News reporting is always shaped by a considerable amount of tension. How do you strike the balance between hooking the audience with the sensational while supplying sufficient detail and context for an informed understanding of the events being reported?
This tension is most apparent when dealing with complex issues set in environments geographically distant from your audience. Reporting Africa to the world has been shaped by this tension. It has also been shaped by frames that can replicate colonial prejudices, Cold War stereotypes or project images of “otherness”.
This is captured in Africa’s Media Image in the 21st Century: From Heart of Darkness to Africa Rising, a new volume by Mel Bunce, Suzanne Franks and Chris Paterson.
In their fascinating and informative new study of Africa’s media image, the trio relate how journalists have to fight to get stories from Nigeria and other key states into the news as areas worthy of reporting in their own right and not just when there was “trouble” there.
They quote the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who says that if …
all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.
Somalia is Black Hawk Down
If there is one country that could sum up this, it is Somalia. Decades of war, civil dislocation, poverty, hunger and disease have been the stock-in-trade of Western reporting. Given the country’s history this is not altogether surprising. It has been almost constantly at war since the uprisings in the late 1980s that overthrew the dictator Siad Barre.
The dictator’s departure led to the fragmentation of a highly centralised system of government, the growth of clan-based militias and the rise of Islamist movements. This in turn drew the hostility of neighbours and the US.
For many in the West reliant on sporadic but sensationalist media coverage, Somalia is Black Hawk Down. Added to that is a dash of piracy, stick-thin children starved by rapacious warlords and saved only by Western aid or intervention. Until, of course, that intervention went horribly wrong.
Harding’s grasp for the detail
There are elements of these themes but, fortunately, a lot more to be found in the intriguing new work, The Mayor of Mogadishu by Andrew Harding. There is detail, nuance, context and first-hand experience in this account by the well-travelled BBC foreign correspondent.
At times, it reads like a series of dispatches. While this may make it a little disjointed, it imbues the story with the sense of being there and knowing what is important to report or describe.
Harding is very well aware of the danger of stereotypes. He warns at the start that the name Mogadishu seems “forbidding” and has in the media
become a bloated cliché, not just of war but of famine and piracy, terrorism, warlords, anarchy, exodus … All the worst headlines of our time invoked by one lilting, gently poetic, four-syllable word.
Harding peoples the city and brings it alive as a place where lives are lived, ambitions followed, family dramas played out and stories told. As he points out, some stories are exaggerated for effect or to inflate the egos of the tellers or flatter their subjects. The central character is Mohamud “Tarzan” Nur – the Mayor of Mogadishu.
There are many and often conflicting stories of a man whose image to fellow Somalis is equally complex. He is hated or despised by some, loved and admired by others. Among his stories is the one about escaping a school dormitory to hang from the branches of a tree, earning himself the nickname Tarzan.
Mohamud Nur is a man of passion, of drive, of ruthlessness. His language is colourful and, in a passage where Harding comes perilously close to Somali stereotyping, can sound “like a gunfight in a sandstorm”.
Siad Barre gets off lightly
The author is surprisingly forgiving of the Somali dictator Siad Barre. He says that history has not been kind to him. Should it have been? A man who overthrew an elected government and switched sides in the Cold War to maximise his accumulation of weaponry. These weapons were used to pursue violent irredentist campaigns and to suppress brutally any vestige of opposition. On the pretext of ending clan conflict, this man used force and coercion against clans and their leaders. All these while single-mindedly pursuing advantage for his own Marehan clan, which is part of the wider Darod clan system.
The Marehan dominance eventually, as Harding does go on to describe, led to revolt and a high degree of polarisation back into clans by the majority that were excluded from power and influence.
Later in the book, clear analysis and context are more assured with the description of the US’s “coldly logical” but totally misinformed conclusions about the situation in Somalia. This led to US funding for warlords out of a 9/11 generated fear of the Somali Islamic Courts Union, which was succeeding in ending conflict and bringing stability to Mogadishu.
Washington encouraged Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia and destruction of the Islamic Courts Union. This led to its militia, the Al Shabaab, becoming the dominant and destructive Islamist force it remains today.
The contemporary part of the story and continuing vicissitudes are again viewed through the eyes of Nur, his wife and friends. This gives a personal and very human touch to the whole narrative while not losing sight of complex national and international dimensions.
This ability to both tell stories with impact and grasp the impact of a multiplicity of factors emerges from the Bunce, Franks and Paterson volume as the key factor in getting the media to portray more accurate, informed and less stereotypical accounts of events in African states.