CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 9 December 2017

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Africa is not a media image

HONG KONG (SE): The world spent the days following November 15 with the international media fixated on the silent coup in Zimbabwe, in which the military took control of the government and set in motion a process that quickly saw the man regarded as the great liberationist when he became the first prime minister of the newly independent country in 1980, threatened with impeachment to the cheering of his own political party and huge crowds in the street.
 
As an old Marist Brothers boy, the brothers expressed pride in their protégé, Robert Mugabe, as he stood on the rostrum and was sworn in by a bishop in Harare some 37 years ago, but their pride quickly faded as he reacted violently to the large number of seats won by the party of his predecessor, the last leader of white supremacist government of Northern Rhodesia, Ian Smith, in 1983.
 
From there he moved quickly, having himself elevated from prime minister to executive president in 1987, with the right to dissolve parliament, declare martial law and be reelected unlimited times.
 
As Mugabe’s biographer, Martin Meredith, says, he had “a virtual stranglehold on government machinery and unlimited opportunities to exercise patronage,” which opened the doors to him to take out election after election through increasingly suspect and brutal means.
 
With an economy in shambles, the people of Zimbabwe are rejoicing at his departure, but the world seems surprised at the orderly and contained manner in which the army is going about orchestrating a transition of power and ensuring that it is done by the parliament, not by military edict or with a general usurping the position of the new president.
 
But the Comboni Mission Society, as well as the executive director of the Royal Africa Society in the United Kingdom, Richard Dowden, say that the behaviour of the military is reflective of much of Africa today and that Mugabe is only going the way of the Idi Amins of old, with the tendency to replace them with skilled technocrats, who accept checks on power and don’t regard the treasury as their private piggy bank.
 
At a seminar held in the Vatican on November 14 and 15, the Comboni Mission took up the theme of the Message for World Communications Day from Pope Francis for next year on fake news.
 
Running under the title of Africa is not fake news, the Combonis asserted that the Church cannot remain silent in the face of the massive disinformation that is being distributed about Africa by the international media.
 
Dowden writes, “The media’s problem is that by covering only disasters and wars, it gives us only that image of the continent. Persistent images of starving children and men with guns have accumulated into our narrative of the continent.”
 
Dowden first went to Africa as a lay missionary in the late 1960s, then returning to England in 1972 worked for the Justice and Peace Commission until he broke into full time journalism in 1975 as editor of the Catholic Herald.
 
He has since spent a lifetime covering African affairs as an editor with The Independent and The Economist.
 
He told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on November 19 the behaviour of the military in Harare is what we should expect from a modern African state, not something almost incredible. “This is the new emerging Africa,” he noted.
 
The Combonis spoke in similar vein at their gathering at the Vatican, concentrating their reflection on the demonisation of refugees coming out of Africa and pointing out that the media-fuelled public debate in Europe sets out deliberately to criminalise them, even using the word criminals.
 
“It has become common for western media to speak of an invasion,” the final statement notes, “even when the facts speak otherwise.”
 
Father Domenico Guarino, who works as a journalist in Africa, said that rather than a criminal gang on the economic make, they are more likely to be traumatised people who have been compelled to leave their homes by injustice and exploitation, much of which has been orchestrated by western companies and from which Europe benefits.
 
The conference believes that this type of fake news being spread by the media is orchestrated to fuel a particular type of politics.
 
But it is not  only politics, as a colleague of the Comboni Mission Society, Luciano Adresi, described the exploitation of land in African countries by multinationals as something that not only destroys the environment, but is also a prime cause of the violence that forces migration.
 
But at the same time, it is also true that horrific violence does continue in some countries, but Dowden does not believe that the media have over reported it, but if anything under publicised it.
 
He stresses that journalists have let Africa down badly by failing to contextualise stories adequately to give a balanced picture as to why violence breaks out and the underlying causes that the west is often guilty of having more than a bit of a hand in, adding that this has prompted a self-righteous response from the west that is way off the mark.
 
“Aid agencies, western celebrities, rock stars and politicians cannot save Africa. Only Africans can develop Africa. Outsiders can help, but only if they understand it, work with it,” Dowden notes.
 
“The aid industry too has an interest in maintaining the image of Africans as hopeless victims of endless wars and persistent famines,” he continues. “However well-intentioned their motives may once have been, aid agencies have helped create the single, distressing image of Africa. They and journalists fed off one another.”
 
A documentary made by the Maryknoll Mission Society in Kenya as far back as the 1980s also pleaded with the media and aid agencies to stop promoting Africa as starving babies and cowboys riding pickup trucks equipped with guns that can’t be strapped to their hips.
 
It strongly documented another reality that could truly give hope, which the narrator claimed, if understood, could help generate a constructive response to Africa instead of continued handouts and more guns.
 
As a revolutionary leader, Mugabe understood this. He was intelligent, capable and determined to succeed. He was prepared to suffer, doing 10 years in prison under the Smith regime.
 
He could see the problems caused by colonialism and understood why Africa was poor, but he could also understand wretched leadership was a big part of the problem.
 
As Jerry Rawlings, the former president of Ghana, commented in acknowledging that outsiders were not responsible for all the problems, “We broke the pot.”
 
Mugabe is on record as saying as a young man prior to becoming prime minister that Africa must get back to the values of pre-colonial times.
 
But as a man who always imaged himself at the top, Mugabe once told a schoolmate that if he was in the Church he would want to be the bishop and as president, he demonstrated this this strongly by refusing to give up his throne right to the bitter end.
 
In response, the BBC’s Milton Nkosi in South Africa commented, “Zimbabweans say, ‘We are not sheep and the president does not have to be the last to jump’.”
 
But as Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as the new president there was much scepticism over whether he would deliver reform or more of the same.

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