Africa Not All ‘Doom and Gloom’

Suren Musayelyan writes:

Africa is much more diverse than journalists in the West present and audiences ultimately perceive it, according to Richard Dowden, who fears he, as a journalist who for many years covered Africa for several British newspapers, might have contributed to the stereotype of the continent’s being all about wars, famines and disasters.

Mr Dowden, currently director of the Royal African Society, a nongovernmental organisation promoting better understanding of Africa, spoke about the coverage of Africa in British and other Western media and the quality of journalism in Africa proper at a RISJ seminar at Green Templeton College in Oxford on March 11.

'Journalists go to bad places in bad times,' explained Mr Dowden to add some sense of fairness. He said as a journalist with The Times and later Africa editor with the Economist and the Independent he himself spent his time 'in wars, famines and disasters' and not in 'ordinary Africa' and contributed to the impression of Africa being 'a violent and frightening place'.

Mr Dowden's book, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, giving perspectives on several African states, was published in 2008 and he says while writing it he found that his memory was not of a violent and terrifying place, but of 'wonderful, very open and welcoming people often living in really tough times, but with an immense strength and optimism.'

'There is no understanding of the complexity and the diversity of Africa. Again because of the images coming out on television and in newspapers of famine and war and so on,' said Mr Dowden, citing anecdotal cases of people in Britain worried about their friends in Nigeria because of the situation in Zimbabwe – two of the 53 countries in the vast continent separated from each other by thousands of miles as well as great political, cultural and other differences.

'Everybody thinks all of Africa is Zimbabwe or Liberia, and they don't have another image of a quiet, successful Africa in their minds.'

Regarding the quality and standards of journalism in African states, Mr Dowden said it also varied from country to country quite dramatically.

While on the whole, according to the speaker, the standard of African journalism has gone up, compared to the 1970s when 'good journalists were few and far between' in Africa, there is a great difference in standards between countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Congo and others.

'In Kenya the standard is pretty high and there is a great integrity in journalism. Nigeria has hundreds of newspapers, but these are newspapers of a "one-man band" where some rich man has set it up to pursue his own political interest,' Mr Dowden said.

'The Congolese press is a bit like the Nigerian press, but there is a terrific interest in them (among readers). But the level of reporting in Congo remains low...And in Somalia you still get really good journalism coming out, with the presence of an immense amount of websites.'

With the presence of only one state-run TV in most African states, radio, according to Mr Dowden, is becoming increasingly dominant in Africa, once considered a 'newspaper' continent.

But he added: 'Newspapers still remain important because radio still picks up from them extensively.'