By Eric Yao, Africa Centre
The Africa Centre recently called for the need of a balance in the way the developing world, especially Africa is portrayed in Ireland. These sentiments were expressed during a joint Africa Centre – Dochas seminar focusing on the portrayal of the developing world held on September 10th 2009 in the Irish Aid Volunteering and Information Centre, O'Connell Street, Dublin 1.
In his opening remarks, Eric Yao, Coordinator of Africa Centre pointed out that over the years the main aspects of Africa which have been given prominence in the media have been wars, famine, poverty and disease, despite the continents wealth and capacity. Information about the African continent, even if well meaning, can be misleading and damaging. The Africa Also Smiles poster campaign by the Centre and its development education programme has been one of the ways the Africa Centre has challenged negative and stereotypical imaging. Mr Yao emphasised the importance of the Dochas Code of practice on images and messages as a tool in which the developing world can be portrayed in a fair and balanced way.
Angela Long, a Journalist and Media Consultant talked of the use and abuse of media messaging. She said, "We are all working in a media world which gives less and less attention to world affairs, and where millions are more interested in Victoria Beckham's dress than world events. There are therefore major difficulties for us working in a world of celebrity media; we cannot shake our heads and put this phenomena down as 'trash' but need to find opportunities' to use this to get our own world messages across".
She highlighted the fact that television stations were decreasing their coverage of world events: in 2007 ITV ran just 5 hours of programming on developing countries. Foreign news is generally on the wane with many newspapers closing down foreign offices. Major stories can still make the headlines if they are places that westerners might travel for holidays – the occupation of Bangkok airport, the Tsunami. "How therefore can we wean people away from blanket of indifference or ignorance?" Ms Long asked.
There is need to be wary of putting out continuously negative images; they wear away at audiences and do not ultimately get a positive image of global issues across to the public. Too often the 'other' is depicted as 'victim' and this has a cumulative effect on the general public of irritation or negativity.
"We need to find ways to challenge the portrayal of African people since the scramble for Africa: passive, ignorant, helpless, victims, troublemakers – the white man's burden", Ms Long added.
A Discussion Panel comprised: Selam Desta, member of the Africa Centre, Tom Arnold, CEO of Concern Worldwide and Peadar King, Film Producer. Ms Desta recounted how she became aware on her first day in Ireland of the perceptions that were in people's minds. The portrayal of the 'developing world', a term she did not necessarily agree with, is dominated by (a) tragedy or disaster, (b) the 'good works' undertaken by people from the west which portray helplessness, dependency alongside corrupt governments and wars, and (c) a newer move towards the portrayal of more positive images that the media itself needs to take responsibility to recognise what a powerful tool it is and to take responsibility to analyse and educate rather than take the "lazy route of sensationalising and trivialising at the expense of the most vulnerable".
Ms Desta outlined how Africa is portrayed as impoverished and homogenised despite it being a continent of 57 countries with nearly 900 million people. That it is portrayed as dependent on charity, corruption, incapable of self government and despite some effort by aid agencies in Ireland, the marketing of images continues to contribute towards enhancing "huge prejudice and negative stereotyping towards Africans". While accepting intentions are genuine the approach continues to 'employ a manipulative and patronising technique'.
Tom Arnold noted how important it was for aid agencies to look for new opportunities in the media such as celebrity interest. He said it was Important that aid agencies recognise the inherited perception we have of Africa and to see the Dochas Code of Practice as a fresh opportunity to look at all the messages delivered to the media. African countries as well as the Irish have also to engage in shared responsibility for the images created, and the former also have to look at the perceptions created in the west by such issues as the attitude of other African countries to the current situation in Zimbabwe. Mr. Arnold also highlighted the importance of development education in Ireland and how it can reach the grass roots and challenge stereotyping and the importance of the aid budget and other government policy and practice matching up in terms of images.
Mr King expressed concern at the huge reduction in coverage of the 'developing world' on western TV which reflects changes in what is deemed to be 'newsworthy' e.g. in Britain there has been a drop of over 50% in the last 20 years. Both quality and quantity have suffered with any documentaries likely to be shown in off peak times e.g. What in the World was broadly slotted in at 11pm on Irish TV. He said it was important to recognise that despite this decrease in coverage, TV remains the most influential medium in shaping people's understanding of the world; this is true for students as well as adults. In a 2007 study in Limerick seven out of ten students stated that TV was influential in informing their view of the world and eight out of ten teachers identified TV as one of their main sources of information. Journalists themselves have to take responsibility not to become what Peadar called 'lazy conduits of the dominant political view who rely on press releases or are embedded with armed forces' and not challenge people's in-grained taken-for-granted ideas.
The reporter also has to avoid the culture of the personality. However Peadar pointed to the pressure on reporters of deadlines and to be 'first with the news'.
He pointed to the increasing pressure documentary film makers like himself were under to product marketable products within very tight deadlines and budgetary constraints. There were huge constraints in trying to present people as subjects versus objects, as active versus passive and taking the time to enable self representation. The reality for What in the World was a seven day shoot which meant that even with some levels of self representation, the western media and the development community dominate, so that 'for the most part we are still operating in object rather than the subject mode'. The issue of people having ownership and control over their images poses profound challenges to the media.
Mr King affirmed some of the points made by earlier panellists: the enduring images of 'north/south' which needs to be challenged: donor /recipient, developed /underdeveloped, knowledge /ignorant, teaching/learning, designing / implementing He pointed to the very damaging inferiorised perceptions of Africa and Africans which results from such negative stereotyping in Ireland and elsewhere in the west.
Seminar participants made the following points:
"When people from Africa come to Ireland and read the newspapers here, you are left with the impression that there is no life going on in Africa and no structured government. This has a major impact on Africans living in Ireland. It can be very hard to get the positive things that are happening in Africa on the media." The Africa Also Smiles poster was formally re-launched by the Kenyan Ambassador Her Excellency, Ms Catherine Muigai Mwangi, with the hope of countering some of the negative perceptions that are widely circulated in Irish and other media.