Friday, January 11, 2008

Covering Countries in Crisis

The international news has recently been dominated by countries in crisis, first Pakistan’s pre-election rioting following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and the by Kenya’s post-election violence following a disputed presidential poll.

Kenyans and Pakistanis face an uncertain year ahead, but the way these two stories are being reported has raised serious issues. Kenya reports often boiled down to machetes, tribal warriors and rage; and on TV this mantra was accompanied by appropriate images of angry young men confronting each other, the police, and their neighbors. This was strikingly similar to the Pakistan coverage, when video packages of violent mobs shaking their fists, burning tires, and smashing cars were used over and over again.

Without providing adequate background and explanation, a lot of reporting simply perpetuates the idea of black and brown people as inherently savage and barbaric, their modern politics tribalism and feudalism by another name. Kenyan journalist Peter Kimani paints a very different picture by detailing the alliances and rivalries among the countries politicians in the last few decades and how they lead to the current tragic outcome, without ignoring or minimizing the role tribal allegiances play.

Kenyan Pundit (one of the bloggers who have come to the fore during this crisis as sources of information) felt that the way the international media reported the current crisis “only served to reinforce what I have always felt about news that emanates from Africa, we need to really work on news for us by us, we can no longer rely on the international stations and media”, and hoped that A24, a pan-African 24 hour news channel to start broadcasting this year, would change things when it launches. After all China has International CCTV, Germany has DW-TV, there’s Russia Today and France-24 and Jazeera English so it’s high time that Africa gets its own station to with an African perspective.

In the mean time, the Kenyan blogosphere had some praise for the quality of Aljazeera English’s coverage, which can in part be ascribed to the fact that AE’s reporters (Haru Mutasa, Mohammad Adow and Andrew Sullivan) were not network stars parachuted in for the disaster.

Anchors and reporter without detailed knowledge of the country they’re reporting about tend to extrapolate, and in the case of African nation experiencing a horrific mixture of ethnic, political and criminal gang violence, this means “the specter of Rwanda” is invoked. CNN, the Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel for example used the comparison repeatedly.

In the case of Pakistan, meltdown took on a whole different dimension, with the notion of Alqaeda somehow getting hold of the bomb once the country had descended into lawlessness being bandied about frequently, especially in the American media. You’d think the Pakistanis kept the nukes in a shed.

But the real interest in the Pakistan story was of course Bhutto herself, the assassinated leader. She was “pale-skinned” (the phrase was used by The New York Times and the AP news agency, others slipped in references to her “fair complexion” as clarification for her nickname Pinkie), spoke English as her mother tongue, and had been educated in convent schools and then attended Harvard and Oxford. She was good looking, she was a Muslim woman and she said what the west wanted to hear.

How powerful her image had become is made clear by the fact that one of the Republican candidates for president, Rudy Guliani, launched a new advert to try and boost his dismal ratings, and featured Benazir Bhutto. The same man had reprimanded his fellow republican candidates for attempting to make political profit out of a tragic event. The video features a lot of scary brown people while a voice over warns of “a people perverted” “madmen” and “a nuclear power in chaos”. Then archive footage of a younger, prettier Benazir Bhutto as the voice talks of “democracy attacked”.

In a way this posthumous ‘tribute’ is appropriate, Bhutto personifying an embattled democracy in the East, exactly the image she had spent a lot of time and money creating, and consistently repeated in interviews, TV appearances, op-ed pieces. She knew that she needed the US on her side if she was ever to return to power, and like any shrewd political operator, crafted a message to achieve her goal.

But according to Richard Engels the Richard Engel, Middle East bureau chief of the American network MSNBC, “Pakistan’s Ms. Liberty” perfidiously performed a “dance of the seven veils” and should not be trusted. The phrase also turned up in a biography by the NYT company which was printed in other newspapers, though it seems that the original New York Times was induced to change the wording of its online edition after reader’s indignant comments. Benazir Bhutto was a politician not a saint, but her political wheeling and dealing can be described without resorting to a phrase that combines misogyny and orientalism.

The negotiations between her and Musharraf for a power sharing agreement were brokered by Washington and London, which are also involved in negotiations between Kibaki and Odinga, and perhaps that is the most overlooked point in the coverage of both crises: foreign intervention.

Both Kenya and Pakistan were divided and ruled by the British, both became US allies against the Soviets, which meant periods of American backed dictatorship, and both are involved in the current ‘war on terror’, which has proved a divisive issue in both countries. The Pakistani army is pitted against its own people in an unpopular war in the Northern provinces, while Kenyan opposition leader Odinga is being characterized as the ‘Shariah candidate’ by his opponents, and described as a closet Muslim.

While there is no case for blaming the current unrest on the West, it does seem strange that most talking heads and op-ed writers prefer horrified glee over the natives displaying the atavistic urges to analysis of the 20th century history of the countries in question.

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