into the continent. It is Togo who is rolling out the red carpet.
This 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 paying public. If readers are not going to demand more, they aren’t likely to get it. In the end, we all suffer.
* Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founding editor of The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.