Mainstream, VOL LV No 19 New Delhi April 29, 2017
Coverage of Africa in Indian Press
Sunday 30 April 2017
by Shreejay Sinha
This article was written quite sometime ago but could not be used earlier due to unavoidable reasons. It is now being published as its relevance has been enhanced in the wake of the recent incidents involving Africans in Greater NOIDA.
Africa is the cradle of humanity (the earliest Homo sapiens were found to have lived in Ethiopia), the repository of 30 per cent of the world’s remaining minerals, and keeper of the largest reserves of precious metals with over 40 per cent of the gold reserves, over 60 per cent of the cobalt, and 90 per cent of the platinum reserves, besides oil and natural gas reserves. It is not a homogeneous, static monolith, but home to 54 countries. The continent has rich cultural diversities and traditions which find expressions through art, music, architecture, dance and literature and a multitude of languages. It is famous for Jazz, Break Dance, and herbal remedies, too. Respect for the elderly remains an uninterrupted cornerstone in African life-systems. Africans have excelled themselves in various sports and are champion athletes. In medical sciences, the first human heart transplant was carried out in Africa.
Egypt is home to one of the earliest civilisations and wields considerable cultural influence in North Africa. Africa has had ancient trade linkages with other parts of the world, including India. It has taken significant strides to emerge from the shadows of colonialism, and then the Cold War, in its attempt to forge an independent, united, and self-reliant identity in the comity of nations. The formation of the African Union in 2001 was aimed at “accelerating the process of integration in the continent, to enable it play its rightful role in the global economy while addressing multifaceted social, economic and political problems compounded as they are by certain negative aspects of globalisation”. Africa has contributed the most to Chinese and European manufacturing via cheap exports of its minerals. South Africa is part of the BRICS grouping of five large developing economies, which have a combined population of over three billion and account for a fifth of the world’s total economic output.
However, these are not the recurrent themes of news reports involving Africa. For ages, Africa has come to be associated with endless poverty, diseases, helplessness, ethnic conflicts and violence.
The coverage of Africa by media organisations has been deeply problematic. If one cursorily scans reports from popular news outlets, it becomes apparent that there has been a preponderance of negativity when it comes to the coverage of Africa, and Africans. It continues to be seen as a large and growing market for the world to benefit from by selling their finished products. The coverage has largely been uni-dimensional, and the audience has been so conditioned that associating any kind of extraordinary achievement with Africa seems manifestly outlandish.
Selection Bias of News Media: A Preponderance of Negativity
What makes news? There is a string of parameters qualifying an event to be newsworthy. But, the one that stands out is negativity—bad news is almost always more exciting than the good ones. It is no surprise, then, that Indian news media outlets tend to focus on news items that detail sordidness, crimes, scandals and the like. Not many Indians would be aware that our government, as recently as last year, during the Third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi, announced 50,000 scholarships for African students to pursue their studies in India, because these facts are often not reproduced in news reports. Another inescapable fact is that most Indian media organisations rely overwhelmingly on Western news agencies for coverage of Africa. The biases, perceptions, and stereotypes formed by Western news outlets, which often characterise Africa as the “Dark Continent”, end up colouring the perception of Indian readers as well as journalists when it comes to the media coverage of Africa.
This abiding fascination with negative news values is borne out by the following illustrative list of incidents involving Africans in India, widely reported by the local press.
January 14-15, 2014: Delhi’s former Law Minister Somnath Bharti and his supporters reportedly misbehaved with a number of African women during a raid against a suspected drug and prostitution racket in the city’s Khirki Extension area.
January 31, 2016: A 21-year-old Tanzanian BBA student in Bengaluru was beaten up, stripped, and paraded while the police stood unmoved. A Sudanese youth had run over and killed a local resident, and when this girl happened to arrive at the scene, totally unconnected to and a full 30 minutes after the occurrence of the tragedy, she faced the mob fury, for she too was an African.
September 29, 2014: A video surfaces showing three “Nigerians” holed up inside a police booth at Rajiv Chowk Metro station in Delhi, cowering and pleading with folded hands for forgiveness, while a frenzied mob outside chanted “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. They suffered serious injuries. They had allegedly passed lewd remarks on women in the metro car.
2013: Nigerian Sambo Davis, who is married to an Indian and lives in Mumbai, was arrested on suspicion of being a drug peddler. “The police treat us Africans like dogs,” Davis complained to a BBC reporter.
The above chronology may be random, but the incidents are not. And therein, perhaps, lies our unmistakable penchant for discrimination. India, as a society, has a deeply-entrenched system of discrimination based on caste, class, gender and state, and, therefore, the manifestly racist attitude towards African citizens should not be surprising. And such incidents reproduce themselves, with alarming frequency, and even impunity, across cities considered cosmopolitan, open, and progressive.
The purpose here, however, is not to recount the incidents of apparently racist violence against coloured Africans, but to understand the kind of news reportage about Africa and Africans in the Indian print media and the process of production of meanings that create, maintain and even reinforce stereotypes.
Representation and Meaning
Media representation has always been a matter of concern for individuals, communities, film stars, athletes, and nations, and is a growing subject of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary social science research, as the semantic references help produce meanings, which may be negative or positive, allowing the target audience to make sense of the world. A repetitive use of labels over a period of time tends to cement the resultant perceptions into concrete realities.
For instance, Africa the world over continues to be associated with dehumanising poverty, diseases, ethnic violence and political instability, while typical crimes associated with Africans in their host countries, as reported in the media, are mugging, prostitution and drug-peddling. Words written in the press, and the descriptors used to represent Africa and its people living in foreign countries help produce meanings and have a tangible bearing on their physical security, business enterprises, employability and ease of social intercourse.
As a result of the kind of news coverage involving Africa and Africans, as is evident from the illustrative list in the previous section of this paper, the typical ‘vocations’ associated with them are: Drug Peddling and Pimping. While the media organisations’selection bias drives them to prioritise crises-linked news reportage in India, it is rare to find stories detailing the judicial courts’ exoneration of Africans charged with the typical crimes.
In the book, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, edited by Stuart Hall, the idea of representation and process of meaning-creation is illustrated thus: “The concept of representation has come to occupy a new and important place in the study of culture... it is an essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged by members of a culture. It does involve the use of language. Of signs and images which stand for or represent things.”
In the book, titled The Media Student’s Book, Gill Branston and Roy Stafford illustrate the power of the media to diminish or glorify identities.
“The media give us ways of imagining particular identities and groups which can have material effects on how people experience the world, and how they get understood, or legislated for or perhaps beaten up in the street by others...this is partly because the mass media have the power to represent, over and over, some identities, some imaginings, and to exclude others, and thereby make them seem unfamiliar or even threatening.”
Remi Adekoya, a political editor of Polish-Nigerian origin, writes in The Guardian that Africans, especially those living abroad, worry about the image of their continent and its inhabitants because their employment and well-being often depends on the opinions of those in whose country they live. Each major news item presenting Africa in a bad light is viewed by Africans living abroad as something that will make their working lives harder, he writes.
Khirki Extension Raid: A Case of Moral Panic
In the intervening night of January 14-15, 2014, during a raid against a suspected drug and prostitution racket in Delhi’s Khirki Extension area, the then City Law Minister Somnath Bharti and his supporters allegedly misbehaved with African women, and exhorted senior police officers to apprehend the “gang”.
This was unprecedented. Individual acts of alleged racist violence against Africans, their being picked up by the police in different parts of the country for suspected drug peddling and other crimes were reported in the press. But the incident of January 2014 was an institutional response, led by a Minister himself, to what the society deemed as “activities of outsiders” that threatened social order and equilibrium and endangered local cultural mores and values.
In hindsight, the nocturnal raid was not a sudden, spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment act, but the incident was in the making for some time. It was the culmination of what is called “Moral Panic”, a feeling of trepidation that some evil or danger imperils the security and well-being of the society and which persuades the authorities to control, censure, apprehend, and even kill such elements.
As discussed earlier, a repetitive use of labels carrying connotative codes over a period of time tends to cement the resultant perceptions into concrete realities.
It is worthwhile to note that the incidents of conflicts mentioned earlier in the paper are often a result of a lack of understanding and appreciation of one another’s cultural mores and values, which engenders mutual distrust, leading to communication barriers. All this results in myth-making, rumour-mongering and misinformation campaigns that create among the public a certain kind of anxiety.
As sociologist Stanley Cohen says in his book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety, or panic among the public.
The media’s news selection bias with an overwhelming accent on negativity has meant that the word Africa conjures up expressly racist images, horrible ethnic violence, genocides, presidential dictatorships, mind-boggling financial embezzlements, crime, drugs, AIDS, and a bacchanalian lifestyle, with a certain Nelson Mandela thrown in occasionally. What goes missing from the picture is the entrenched structural inequalities, the likes of ‘Solar Mamas’ who are toiling to reprise their agency and make a difference to their societies.
How has this image about Africa gained traction, and what role does the media play? Above all, is such a monochromatic construct of Africa, the world’s second-largest, and the second-most populous continent, justified?
Evidently, the process of information and meaning-production is imbued with strong cultural and ideological presumptions about what is “normal and acceptable” (in India, being fair is more acceptable and even aspirational). It is also pertinent to note that what is not represented or is excluded from media imagery may be as important as what is included in the process of meaning-production.
Is Africa itself responsible for the way it is imagined by other societies and the manner in which the media portrays them?
There is no denying that Africa suffers from grinding poverty, and has a serious democratic deficit prevalent among most of the 54 nations constituting the continent. Horrible ethnic violence in Sudan, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Central African Republic is well documented. Political corruption is a running theme.
In a Transparency International report of 2004, the former President of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mobutu SeseSeko (1965-1997), is believed to have embezzled about five billion dollars.
“The abuse of political power for private gain deprives the most needy of vital public services, creating a level of despair that breeds conflict and violence,” said Peter Eigen, Transparency International’s founding Chairman.
In the light of above, the imagery and stereotypes surrounding Africa are not entirely unfounded.
“It is important to remember that stereotypes play an important role in helping us to make sense of the world, and are not necessarily lies. We all use characterisations of people and places and belong to groups which can be stereotyped.” (Branston and Stafford, 1999, p. 137)
While one is persuaded to accept that stereotypes help us make sense of the world, it is the disproportionate, overwhelming emphasis on negativity that media bring to bear in their news reports that exposes the lack of “balance” and “neutrality”—the guiding principles of journalism.
It is rare to come across a positive, feature-length article highlighting the innate values of human goodness among African societies—virtues of compassion, a sense of self-worth, love, cooperation and sensitivity—that are inherent to the human race at large. What is reproduced is their presumed “dumbness”, their underachieve-ment, which becomes ingrained and entrenched in the psyche of the news consumers who end up being thought leaders in a society like India where over a quarter of the population remains unlettered.
The press is a mass communication media. The English word ‘Communication’ is derived from the Latin noun ‘Communis’ and Latin verb ‘Communicare’, which means ‘to make common’.
Clearly, the manner of communicating Africa to the world does not seem to make the Africans common with others. Instead, what it may be doing is alienating a large section of the African people, who are the victims of entrenched structural inequalities prevalent in the continent.
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Cohen, S., (2002) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Routledge.
Branston, G., Stafford, R., (1996) The Media Student’s Book.Routledge.
Schraeder, P., Endless, B., (1998) Quarterly Opinion of Journal, “The Media and Africa: The Portrayal of Africa in the New York Times (1955-1995)”, 29-35.
Mcquail, D., (2000) Mcquail’s Mass Communication Theory. Sage Publications.
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Njogu, K., Middleton, M., (ed.)(2010) Media and Identity in Africa, Indiana University Press.
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Newspapers and TV channels:
The Times of India
The Indian Express
The Hindustan Times
The Economic Times
New York Times
The author is a journalist working with News Rise and is based out of Delhi.