Foreign media coverage of Africa is defined by crisis. For two decades, Rwanda has made the pages of global newsprint for both positive and negative reasons.
For a long time, Rwanda has been referred to as a war torn country even when the war ended sixteen years ago. In 2005, Ben Richardson of the BBC authored a very positive story on Rwanda’s coffee sector yet he dramatically titled it, ‘Coffee buzz lifts war torn Rwanda’.
Nowhere in this story does the reporter discuss a war in Rwanda — and indeed there was no war going on anywhere in the country at the time.
The second tired cliché that is commonly used in reference to Rwanda is, ‘the tiny central African country’. Not a single foreign media entity that has ever covered Rwanda can deny using this tired phrase.
The Telegraph’s Boris Bachorz last year wrote, ‘This tiny central African country, still struggling to recover from a genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead…’
The New York Times’ Mark Lacey in 2005 wrote, ‘…a killing frenzy left this tiny Central Africa country in ruins…’
The VOA’s report on the arrest warrant for Mrs. Habyarimana in March 2010 said ‘the move was aimed at improving France’s battered ties with the tiny central African nation.’
I could go on all day.
The undertone of describing Rwanda in this manner is reminiscent of the disdainful reporting on Africa that goes on everyday in foreign media. Are these the most fundamental descriptions that are appropriate and deserving of Rwanda?
Let’s look at each of them one at a time:
War torn - There is no war currently going on that is tearing the country apart.
Tiny - It is a truism that Rwanda is of small geographic dimensions however; it is not the only truth there is about Rwanda. The Vatican, Singapore and Cyprus are all smaller than Rwanda, yet no one ever refers to them as tiny.
Central African country - This too is a truism but when used collectively with the other two exhibits more complex undercurrents.
In Factors influencing the flow of news, Einar Ostgaard reveals that western media treat their culture, history and body politics as superior to that of developing nations.
Ebo L. B also explains that Africa is often perceived as a “crocodile-infested dark continent where jungle life has perpetually eluded civilization’, in his publication on the Ethical Dilemmas of African journalists.
Branding Rwanda as located in Central Africa therefore does not aim at educating the audience about the country’s location but to enable it to place Rwanda as the center-point of the darkness and extremes that define the continent.
In 1999, George Alagiah, a BBC African correspondent admitted this failure of foreign journalists to fairly and accurately cover Africa, “My job is to give a fuller picture. But I have a gnawing regret that, as a foreign correspondent, I have done Africa a disservice, too often showing the continent at its worst and too rarely showing it in full flower.
There is an awful lot of historical baggage to cut through when reporting Africa: the 20th century view of the continent is, even now, infected with the prevailing wisdom of the 19th century”.
A decade later, not much has changed. Africa is still portrayed as an immature continent, barely crawling out of the Stone Age and Rwanda is inconveniently placed at its heart.
The author is a Rwandan journalist based in Michigan, USA.