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



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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Somali journalist arrested, held without charge



Nairobi, February 09, 2018–Somali authorities should immediately release Sabir Abdulkadir Warsame, a broadcast journalist with the privately owned Somali Cable TV, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Sabir was arrested by regional security forces in the semi-autonomous state of Jubbaland on February 8 and has been held without charge in the state capital of Kismayo, according to a report by the Voice of America and Hassan Adde, general director of Somali Cable TV who spoke to CPJ.

Hassan told CPJ that, at the time of his arrest, Sabir was interviewing members of the public about the first anniversary of the election of Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo).

“Arresting and detaining Sabir Abdulkadir for simply doing his job as a journalist is outrageous,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal in New York. “He should be immediately released without charge and free to continue reporting in the public interest.”

Speaking to CPJ through a translator, Jubbaland information minister Abdinur Ali Adan said that he had been informed of Sabir’s arrest. He said that the journalist was in “safe hands” and would be produced in court tomorrow morning, though he said he did not have more information about the court proceedings.

While shooting the interviews, the journalist unintentionally filmed a vehicle carrying charcoal, triggering his arrest, according to Sabir’s colleague who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Charcoal export from Somalia is illegal, according to a 2012 UN Security Council resolution aimed at cutting funding for al-Shabaab.

Hassan told CPJ that he did not know that the journalist had captured any footage of a vehicle ferrying charcoal.

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Kenya Crackdown on Media, Opposition Deepens



WALL STREET JOURNAL — NAIROBI, Kenya—A standoff between Kenya’s government and the opposition has escalated, as a crackdown on the media deepens and police arrest several top opposition figures.
The political battle highlights how the fraught election in east Africa’s economic powerhouse and freest country is reverberating months later. The media has become collateral damage, as broadcasters forced off the air this week for transmitting an opposition event remained blocked despite a court order to reinstate them.

Western diplomats in Nairobi with knowledge of the situation said arrests of opposition figures could continue, and opposition leader Raila Odinga, a veteran firebrand revered by his supporters in the country’s West and coastal areas, could also be a target.

Mr. Odinga has refused to concede to President Uhuru Kenyatta after two elections plagued by procedural problems and scattered violence.

“While we were hoping that the country, after a bruising election season, could pull together, that seems a lost hope,” Murithi Mutiga, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said.

The opposition leader went ahead Tuesday with a symbolic “swearing in” ceremony at Nairobi’s central Uhuru Park despite government warnings that the move would be treason. In front of thousands of his supporters, Mr. Odinga declared himself “the people’s president,” in a move criticized by the U.S. and the African Union as unconstitutional and inflammatory.
The government designated Mr. Odinga’s political movement a “criminal organization,” though it said the political parties in the opposition coalition are not affected. A lawyer who was present at the “swearing in” alongside Mr Odinga was arrested Friday, after another lawyer and an opposition parliamentarian were taken into custody earlier in the week.

The government has blocked Kenya’s three main TV stations from broadcasting, saying that by airing the mock inauguration they were complicit in a plot that could have cost the lives of “thousands of Kenyans.” It offered no evidence to support its claims.

A judge on Thursday ordered the government to allow them to broadcast until their case challenging their shutdown goes ahead. The ruling was delayed by procedural obstacles but eventually served Friday, though the networks remained off air.

Heather Nauert, the spokesperson for the State Department, said the U.S. was “deeply concerned by the government’s action to shut down, intimidate, and restrict the media.”

Kenya’s relative press freedom, among other things, has distinguished it from many of its neighbors, Mr. Muriga noted.

“This is what sets the country apart from others on the continent, and as a consequence Kenya has become a hub for innovation and is regarded as a bellwether for other African democracies,” he said.

While the crackdown on the press and the arrests of opposition figures are garnering the government criticism, the opposition is looking weakened and fragmented, Mr. Muriga said.

Mr. Odinga lost an election in August last year, but the vote was annulled by the Kenyan Supreme Court on the grounds of wide-spread irregularities during tallying and transmission of the results. A second, repeat vote was held in late October; Mr. Odinga and his NASA coalition party boycotted that election, partly contributing to a very poor turnout of just over 30%.

Mr. Kenyatta won with 98% of the vote and was inaugurated for a second five-year term in November last year.

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Tensions High in Kenya Amid Media Ban, Opposition Arrest



NAIROBI — Political tensions continue to rise in Kenya as the government defied a court order to lift a ban on three independent media organizations. Authorities also arrested a key opposition ally in the wake of Raila Odinga’s self-inauguration Tuesday as the so-called “people’s president.”

Kenya’s three largest broadcasters remained off the air for a fourth day Friday despite the high court ruling the day before that the government must reverse the suspension. Authorities cut transmission for the media outlets Tuesday as they prepared live coverage of the opposition’s swearing-in event.

The Kenyan human rights activist behind the legal challenge, Okiya Omtata, attempted to serve the court papers to the government’s Communications Authority Friday.

“I was personally marked,” he told VOA, “and I was not allowed past the gate. I was told that they had instruction from above not to be allowed past the gate, nor the court order to be served. So what I did is I pinned it on the wall — a copy of the order, but they ripped it off.”

Omtata said he has no choice but to bring the matter back to the court Monday.

“It now clarifies issues for me,” he said. “Now I know what we are dealing with is not a failure to comprehend the law, but a deliberate move by the government to violate the Bill of Rights and the constitution of Kenya and to operate outside the consent of the law.”

The Communications Authority has not commented on the ban. Omtata said he was able to serve the remaining court papers addressed to the attorney general, interior minister, and minister of information, communication and technology.

The ruling Jubilee administration accuses the media of failing to heed its advice not to air Tuesday’ opposition swearing-in. In a statement released Wednesday, the day before the high court’s ruling, Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i said the stations will remain shut throughout ongoing investigations into alleged complicity in what he called an effort to subvert the government and spark violence.

In a statement Thursday, the U.S. State Department grave concern over what U.S. officials called “the government’s action to shut down, intimidate, and restrict the media” and Odinga’s self-inauguration.

Odinga has refused to accept the results of an October presidential run-off, which he boycotted. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner.

Murithi Mutiga, the International Crisis Group’s Kenya researcher, says the spat between the Kenyatta administration and the media will go on.

“He came to office and seems to have an axe to grind with the key element of the society including the media and civil society and that has continued and persisted,” said Mutiga. “We’ve seen media houses being denied advertising, which is a crucial source of revenue. We’ve seen continued attempts to legislate against the media. So I think, I think it will continue, they will continue to be a push and pull between the administration and the media.”

President Kenyatta gave a televised speech at the Kenya School of Government Friday. At the end, he gestured to the journalists, saying in Swahili, “Now why don’t you switch off your things, pack and go? Your work is over.”

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