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With the optimism, pressure is bearing down on the press to “promote” a single story of “Africa Rising” and downplay or even ignore negative accounts of persisting challenges such as corruption, restrictions on political and civil liberties, poor governance and rule of law.
The impulse often stems from a well-meaning desire to pushback against Western media’s tendency to cover most extensively coups, wars, political unrest or natural disasters.
“These are the images that we must aggressively seek to banish from the global media space and sphere about Africa,” Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta declared on World Press Freedom Day earlier this month.
“Not because they do not exist –rather, that they will belong to a past, an inglorious past that we seek forever to consign to the annals of history,” he added.
Yet, the progress registered over the last decade has been largely uneven and it is not by any means irreversible.
In 2011, reports from the Africa Progress Panel and the United Nations Secretary-General warned that impressive economic growth did not bring comparable improvements in health, education, and nutrition.
Widening inequality; persisting corruption and bad governance have also slowed the pace of development and maintained the continent’s dependence on aid.
The World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects (GEP) released in January 2013 also identified the vulnerability of African growth to slumping growth in China, the continent’s number one trade partner.
UNDP’s Human Development report noted that economic growth alone does not automatically lead to pro-poor policies and identified greater citizen participation as a key to sustaining progress.
According to the January 2013 World Bank GEP, Sierra Leone, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, and Angola surpassed China’s growth rate in 2012. The economies of Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana, Mozambique, Eritrea and Zambia grew faster than either of India and Brazil.
Most of the African countries however trailed at the bottom of various indices measuring governance, transparency, rule of law and ease of doing business. Sub-Saharan Africa still accounts for the world’s lowest levels of human development, according to UNDP.
Economists, academics, policy analysts will debate the conclusions but professional journalists also have a role to play, not only in gathering and analyzing this information but also parsing hard facts from political spin.
At least that’s what professional journalists can do if given both resources and the enabling environment to operate without fear of harassment or political pressure.
Political leaders may not care as much about numbers, facts and data as journalists, but they are viscerally invested in shaping and controlling how the final narrative gets played out in the press.
For them, and many other well-meaning Africanists, messaging is key in attracting tourism, foreign investment and restoring the long-battered image of Africa.
The stakes are high and local journalists who go against the grain of the official single story can face tremendous political pressure, ostracizing, harassment or even imprisonment.
A case in point is Somalia, where 50 journalists have been killed since 1992, most of them directly targeted for murder.
These days, Somalia’s new government and its donors insist that the country is turning the page on two decades of misrule, citing for instance significant progress in security and economic revival.
But when journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur decided to investigate allegations that security forces were involved in sexual violence against women in IDP camps, he was imprisoned for weeks as officials variously accused him of fabricating a story and “insulting a national institution.”
In Ethiopia, the government has trumpeted a single story of “double-digit” economic growth, and relative stability based in large part on its systematic suppression of information challenging the official narrative.
A world record number of journalists who have raised legitimate questions about the basis of government claims on anti-poverty achievements, military operations in the armed conflict in the oil-rich Ogaden region, or the real extent of food crises have been either harassed by police, criminal prosecuted on various anti-state charges such as “inciting the public through false rumors,” intimidated in state media, or forced into exile.
Foreign-based broadcasts, blogs and internet sites on sensitive topics are blocked in the country.
In Rwanda, the government has decimated the once-vibrant critical Kinyarwanda-language tabloid press, giving authorities free hand to promote a single story of economic success and post-genocide prosperity.
The single narrative in the government-compliant press largely extols the government’s achievements in inclusive reconciliation by, for instance, striving to abolish ethnic identity.
Yet the events of 1994 are officially referred to as the “Tutsi genocide,” and the government has criminalized as genocide denial accounts by some survivors of post-genocide reprisal killings implicating the ruling party.
Speaking to reporters at the East Africa Media Forum in August 2012, Rwandan President Paul Kagame declared that journalists “have the duty to tell the true story of our region and promote our collective desire for peace, security and development.”
Kagame was referencing developmental or “responsible” journalism, an archaic concept that turns journalists into public relations officers.
African leaders have long recognized the role of the media in development as long as the press amplifies the official story, which often excludes significant segments of African societies that may yet be waiting to reap the benefits of growth, natural resource exploitation, or paper reforms.
Ultimately, narrowing inequality, reducing poverty and realizing the prosperity envisioned by the African Union in Vision 2063 will hinge on information sharing of both good and bad practices across the continent.
Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists
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