Impact of New Information Resources: Multimedia & Networks
INFOSYS 296A - May 1997
Professor Howard Besser


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 a result, 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 Times, illustrating quite clearly that The New York Times is not "All the News thatÍs Fit to Print" as it so claims to be.  Where possible, direct 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.

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".
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.

I. Patronizing 
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 approach characterizes much of the recent reporting.  An example can be seen in an article that describes the Zairian parliament.  The journalist writes,
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 "gallops".
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 Zairians themselves freely call the law of the jungle" (NYT March 17, 1997).  In another article, the focus of the patronizing is on government soldiers.  A "foreign military expert" is quoted as saying. "At the first sign of 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, 1997)  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.
II. Framing from a EuroAmerican perspective 
Media framing is very important to understand.  "Frames are principles of selection, emphasis, and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters" (Gitlin, 1980. p.6)  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 relate.
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 in Rwanda.

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 was a mistake" (February 14, 1997).  This article talks more about AnnanÍs 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" is quoted in the February 12 article entitled "In ZaireÍs Unconventional War, Serbs Train Refugees for Combat" and  a "Western diplomat"  is quoted in the March 11 article entitled "Zaire Rebels Fight Mobutu and Enter Political Class".  These Western experts add nothing to the report except the 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 "closest political models were Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Kim II Sung of North Korea, both totalitarian Communists" (NYT March 17, 1997)  By saying this it appears as if the "Communists" are to blame!  There is reference 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.

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 humanitarian (ƒ) it has no interest in prolonging for a single day MobutuÍs disastrous misrule" (NYT March 18, 1997)  A month later, the New York Times Editorial entitled "Burying Mobutuism" asserts the following.
America is now positioning itself as the "good guy" in the international 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 the Americans in the search for a solution'' to the conflict. (April 28, 1997)

III. Absence of in-depth coverage of African news stories 
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.

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 the opposition alike have shown themselves incapable of fashioning a workable future for Zaire" (NYT March 11, 1997).  There is just a facile presumption that itÍs just a question of "plain inexperience with democracy" and that Africa needs to follow the West politically and economically.  There is no consideration that Western "democracy" is not necessarily the system that is best for Africa.
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 business dealings" (NYT March 17, 1997).  A few days later, the New York Times asserts that  "AmericaÍs interest in the present crisis is primarily humanitarian" (NYT March 18, 1997) and in April, America is happily talking about "Burying Mobutuism" (NYT April 13, 1997)

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.

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 and solutions.

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.
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 [] 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 making 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 Press

New York Times