Monday March 31 2014

African media outlets should learn to set their own agenda

By Benjamin Rukwengye

On March 23, a boat - overloaded with Congolese refugees - capsized in Lake Albert, killing 108 passengers (by last count).
You are not to blame if the news slipped below your radar. It barely made the headlines.

Contrast that with the global outpouring of grief that is a result of the lost Flight 370, that is now known to have plunged into the Indian Ocean. All the global news networks have been unable to cover anything else since March 8, and social media sites have been awash with all manner of discussion regarding Flight 370.

So, in those 17 days (between the missing and loss of the plane), what has Africa been up to? Well, in Uganda, 272 mothers died (16 everyday) while giving birth, Ebola has killed more than 60 people in Guinea, Boko Haram is still unrelenting in Nigeria, more than 500 people have been sentenced to death in Egypt for supporting a former President, the Central African Republic is no different. So is Libya! These stories are the same for most of the continent.

There are two reasons why you did not notice, or care that much about these African stories. The first is because we do not set the agenda for what is discussed. The narrative is dictated by the Western and the big news networks like CNN, BBC, Sky, etc.

Our inability to tell our own stories partly explains why the contemporary African finds the time to discuss the plight of Flight 370 on social media, offer theories and solutions, volunteer prayers and empathise with families of the victims but not really be bothered by what is going on closer to home

The other, and more worrying reason, is because the African story is repetitive: Preventable death, terrorism, detention without trial, hunger, corruption, incompetence, capsizing boats...we have seen this before, we shall see it again. So we are immune to shock.

But here is the quandary. Whereas you are sure that more African boats will capsize and mothers will still die while giving birth, you can also be sure that the manufacturers of Boeing 777 and everyone in the aviation industry will be working day and night, to ensure safe aviation and avoid a repeat of the horrific Flight 370 situation again.

So what is the problem? In spite of consuming all manner of Western material - news, movies, music, sports and technology innovations, we have not been empowered to think, expect and demand the same for ourselves. Oddly, we seem to expect the worst of ourselves, believing that we are unworthy of the same respect and dignity with which governments and service providers in the West treat their citizens and clients.

We admire the respect for human life, quality of service and accountability of the Western system as seen from the products we consume; but we meekly grumble as we continue to get substandard service from service providers, leaders, sports administrators and the media.

It is self-defeatist to glorify CNN for its quality news production, but make no demands that our own journalists and media schools do better. We deride our police and call them inept because we watch American series, forgetting that we’ll need them when in trouble. Be interested in helping them to get better.

You pay no attention to the bungled cases of embezzlement until one day, you are involved in a road accident and 30 of you are bundled onto a Police pickup, writhing and bleeding on the way to a hospital without beds. At what point did it become normal for us to not just ignore, but disparage Ugandan initiatives.

To accept mediocrity and not encourage initiative? We need to do more, to speak truth to power, to work at getting the best for ourselves and the next generation.

If the West is our standard-bearer for excellence, why is it not the measure of our worth too?

Mr Rukwengye works for African Centre for Media Excellence