Copyright – The International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, JUNE 30, 2005
LONDON Africa is not short of press interest, particularly this year. But amid the successes of debt relief, the hopes pinned on the Group of 8 leaders who will meet next month, and the intervention of Bob Geldof, there is another story to Africa, one that is not concerned with famine, war or disease. It tells of economic growth, stability and political reform. But it is a story that is going unreported.
The news media are missing this story of Africa’s development. Unaware of the trend, they are locked in a historical and generalized view of Africa.
Did anyone expect that war torn Mozambique would experience an economic growth rate of 10 percent on average in the last six or seven years? Or that we would see a similar turnaround in Tanzania? That both countries would quietly transition to new presidents through the ballot box? Yet if you look at the international news media, the focus is often on the negative. In the case of Tanzania you don’t read about elections, but about the purchase of a presidential jet. This is hardly balanced and informed coverage.
In Africa today, 800 million people, half of them under 20, are determined to find a better standard of life. This year economic growth will be 5 percent – twice the rate of the European Union. Democracy and its institutions are spreading, slowly but steadily. In the last five years, two thirds of the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa have had some form of multiparty elections, though clearly some are freer than others.
African leaders have declared their intention to set the agenda for change and be judged on its success through the New Partnership for African Development. Africa is on the verge of a huge investment in transport, education and health, and will be a major beneficiary of a successful conclusion of the current round of international trade talks.
I am not suggesting that the news media should only cover positive stories. It’s about balanced context. Reporting exclusively on politics, conflict, famine and disease may be perpetuating an unbalanced picture of Africa and thereby obscuring the positive – and undermining investor confidence in the continent.
It is true that some of Africa’s leaders have inflicted upon their people a triple whammy of corruption, incompetence and conflict. The news media have a role to play in applying pressure to the international community to act where injustices are being unleashed, as they did last year in waking the world to the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan.
It is right, too, to tell the world that 11 million children under the age of 5 die each year in Africa, that 350 million Africans live on less than $1 a day. But this story must not eclipse the fact that vast areas of the continent have taken enormous steps forward. If we only cover Africa when disaster strikes, we perpetuate the image of a continent in constant crisis. And that image is out of step with reality.
As we consider the role of foreign journalists in shaping Africa’s image, for better or for worse, we should not forget about the continent’s own news media. If the international press is not telling the story of advancement, perhaps the rebirth of national news agencies across the continent could create the critical mass of positive stories needed to wake up the world. These agencies would also give the international news media access to independent and objective reporting from the front line.
There are plenty of examples of nations that have built or re-established independent news agencies as part of their regeneration. In Iraq, for instance, an independent news agency is being created with help from the Reuters Foundation and the United Nations Development Program that will provide reliable news information within Iraq and from Iraq to the wider world.
The news media have a responsibility to observe. They also have a responsibility to tell it like it is. Business already knows that things are changing. It is no coincidence that Chinese companies are investing heavily in Nigerian telecommunications companies or Richard Branson in short-haul aviation.
In the face of an opportunity to resolve Africa’s problems, we must show that Africa can rise to the challenge, confront the present and build a positive future. Much has already been achieved in some areas of the continent. That story must be told.
(Niall FitzGerald is chairman of Reuters.)