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NYT reporter’s memoir shows how violence and ‘ooga-booga’ stories dominate Africa coverage

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A revealing scene in Jeffrey Gettleman’s memoir of ten years as the New York Times correspondent in Nairobi shows much of what is wrong about mainstream coverage of Africa, and, by extension, the Middle East. Gettleman relates how widespread violence broke out in Kenya after the disputed 2007 election, and unscrupulous political leaders mobilized it along ethnic lines.

The Times foreign desk calls from New York, and directs him to travel some 190 miles northwest, to the town of Eldoret, where a mob burned to death up to 50 people who sought refuge in a church: “‘The church, Jeff, the church in Eldoret. It sounds like something out of Rwanda. Can you get to the church?’” Reporters and photographers are starting to fly in from Europe and everyone wanted to get to Eldoret. Gettleman and several colleagues charter a helicopter to race their journalistic rivals to the tragedy.

His article, dwelling on the horrible details at the still smoldering church, appeared on January 3, 2008. (His desk’s Rwanda comparison was wrong in one critical way; there, the genocidal regime kicked out all journalists before it started the mass killing.) But many press people did get up to Eldoret and several of them filed the day before Gettleman. The Times paid for that helicopter just to copy what the BBC and Reuters had already reported.

The episode is characteristic of the crises in Africa and the Middle East. Hordes of press race to the fighting, or the refugee camp, and all write the same story. Of course, violence in the rich world also attracts masses of journalists, as to the 2016 massacre at an Orlando nightclub, and the killings this May at a Manchester, England pop concert. But the audience knows there is more to the U.S. and Europe than the occasional mass killing.

Meanwhile, if you follow Africa and the Mideast you have to wait for the any sustained effort to explain the economic and social background to the outbreaks of violence. And you will almost never learn about the global structures of injustice that are the primary cause.

Visitors to this site may recall that we have indicted Jeffrey Gettleman for his incompetent coverage of the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is one of the greatest ongoing humanitarian crises anywhere since the end of World War II. But his just-published book, Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival, shows, perhaps inadvertently, that the mainstream press is in a structural straitjacket that would hamper even a better reporter.

Unfortunately, much of the book uses “Africa” as just a backdrop for the author’s own fantasies and his coming of age experiences, which include a stormy love story. You finish it unable to recall more than a few memorable African individuals– which would be an impossible achievement after just a week actually spent on the continent.

But the memoir’s value is that it peeks inside the mainstream press. Before starting his job in Nairobi, Gettleman gets contradictory advice about “ooga-booga” stories. This expression, popularized by the legendary reporter Howard French, is immediately familiar: condescending articles that treat Africans as violent, primitive and exotic. One recent example was the August 2014 cover story in Newsweek that suggested — dishonestly — that the ebola epidemic could spread to the United States because of imported bushmeat.

One Times editor warns Gettleman as he leaves for Nairobi, “Let’s not get too ooga-booga out there.” But the another veteran reporter then tells him that ooga-booga “is what makes Africa Africa.”

Gettleman says that “the ooga-booga tug-of-war looked unwinnable,” but that he tried to walk the line, “not sanitizing the extremes but not pandering to types.” By any standard, he often failed. Over a 5-year period, for instance, he never wrote about the great Kenyan woman Nobel Peace Prize winner, the brave scientist, environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai — until she died in 2011, and he did her obituary. Meanwhile, New York was pressing him to get to the scenes of violence quickly — so he could write the same articles as the rest of the Western press.

He doesn’t try to analyze his editors’ reasoning. They presumably would justify their story selection partly by claiming that mayhem and mass suffering is what their public wants. But surely these days, most Times readers see another story about killings in Africa (or the Mideast) and turn the page.

Fortunately, we live in the age of the internet, so we can follow the work of excellent longtime independent East Africa correspondents like Tristan McConnell. And how did Gettleman leave African reporters out of his book, such as one of the deans of the East African press corps, Charles Onyango-Obbo?

Gettleman’s book does have one extremely valuable section, about the rise of an Islamic movement in Somalia in 2006. The U.S. and others dismissed the al-Shabaah as an “African Taliban,” but Gettleman gets to Mogadishu and discovers the slander is wrong; the new movement has restored order after decades, is not particularly repressive, and does enjoy popular support. He approaches the U.S. embassy in Nairobi for reaction, to discover that “when it comes to Somalia. . . my government is dangerously stupid.”

Sure enough, Washington soon encourages neighboring Ethiopia to send in its army to unseat the al-Shabaah. Gentleman notes, “America’s decision to green-light Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia and overthrow a popular, grassroots and surprisingly effective Islamist administration led, over the next five years, to the explosion of chaos, high-seas piracy, terrorism spreading across East Africa, and ultimately the next Somali famine, in which more than 250,000 people died. That policy decision was one of the most questionable in recent history . . .”

This vital analysis deserves some scrutiny. Here is more violence in Africa, but apparently Africans are not the only ones responsible. “Dangerously stupid” U.S. diplomats encouraged a war that is still claiming victims a decade later. It is too bad Gettleman did not include more of this in his book.

Let us give the last word to the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013. Achebe was unsparing in his criticisms of Africa’s repressive regimes, and he was thankful when atrocities were reported. But he cautioned that there was much more to Africa than just violence. Achebe said that the West might benefit “once it rid its mind of old prejudices and began to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications but quite simply as a continent of people — not angels, but not rudimentary souls either — just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society.”

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IFJ expresses concerns over the escalation of attacks on media freedom in Somalia

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The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is deeply concerned about the dangerous escalation of attacks on freedom of the media in Somalia after the authorities have tightened the noose on freedom of expression following imprisonment and reckless attacks on journalists during the past week.

On 4 January 2018, Ahmed Yusuf Suleman, reporter of Horn Cable Television, survived an attempted murder, after men armed with pistols who are believed to be plainclothes security officials fired four shots towards him, chased and caught him, and pointed a pistol at his head. The police reportedly intervened to release the journalist from the plainclothes officials though Suleman sustained wounds on both hands, legs, shoulders and hips.

On 7 January 2018, journalists Ahmed Dirie Iltire and Mohamed Abdullahi Hussein of Opens external link in new windowxeegonews.com were accused by Somaliland prosecutors in Borame in the Awdal region and sentenced to 2 years in prison. The prosecutors indicted the two journalists for “spreading propaganda against the nation, degrading the nation, and disgracing national flag and symbol of a foreign country”.

“We condemn this brazen assault on journalists in the strongest possible terms”, said IFJ General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger. “Gun touting men cannot be allowed to commit violence and cause bodily harm with impunity in Somalia. The Somali Government must demonstrate the required political will and show full commitment in its fight against impunity.”

The IFJ is deeply troubled about the continued imprisonment of journalists in Somaliland for expressing their right to freedom of expression. “The last few months have seen a sharp escalation in attacks by the Somaliland authorities through the judiciary on journalists and the media in general in a bid to silence dissent. This is a chilling setback for freedom of expression in Somaliland,” said Bellanger.

The IFJ reiterates its support to its Somalia affiliate, the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), for its adamant stance to defend media freedom and journalists’ rights in the face of renewed and unwarranted attacks against Somali journalists and their union which is engineered by the Ministry of Information of Somali government. “Somali leaders must not allow perpetrators of these attacks go unpunished,” added Bellanger.

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Media Group: 81 Reporters Died, Threats Soared in 2017

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At least 81 reporters were killed doing their jobs this year, while violence and harassment against media staff has skyrocketed, the world’s biggest journalists’ organization says.

In its annual “Kill Report,” seen by The Associated Press, the International Federation of Journalists said the reporters lost their lives in targeted killings, car bomb attacks and crossfire incidents around the world.

More than 250 journalists were in prison in 2017.

The number of deaths as of December 29 was the lowest in a decade, down from 93 in 2016. The largest number were killed in Mexico, but many also died in conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The IFJ suspected but could not officially confirm that at least one other journalist was killed Thursday in an attack by an Islamic State suicide bomber on a Shiite cultural center in Kabul, in which at least 41 people died.

IFJ President Philippe Leruth said that while the drop in deaths “represents a downward trend, the levels of violence in journalism remain unacceptably high.”
He said the IFJ finds it “most disturbing that this decrease cannot be linked to any measure by governments to tackle the impunity for these crimes.”

Eight women journalists were killed, two in European democracies – Kim Wall in Denmark, who died on the submarine of an inventor she was writing about, and Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was blown up by a bomb placed in her car.

Beyond the deaths, the IFJ warned that “unprecedented numbers of journalists were jailed, forced to flee, that self-censorship was widespread and that impunity for the killings, harassment, attacks and threats against independent journalism was running at epidemic levels.”

Turkey, where official pressure on the media has been ramped up since a failed coup attempt in July 2016, is becoming notorious for putting reporters behind bars. Some 160 journalists are jailed in Turkey – two-thirds of the global total – the report said.

The organization also expressed concern about India, the world’s largest democracy, where it said that attacks on journalists are being motivated by violent populism.

Countries with the highest numbers of media killings:

Mexico: 13

Afghanistan: 11

Iraq: 11

Syria: 10

India: 6

Philippines: 4

Pakistan: 4

Nigeria: 3

Somalia: 3

Honduras: 3

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UNESCO Calls for Investigation Into Death of Journalist in Somalia

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SPUTNIK — UNESCO condemned the recent killing of journalist Mohamed Ibrahim Gabow in Somali and has called for an investigation into his death, the United Nations agency’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement on Thursday.

“I condemn the killing of Mohamed Ibrahim Gabow,” Azoulay said. “I call on the Somali authorities to spare no effort in bringing to trial those responsible for this attack on the human rights of freedom of expression and freedom of information.”

Gabow, a television presenter for the Mogadishu-based Kalsan TV, was killed on December 11 in the Somali capital when a bomb planted in his car detonated, according to local media reports.

Somalia has been engulfed in violence since the eruption of a civil war between clan-based armed factions in the early 1990s. Al-Shabab, an affiliate of the Al-Qaeda terror network, has been staging numerous attacks in the country in an attempt to implement strict Sharia law.

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