Mon, Aug 08, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Africa's press often missing in action

Weak local media mean Africans depend on foreign reporters to learn of events happening around them and to hold their dictators to account

By Wole Soyinka

In much of Africa, the challenge for journalists, editors and readers goes beyond freedom of the press, and involves its very survival. Under Nigeria's various dictatorships, for example, many journalists underwent a rite of passage that most prefer to forget: routine harassment, beatings, torture, frame-ups on spurious charges and incongruously long prison sentences.

Among the numerous victims, perhaps the most bizarre case was that of a young journalist named Bagauda Kaltho. His body was found in a hotel toilet in the city of Kaduna with the remains of a parcel bomb after an explosion that no one heard. Yet there he lay, and with a copy of my book The Man Died beside him.

The implication, encouraged by the regime, was that Kaltho was a recruit of mine who blew himself up while preparing his next bomb in a campaign of terror aimed at Sanni Abacha's dictatorship. This unconscionable fabrication was fully exposed only after Abacha's death and the spate of confessions that followed it by the police agents who actually committed the crime.

The press fought back tenaciously, despite casualties. Journalists adopted tactics of underground publication, in the best tradition of East European samizdat. When police raided one place, copies emerged from other secure depots, to be sold in the streets by kamikaze youths who darted in and out of traffic offering the subversive contraband. It did not matter that these youthful hawkers, some no more than seven or eight years old, were often arrested, beaten, and locked up for weeks, occasionally months. When they emerged from prison, they returned to their dangerous work.

But Nigeria does not offer the premier example of the awesome power of the press. That honor belongs to a different history and region. If benchmarks such as focus, mobilization, commitment, organization and sheer impact are any guide, then the prize goes to the media's baleful role in preparing the Rwandan massacre of 1994, and in directing, overseeing, and stoking the fervor of the genocidaires once the extermination of Tutsis began. It remains a sobering lesson, one that presents the media in the role of aggressor and violator, in contrast to their normal position as victim.

Those events are too familiar to require re-hashing. What matters now is the role that the rest of the African media should have played, and the questions that this raises about their capacity to function as a watchdog.

Not many Africans, even among those who are knowledgeable in world affairs, had ever heard of Radio Milles Collines, the most blatant instrument of the Rwandan genocide. It is chastening that events primarily concerning Africans enter the public domain mainly owing to the intervention of the foreign media. It was they who exposed the complicity of certain foreign powers in an ongoing crime against humanity. And it was the foreign press that detailed the parallel failure of the UN, whose agents were on the ground but whose inability to call genocide by its proper name led to a comatose response. Simply put, the African media failed to reach beyond immediate borders and serve as a voice for the continent in its encounters with the world.

The African media's response to the massacres and rapes in Darfur has been equally muted. Once again, African readers are being shortchanged, remaining dependent on foreign reportage in order to grasp the enormity of what is transpiring.

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