Impact of New Information Resources: Multimedia & Networks
INFOSYS 296A - May 1997
Professor Howard Besser
CYBERSPACE NEWS FROM AFRICANS ABOUT AFRICA
ZAIRE - IN SEARCH OF THE TRUTH
In America, news about Africa is framed by a Euro-America perspective.
The American public knows very little about Africa and has minimal interest
in what is still perceived to be the "dark continent". As
inaccurate and highly biased news reporting on Africa is rarely challenged
and the stereotypes of a vast continent persist. It is almost impossible
to get the real news or the important news about events taking place in
this vast continent of over 50 countries. Cyberspace journalism from
Africans about Africa may offer an alternate voice to challenge the status
quo. For the many Africans living abroad and for others who might
be interested in the Continent, online sources offer an alternate voice.
In order to examine the issues, this paper will look specifically at reporting
that deals with Zaire
. The focus of the paper is on news reporting online. The paper
will compare the New York Times coverage
online of events in Zaire to the coverage of the AfricanOnline
site which holds news reports from numerous African newspapers. The
time period surveyed is between February 1997 and April 1997. The
first part of this paper looks closely at reporting from the New York
illustrating quite clearly that The New York Times is not "All the
thatÍs Fit to Print" as it so claims to be. Where possible,
comparisons will be drawn with reporting from African newspapers.
Toward the end of this paper there is a further examination of news from
African newspapers found at the AfricaOnline site and a closer look at
what sorts of alternatives online newspapers and online sources offer to
redress the American reporting biases.
It is not the intention of this paper to give the history of Zaire, but
rather to look critically at the way in which the news is presented from
a Americacentric position and an Afrocentric position. Nevertheless,
a quick overview is necessary to situate the reporting. From a Americacentric
framework, Zaire was colonized by Belgium, a notoriously brutal colonizer.
In the 1960s a nationalist movement led by Patrice Lumumba opposed the
colonial rule. Patrice Lumumba was murdered in 1961. The CIA
were involved in Lumumba's murder and they also helped to put President
Mobutu Sese Seko in power in 1965. Mobutu has ruled ever since in
a demagogic, corrupt manner.
Zaire has always been attractive in terms of its vast natural
resources (mineral resources in particular). The current rebel leader,
Laurent-Desire Kabila heads the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation
of Congo-Zaire (ADFL). From an Afrocentric position, Zaire is an
artificial nation state containing peoples from many different language
and cultural groups. Western powers, France and America in particular have
maintained Mobutu and are only relinquishing some of their control as
cold war fears have receded. The history of the people
who live within the
borders of Zaire does not start with colonialism.
US REPORTING - NEW YORK TIMES
In reporting, what gets told is important but who tells
the story is equally
important. The journalists writing for the New York Times about Africa
are Americans and their outlook is inevitably affected by their socialization
in Euro-American discourse. There is a hegemonic discourse that is
constructed by the structure of international journalism. This international
journalism is defined by the leading press agencies; The Associated Press,
United Press International, Agence France-Presse and Reuters (Tunstall,
1977). The New York Times has only 4 Africa correspondents covering
51 countries. Africa is rarely given much coverage unless it fits
into the genre of "earthquake news".
Africa is truly "covered" by the Western press in the sense
stories go unreported. Hence, invisibility is a crucial issue to
be addressed in the assessment of African coverage. Most Africans
events are simply ignored by the media in its spotty coverage of the continent.
(Hawk: 1992, p.6)
This invisibility of African news has remained a constant over the past
few decades. A survey of the New York Times coverage of Africa between
1976-1990, found that there had been no change in the volume/proportion
of African news. Neither the visibility of African countries in the
news nor page one coverage increased. On the occasions when Africa
did get page one coverage it was most often about war, terrorism, crime
and/or trivia. What was shown to increase however was negative/crisis
news. It would be a reasonable to guess that such statistics have
not changed since 1990. This paper will illustrate how reporting
of Africa is characterized in the New York Times (NYT). Three aspects
of coverage shall be examined in detail: patronizing tone, news framing
from an American perspective, and the lack of in-depth coverage.
Over the past few months Zaire has received a lot of coverage from the
New York Times.
Zaire is currently in a state of crisis and its refugees, civil war, political
scandal, corruption, and greed make sellable news. A patronizing
characterizes much of the recent reporting. An example can be seen
in an article that describes the Zairian parliament. The journalist
The discussions are customarily animated, but are as likely to be
private business deals or girlfriends as about affairs of state () it
has been months since the assembly has produced any new laws. (NYT March
This description gives the clear impression of lawlessness and illiterates
unable to govern. One would never find these sorts of comments made
about the American Senate or the House of Representatives. But for
Africa, these comments are acceptable and they feed the American publicÍs
stereotyped images of Africa. The very adjectives that are used to
describe Africans in the article are patronizing. Note the use of
the words "hordes", "jubilant", and
Although they can only guess what the rebels might offer Zaire, fresh
hordes of jubilant citizens are rallying to their cause as the insurgency
gallops through the countryside ( NYT March 11, 1997)
In other articles, journalists find justifications for the use of certain
patronizing words. For example, in one article the journalist justifies
the use of the word "jungle" by saying that this is "what
freely call the law of the jungle" (NYT March 17, 1997). In
article, the focus of the patronizing is on government soldiers.
A "foreign military expert" is quoted as saying. "At the
trouble, those soldiers that resist looting, fire off all of their rounds
in the air, strip off their uniforms and run away" (NYT February 12,
When this occurrence is compared to a similar event in an African newspaper,
it becomes very obvious how patronizing the New York Times has been.
The New York Times did not bother to report the fully story and the circumstances
under which the soldiers found themselves. The Zambian Post presents
the same "facts" but in a more situated context.
A brigade of Zairian government soldiers in Lubumbashi yesterday
sides as the rebels came within 30 kilometres of the city and vowed to
fight any force that would try to stop Laurent-Desire Kabila's rebel forces.
The brigade acted in obedience to a morning local radio order to all government
troops to lay down their weapons and not offer any resistance. The soldiers
wore white head bands and were brandishing white flags promising to welcome
the rebels. They even got to the extent of dumping their military rig for
civilian wear. It was however not clear whether the order came from Zairian
government military sources. (Zambian Post, April 9, 1997)
II. Framing from a EuroAmerican perspective
The metaphor in which correspondents frame their stories and indeed
selection of the stories themselves tell us more about America than they
do about Africa. The information we receive about Africa is the return
of American ideas to the American market (Hawk, 1992. p.13)
Media framing is very important to understand. "Frames are
of selection, emphasis, and presentation composed of little tacit theories
about what exists, what happens, and what matters" (Gitlin, 1980.
What happens with Western reporting on Africa is that it is always framed
in the context of ideas, concepts, situations to which Westerners can quickly
By reporting those aspects of African life deemed to be important to
reader, the media select stories according to the Western values.
As a result,
African successes measure according to African values are never reported
(Hawk, 1992. p.7)
A very clear example of this is seen in the reporting on Rwanda.
The situation in Rwanda was not reported in its own terms. Instead
it was reported as a series of anecdotal events about United Nations intervention
and human rights trials as it related to Yugoslavia. The focus was
not on the historical or societal background to the events taking place
Coverage of Africa which emphasizes poverty, disease, and famine
to the existing view of Africans as have-nots. By comparing them
to our economic and technological standards, we are able to create an image
of Africa in the American mind that is a chronicle of its deficiencies
to the Western standard. () This colonial legacy has left us the
good African and the bad African, with the good Africans being those who
are receptive to Western values (Hawk, 1992 p.9)
The same sort of news framing is currently happening with American reporting
on Zaire. Firstly, United Nations (UN) references are abundant.
One article is entitled "UN Chief says abandoning Aid force for Zaire
a mistake" (February 14, 1997). This article talks more about
changes in the UN than about Zaire. Similarly, in an article dated
February 19, 1997, discourse on the UN comes before discourse on Zaire.
There is also a constant use of European commentators who are often cited
as if they are experts in the region. Examples in the New York Times
are abundant. For example, "one foreign military expert"
in the February 12 article entitled "In ZaireÍs Unconventional War,
Train Refugees for Combat" and a "Western
diplomat" is quoted
in the March 11 article entitled "Zaire Rebels Fight Mobutu and Enter
Class". These Western experts add nothing to the report except
reassurance of a Western opinion. Once again, this is unique to reporting
from Africa. It would be unimaginable for the same thing to be done
in American reportings from Western countries. Imagine Americans
reporting on France and quoting American tourists as the authority
on the events taking place in France!
American news framing also constantly puts America in a good light.
The news stories speak of how Mobutu cultivated Western allies (NYT March
18, 1997) rather than how the West very actively cultivated MobutuÍs favours.
Another news article includes Morocco and Senegal in the list of ZaireÍs
allies (NYT February 12,1997), failing to acknowledge that ZaireÍs
main allies, those who made sure that Mobutu remained in power for over
30 years, are overwhelmingly Western governments. The WestÍs disgraceful
and deplorable role in the maintenance of MobutuÍs brutal dictatorship
are considerably down played. In passing, it is noted that Mobutu
"was always firmly in the Western camp" but that his
models were Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Kim II Sung of North Korea,
both totalitarian Communists" (NYT March 17, 1997) By saying
it appears as if the "Communists" are to blame! There is
to the 1965 coup dÍetat but no mention of the CIAÍs role in this coup.
This contrasts starkly to The Weekly Review (a Kenyan newspaper) that writes
the following on April 18, 1997.
Having come to power by the barrel of the gun in 1965 with the support
of the American CIA, Mobutu seems destined to go the same way, as Laurent
Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire
close in on him. Mobutu is domestically and internationally an isolated
man, with his key allies, including France, Belgium and the US, openly
calling for his retirement.
Not only does America deny its ignoble role but in recent reportings
it has begun to take the moral high ground, placing itself above all other
outside nations in its relationship with Zaire. One article unashamedly
claims that "AmericaÍs interest in the present crisis is primarily
() it has no interest in prolonging for a single day MobutuÍs disastrous
misrule" (NYT March 18, 1997) A month later, the New York Times
entitled "Burying Mobutuism" asserts the following.
The United States has recently begun to develop a constructive
War approach to Africa. That has allowed it to move out from the
shadows of former colonial powers like France and Belgium. Those
countries, though now rushing to write off Mobutu, still view African politics
through political loyalties and mining concessions (NTY April
America is now positioning itself as the "good guy" in the
arena and pretending that it is not concerned with mining concessions!
While America, is saying that its only interest in Zaire is humanitarian,
other Africans are wondering at AmericaÍs slowness in engaging in the peace
process. In a discussion of the peace talks, the Kenyan newspaper
The Daily Nation expresses surprise at ``the lack of interest shown by
Americans in the search for a solution'' to the conflict. (April 28, 1997)
III. Absence of in-depth coverage of African news stories
The act of naming "Africans" by one collective term may have
for colonial goals, but it is not particularly useful for understanding
culture () This narrow, racial definition of Africa, structured by the
language employed to tell the African story, tells readers and viewers
that the continent has a simple homogeneous cultureî (Hawk, 1992.
Africa is a huge continent and yet there is little probing in depth of
the stories that come from this Continent. There are huge logistical
and language barriers that American reporters are not addressing. How for
example, can reporters really know what is going on when they are reporting
from so far away and donÍt even speak the peopleÍs languages? The
same would not happen with American reporting in Europe. American
reporters in Europe are expected to have some knowledge of the indigenous
language. It would seem very rare for reporting on a civil war to
come from a location that is thousands of miles away from the event yet
this is what is happening with reporting on ZaireÍs civil war. Countless
reports on the situation in Zaire come from American journalists writing
from Abidjan, Ivory Coast or Nairobi, Kenya. Such locations are thousands
of miles away from Zaire.
There is no proper coverage of the complexities of issues from the perspective
of the Zairians themselves.
Those aspects of African life covered by the foreign media are easily
in brief dispatches and comfortably understood by the American audience
Stories communicating African history, culture, and values never reach
the American public (Hawk, 1992 p.6)
There is no attempt by the New York Times for example to explain why it
is that "In seven years of sporadic effort, political insiders and
opposition alike have shown themselves incapable of fashioning a workable
future for Zaire" (NYT March 11, 1997). There is just a facile
that itÍs just a question of "plain inexperience with democracy"
Africa needs to follow the West politically and economically. There
is no consideration that Western "democracy" is not necessarily
that is best for Africa.
The stories are not given historical context to avoid linking the West
to the problem. After all, much of the political strife in Africa
results from the collision of distinct cultural groups arbitrarily thrown
into political entities by colonizers in their scramble for Africa. (Hawk,
There is no discussion of Mobutu nor is there any discussion about the
rebel leader, Kabila, or the alternatives to Kabila.
The superficial nature of the news coverage can be seen when one explores
the time line of coverage. For the past 30 years, Zaire has hardly
ever been mentioned in the New York Times, despite the fact that there
was much political unrest and the Zairian people have been suffering.
When Zaire did come to the news, the initial portrayal of the rebel leader,
Laurent Kabila, was not a positive one. In March, the New York Times
was saying that Kabila was a man "whose past is full of shady
dealings" (NYT March 17, 1997). A few days later, the New York
asserts that "AmericaÍs interest in the present crisis is
humanitarian" (NYT March 18, 1997) and in April, America is happily
about "Burying Mobutuism" (NYT April 13, 1997)
NEWS REPORTING - AFRICAONLINE
It is in fact, not that easy to find lots of stories that are currently
covering the situation in Zaire. Articles about Zaire are relatively
few as compared to those that are found in the New York Times between February
and April 1997. Coverage of Algeria, Sudan, Togo, Zambia, Ivory Coast
and Mauritania in African newspapers is at same level that the international
community is covering Zaire. Zaire is not the only important news
worthy event going on in Africa as the New York Times might make it appear.
With reporting from Africans, there is not the same patronizing, sensational,
shallow approach to the news. The news framing for African journalists
is not Euro-American and therefore the WestÍs role is seen in a very different
light. In a newspaper from Ivory Coast, the role that France and
America have played in Zaire is strongly condemned.
Malheureusement, les puissances coloniales, jalouses de leurs pouvoirs
dominateurs et de leur mechancete legendaire historique et cruelle, ont
tripatouille, manuvre, corrompu et trahi, pour remettre au gout du jour
les heritiers de la dictature. (La Voie: April 1, 1997)
Coverage is much more in-depth in terms of the details of what is going
on in Zaire. An example can be seen in an article from The Weekly
Review (April 18, 1997) which gives detail on KabilaÍs moves.
Although the news stories in African news reports do not carry the biases
of the West, they are sometimes prone to depicting the failures of African
economies and politics from a Western perspective. African
reporting can sometimes fall into the same mode as Western reporting by
not searching for uniquely African political and economic alternatives
African online newspapers are only one source of information that serves
as an alternate voice to American news on Africa. New information
sources allow for interactivity between the writers and readers of the
news and as a result numerous discussions on African news are taking place
online. The following email from a Zairian history professor describes
the complexities of the situation in Zaire.
C'est inconfortable a dire mais le Zaire est tellement vaste que ce
se passe aux frontieres orientales interessent peu ceux qui sont a l'ouest,
c-a-d Kinshasa. Un exemple:Les gens de l'est ne parlent pas lingala,
mais swahili. Moi je ne comprends pas swahili. Je ne peux donc
communiquer qu'en francais avec eux. C'est ce qui se passe avec un ami
qui est a Binghamton. Il est zairois, mais ne parle pas lingala. Nous parlons
donc en francais. Je crois que la rhetorique de Kabila est necessaire.
Il est lui-meme un mal necessaire. C'est peut-etre le Robespierre Zairois
qui va instaurer un temps de terreur provisoire pour faciliter l'accession
du pays a la democratie. En tout cas compare a Kabila, Mobutu reste
le mal supreme. Il faut s'en debarasser a n'importe quel prix. Bien
evidemment dans toute cette affaire la responsabilite des Francais, des
belges et des Americains est cruciale. N'eut ete leur soutien a Mobutu,
le Zaire n'en serait peut-etre pas la.
This email describes the great language divides in Zaire which hinder communication.
Often Zairians are only able to communicate with each other through the
language of the colonizer, French. This email also expresses the
Zairian disgust with Mobutu but an acknowledgment that Kabila may not be
much better. It is clear in its belief that France and America hold
much of the blame for the current situation in Zaire.
Other forms of the news can be gleaned from the email discussion group
of H-Africa [http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~africa/] where there are discussions
on the situation in Zaire.
These electronic conversations are extremely important in correcting the
damaging biases of Euro-American news. However, it must be acknowledged
that those who have access to these groups are often Africans who are outside
the Continent and are namely members of the African elite who have access
to computers. The very languages in which the news is discussed in
French, German or English is the language of the former colonizers.
The vast majority of African peoples do not have a voice in cyberspace.
There are several ways to counter the journalistic hegemony of American
reporting. One of the ways is to try and get representatives in the
existing media. This is what sites such as the AfricaOnline site
have attempted to do. Another way to counter the journalistic hegemony
is use other vehicles, outside of the existing media sources, to get ideas
across. By writing such a paper for a graduate class entitled, Impact
of New Information Resources: Multimedia & Networks, IÍm introducing
these ideas into a new arena. I am hoping that the ideas expressed
in this paper, will make many who are not normally exposed to such concepts
and ideas on Africa begin to explore the few African voices that can be
found in cyberspace.
Gitlin, T., (1980). The Whole World is Watching: mass media in the
and unmaking of the new left, University of California Press
Hawk, B. G., (Ed.) (1992). AfricaÍs Media Image, Praeger
Tunstall, J., (1977). The media are American, New York Columbia University
New York Times