By Cedrick Ngalande
It’s difficult to get correct news about South Africa by simply reading the Western press. I have lived in the US for nearly a decade. Every morning I look through the press to get news on Africa. In those 10 years I have never seen a single news article that correctly and fairly reported on Africa.
Recently during a media panel event at the University of Southern California, I asked a former Los Angeles Times editor why the Western press always quote only white South Africans when reporting on South African affairs. He attributed the problem to laziness. Some journalists are simply too lazy to look for new sources so they just stick with the usual ones, he said.
Perhaps a more realistic answer was given by another member of the panel. This panellist pointed out that, when journalists go abroad, they tend to look for (and believe) people who look more like themselves. Usually these are the people with whom they drink and spend time in those foreign countries … and yes, they are usually white.
In many ways this has been the legacy of Western reporting on Africa. A quick perusal through the media will show that major Western news networks tend to seek out views of white people when they report on issues affecting South Africa. Even local (South African) correspondents for the Western media tend to be selected from among white South Africans. In reporting on Africa, the Western press has imbedded itself in the white section of South Africa. This is the reason news from South Africa tend to be slanted against black people and black governments and usually in favour of white people.
Opinions of the Democratic Alliance, a white opposition party, and the AfriForum, a white civil-rights group, are presented in the media as views of “many” South Africans. On the other hand, views from the black community and government are usually ignored in media. In reporting on issues like Zimbabwe, the media rarely gives an opportunity to the South African government to explain its position.
As much biased against South Africa as most of the Western press is, the South African media is worse. Mostly an extension of the European press, the South African media is perhaps the least diverse press in the whole world. Despite the fact that more than 75% of South Africans are black and less than 10% white, the press is largely white. A press conference in South Africa will look significantly whiter than a press conference in America. Even the so-called “black newspapers” are not controlled and owned by black people. Black journalists are expected to be more pro-Europe or Anglophiles before they can be hired by the press. Letters to the editor that support Europe over Africa are easily printed than vice versa.
Even worse, the South African media is hopelessly out of touch with the majority of the South African population. In the run up to the recent World Cup, this press consistently talked about how the World Cup will be a failure and how South Africans are not going to be enthusiastic about it — they were wrong. In any general election after 1994, this media has predicted that the ruling ANC party will lose a lot of its majority and that a minority white party, the DA party, will win — they have always been wrong. Why do the Western and South African journalists often get the mood of South Africa wrong? Of course the answer is simple; they often ignore the black majority and only seek the opinion of white South Africans.
It is to this background that, recently, the South African government put forward proposals to reform the media in South Africa. Predictably, the reaction from the press has been swift. The South African press is fighting hard to stop the legislation. Fears have been expressed that the government will control the press and possibly imprison journalists who defy it. But to most black Africans, what is surprising and worrying about the reporting on this legislation is what the media chooses not to report about it. This legislation, more than anything else, seeks to diversity the media. Yet the press, in its fight against the legislation, barely mentions the diversity argument.
No society can develop, no democracy flourish, if the majority of the people are denied opportunity to have their views and opinions freely disseminated. The South African press is a window not only to South Africa but the whole of Africa as well. To the extent that the South African government is trying to achieve diversity in the press, all freedom-loving people must support it.
A diverse South African press will be more fair and balanced, and in turn, will influence better reporting on Africa in the Western media.
Cedrick Ngalande is an aerospace engineer and space scientist currently residing in California, US. He holds a PhD in astronautical engineering and was born in Malawi