Today and tomorrow, Kigali will be hosting a high-level regional media conference, under the theme: ‘Press Freedom and Human Rights: Examining the Role of Media Watchdogs’. The meeting is unique, not because of the nature of its participants, the venue or its timing – but its theme. It’s a subject that epitomizes one of the major controversies between Africa and the west.
The conference represents an unprecedented step by the African media to critically analyze the activities of media NGOs, which a friend of mine recently referred to as, ‘Non Governmental Individuals’.
For a long time, many western groups have turned Africa into an income-generating ground, and a punching bag.
The people of Africa continue to be exploited by self-serving organizations, which have duped unsuspecting western taxpayers into believing that these are bona fide advocacy groups that stand for the rights of the many ‘suppressed’ populations in this ‘diseased, war-torn black continent’.
They have masqueraded and sugar-coated their true identities, calling themselves, ‘press freedom watchdogs’, ‘human rights promoters’, etc. And the plight of the African people and the African media is the cause for their ‘activism’, so they say.
But why all the hype about this mysterious African cause? In fact, looking at the unaccountable activities of these groups in Africa, the term ‘scramble’ springs up in mind. It’s another form of scrambling on the African soil by the westerners.
Unfortunately, these groups effectively enjoy the backing of the armchair western media, which is happy to depict Africa as a continent plagued by disease, poverty and corruption.
They forget that no disease, no form of poverty or corruption is African, American, ... Granted, Africa has produced some of the world’s deadliest dictators, but many communities across Asia, Europe and the Americas, have just as bad a story to tell about tyrannical leadership.
It is this wicked conspiracy – explicit and otherwise – between these briefcase NGOs and irresponsible western media, that seem to be dictating the international agenda.
A case in point is last week’s ill-intentioned and misleading demonstration, in Madrid, Spain, by various groups against Rwandan President Paul Kagame. As these groups propagate lies with intent, they ride on the ignorance of their citizens, who continue to bankroll their schemes.
First, it was African leaders who publically denounced the fact that western NGOs and the international media always wrote and talked about Africa in a negative light, without any mention of the tremendous successes the continent has posted in the recent years.
In particular, these groups, especially media ‘watchdogs’ and some media outlets, have labeled many African leaders as press freedom predators, and make no effort to substantiate their allegations.
For a long time, the African media resisted the lure of joining the argument. Their thinking was that these are guys, who may simply be exaggerating in some cases, but whose reports are a sign of solidarity with the African journalists.
In media, solidarity is a highly cherished virtue, and that is why journalists, sometimes, erroneously tend to stand with their colleagues who are in the wrong.
Behind the curtains, the African media has, for some time now, diplomatically engaged with these media watchdogs on matters that concern African media. But, this strategy bore no meaningful fruits.
These groups will not mind about the concerns of African media practitioners; they know who they are serving.
The Rwandan Journalists Association (ARJ) can attest to that frustration.
The local journalists’ body has several times expressed its disappointment with some of these watchdogs, including Reporters Without Borders (also known as RSF), for bypassing and disregarding them, and for not bothering to conduct field investigations, before publishing distorted information on the media situation in Rwanda.
The gathering in Kigali, by leaders of the Eastern African Journalists Association (EAJA), an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists, over the role of media NGOs, is a clear indication that the African media is finally out to counter these perennial lies. The African story has been distorted enough!
As the President of the Federation of the African Journalists, Omar Furuk Osman, said in The New Times of yesterday, that it’s time the African media dissociates itself from the agenda of these media watchdogs, and takes the lead in addressing their own issues.
It appears these NGOs’ unelected mandate of speaking on behalf of the African media is fast coming to an end.
No, we understand we can tell this story better; after all, we live and have been shaped by it.
It’s a story that African journalists are genuinely passionate about; one that many in the west will certainly love to exploit.
The author is The New Times Associate