Good Developments

Thoughts on development aid, African politics and other stuff

Journalism about and from Africa

by Peter Dörrie

There is a good post over at habanahaba on western journalism and writing about Africa. Another really good one is here at afrolens. Both posts make excellent points about how “ragtag journalism” produces stereotypes of an Africa ravaged by hunger, underdevelopment and murderous militiamen. I largely agree with both of them, but I would like to add to points to the debate:

1. It is true that many western journalists come to Africa (and not only the conflict zones) without the proper journalistic training and experience that these positions require. But I think what is even more dramatic, is the lack of historical and social knowledge that many media professionals have. I know few journalists, who have rigourously studied Africa before they start reporting on it. And let’s face it: once you start reporting and the deadlines come up, very few will strife to acquire the background knowledge that would be necessary to transform a “heart of darkness” story into an enlightening piece of writing.

2. While I agree that local perspectives are extremely important (and hence local journalists should be valued much more than they currently are), one should not forget the other side of the story: the reader. Your post kinda leaves the impression that all reporting should be left to the locals. I think that this would be problematic as well, as a good story needs to know its readers to have a real impact. While Somali journalists with will find it easier to get to the issues that really matter, they will find it extremely hard to make a story out of that, which matters for – let’s say – Germans, French or US people.

As there are very few people out there that really are “at home” in two cultures AND are good writers, I think the solution to this problem would be twofold: more preparation and more cooperation. Journalists from both cultural backgrounds should strive to gain a real understanding of the social mechanisms and history of the society they report on/to. And at the same time, they should seek as much cooperation from local professionals as they can get.

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7 thoughts on “Journalism about and from Africa

  1. The assumption at Afrolens appears to be that Somalia Report is making no efforts at either preparation or cooperation. From my experience working with them as a copy-editor, they do both. The assumption that hiring Jay Bahadur is ‘Western prejudice’ and ‘”Heart of Darkness” Orientalism’ is highly specious, and insulting.

    RYP has spent a great deal of time trying to speak to people in warzones, and has spent more time on the ground in Somalia then dozens of journalists. Jay is not ignorant either, and has a political science degree from UofT – most of the Afrolens
    blog entry consists of anger at his interview with Jon Stewart, which took place on a comedy show. FFS, overheating at this seems ridiculous.

    I will speak with my Somali friends and get their informed perspective on whether SomaliaReport is of value to them, thanks – and living in Toronto, I live amongst the second-largest diaspora population of Somalis in the West.

    RYP is white and a westerner, but I don’t think that he is implicitly racist or ignorant because of that. I travelled for many years in Asia and the Middle East, and I didn’t tell everyone who voiced an opinion about America or Canada (even when most of those didn’t even know Canada was a different country, larger than the US geographically, or what our political structure or stance on global issues, such as the war in Iraq which we opposed and didn’t join) that they were racist or ignorant for having an opinion different than my own.

    And, for the record, there are a number of Kenyan and Somali editors working behind the scene at Somalia Report. Most of them, especially those on the ground in Somalia, would prefer not to be named as they are working on stories about al-Shabaab and other groups that execute their critics. Mocking Jay, RYP or myself for not being Somali is fine and fair enough, but please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and dismiss all of the reporting we cover as biased because of that.

    for instance, we covered this story, as reported by friends of AbdisSalaam Sheikh Hassan:

    http://www.somaliareport.com/index.php/post/2354/Somali_Journalist_Shot_Dead

  2. Peter Dörrie on said:

    Thanks for your comment. I think it would be good to voice these concerns on the AfroLens blog as well, as the story took off there.

    I am not in a good position to judge if AfroLens is right in their portrayal of Somalia Report or not, as I do not follow either blog very intensively (though I might begin to).

    But I think you will agree that the standard of reporting on Africa in general and on conflict in Africa in particular is deplorable. We need a healthy debate about these issues and insofar I really applaud the posts on AfricaLens and Habanahaba.

    • I did, and was mocked as ‘paid tools of RYP’ – I think he is far more sincere than Afrolens takes him for, and probably insulted. Discussion is fair, insulting other people’s motives is not. I don’t tell Somalis that they don’t have the right to criticize Canada or the US. A lot of this argument is overheated rhetoric on a blog, and would be better directed not at SomaliaReport, but at mainstream media news.

      Somalia Report could just target security contractors and NGOs (white westerners who need security news about Somalia) but RYP consciously chose to represent views of Somalis for the diaspora, as well. and pays for that out of his own pocket, not for profit. Which makes the anger at him seem ridiculous, it’s not like he’s profiting from, or mocking, Somalis — rather he’s trying to help get attention paid to the humanitarian crises there.

      So if that’s ‘Orientalist’ and ‘patronizing’… sure, name all the rest of us who are concerned with Somalia as orientalists, too.

      • Peter Dörrie on said:

        Again, I won’t take a position regarding the AfroLens/Somalia Report beef, but I would like point out one issue that I think is one of the reasons why AfroLens is so critical (be it right or wrong) towards RYP:

        You say that Somalia Report works “not for profit” and therefore the anger “seems ridicoulous”. I think it is important to acknowledge that “good intentions” are not enough; They can lead to negative outcomes just as easily as bad intentions can.

        I have my academic roots in the field of development studies and this sector is rive with stories of some westerner coming to the “third world” to “do some good” without really knowing what he does. These people have arguably made the situation worse than it was to begin with. And I think that this holds true for a lot of the contemporary Africa reporting as well.

        So, you are certainly in a better position than me to judge, if Somalia Report really “does good”. But I would judge this not on the basis of the original intention, but by looking at the likely effects of the reporting.

        Having had a quick look at Somlia Report, I would make to comments:

        1. If I was the editor, I would put a lot more emphasis on “non-violence” stories. Only two of the stories on the main page are not focused on violence at the moment. I would give stories about how Somalis cope with their lives, their successes and social issues more room.

        2. I agree with AfroLens that making Jay the (only) main editor is a problematic choice. My choice would have been a team of two main editors, one western, one Somali. Both should have high-profile records of reporting on Somalia and intimate knowledge of the context. I can not judge if Jay fulfils this requirement, but even if yes, he needs a Somali counterpart on eye-level, if you ask me (especially if the site is targeted not only at westerners but the Somali Diaspora as well).

  3. @ Dawud

    I actually agree with much of your position. But again I think the concerns about Bahadur are very legitimate. I dont think you’ve attempted to adequately answer any of them at all. You make the analogies of Somalis in Canada but I think it completely misses the mark.I assure you a Somali who doesn’t speak English, and has spent little time in Canada would not be taken seriously in managing news out of the country.

    I am an avid reader of SomaliaReport and generally find the site useful in its ability to deliver English language Somali news. That being said, it does not mean the site is above criticism. The language requirement would seem as a very relevant one in such a position, so why haven’t you attempted to answer it in a constructive manner?

  4. RYP has already responded to Afrah, and they have (predictably) ignored what he said about inviting them to work productively, taking only insult or offense to what he means – which is Somalia Report is for Somalis to report with. He seriously would applaud if Somalis built their own website, in the meantime, he is commissioning stories, building networks and getting awareness to the humanitarian crisis there.

    You have no argument from me that humanitarian aid is often done wrong, financial aid often corrupting while placing the poor people of the country further in debt, usually patronizing and particularly when coupled with military aid, destabilizing and extremely negative. But Somalia Report isn’t about that, we have reported on the drought, fire, restructuring, peace negotiations and tribal reconciliation, amongst many other ‘positive’ news stories.

    1. We don’t report on violence for gratuitous reasons or to reinforce negative images of Africans, we actually have to tell our journalists that certain graphic images (say of suicide bombers’ limbs on the street) are beyond the capacity of our viewers to take. The violence we report on is very much a part of Somalis’ everyday lives, sadly.

    2. There are other Somali and Somali-speaking editors working with Somalia Report, who I won’t name and will let them speak for themselves. I’ll just say that Jay is working hard to fulfill the vision of Somalia Report, and the English-language reporting is of value to the tens of thousands who read Somalia Report daily, thus an English-speaking editor is helpful to direct and edit the website.

    Basically, you haven’t seen anything yet. On the other hand, what has Afrolens done for Somalia? Does the fact that you are born there mean that whatever you say about your home country is right, and any critical perspective is inherently wrong because of it’s provenance and the skin colour of it’s critics.

    Humorously, I had a discussion with one of our Somali journalists *inside* Somalia today, he had not read Afrolens but was far more concerned with getting news about Somalia out. Remind why that is again…

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