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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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ILO rules in favour of Somali journalists’ trade union

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The International Labour Organisation has ruled against Somalia in a case brought against it by trade unions in the country over infringement of freedom of association.

The ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association asked the federal government to institute “independent judicial inquiries” for serious violations of freedom of association and persecution of trade unions, identify those responsible, punish the guilty, and prevent repetition of such acts.

“The committee urges the government to provide without delay full explanations on the reasons for the arrest on October 15, 2016, of Mr Abdi Adan Guled, vice-president of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ),” the ruling said.

The committee also asked the government to “provide information on the outcome of the investigation into the assassination of Abdiasis Mohamed Ali, a member of NUSOJ.”

Mr Ali, who worked for Radio Shabelle and Shabelle Media Network, was assassinated in September last year in the capital Mogadishu.

The committee’s directive was part of a ruling on a case filed by the Federation of Somali Trade Unions, NUSOJ and the International Trade Union Confederation against the Somali government.

The three accused the government of “serious threats, acts of intimidation and reprisals against members and leaders of the NUSOJ and the lack of adequate responses by the Federal Government of Somalia.”

This year’s recommendations follow similar directives issued last year, which trade unions claim, the government ignored.

The unions accused the government of meddling in their internal matters by creating parallel executive committees.

The government denied the plaint, and told the UN labour body that it was seeking to resolve political differences between the union federation and policymakers.

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In Somalia, Slain Journalists’ Deaths Go Unpunished

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For the third year in a row, Somalia has ranked as the world’s leading country where slain journalists’ deaths go unpunished.

Over the past decade, all 26 assassinations of journalists in the East African nation have gone unsolved, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which released its annual impunity index, titled “Getting Away With Murder,” on Tuesday.

The New York-based non-profit gathers data on news workers killed in retaliation for their journalism, excluding those who die in crossfire while reporting in dangerous areas such as combat zones (but are not directly targeted).
CPJ, which seeks to underscore international barriers to media freedom, publishes its findings every year to document patterns of impunity, such as those consistently seen in Somalia.

According to the United Nations, at least 930 journalists were assassinated worldwide in the decade leading up to 2017. During that period, just one in 10 reported cases led to a conviction. More than 60 media workers have been killed this year.

Political reporters under fire

Somalia is gripped by a decades-long civil war and brutal insurgency being waged by the extremist al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group.

Since the country’s civil war erupted in 1991, at least 64 journalists in the country have been killed as a result of their work, including 39 political reporters and 29 war reporters. CPJ, which began keeping track of worldwide journalist deaths in 1992, has confirmed the motives behind their killings, and reports that the vast majority of known perpetrators have been members of political groups.

Mohamed Ibrahim, now the Secretary General of the National Union of Somali Journalists, has covered politics and other news beats in the capital city of Mogadishu for 15 years, reporting for outlets including the BBC and Reuters.

Throughout his career, Ibrahim says he has been threatened, harassed and assaulted several times, mostly by al-Shabab militants and senior officials of the Somali government. Illustrative of the broader dangers of his job, he also narrowly survived al-Shabab attacks while working at a Somali parliament building in 2010 and at Lido beach in Mogadishu last year.

Ibrahim still finds himself looking over his shoulder when he leaves home, fearful of a targeted strike by someone who is unhappy with his reporting or advocacy for press freedom.

“Journalists are often targeted and I advocate for their rights and protections, so I know it is a high risk environment,” he told HuffPost from Mogadishu. “So many journalists like me have risked their lives to serve their people and [distribute] the information they have the right to hear.”

Lacking institutional capacity and political will

As a result of the ongoing conflict, Somalia’s federal government does not assert central authority over the entire nation, which has allowed armed groups like al-Shabab to spread and seize territory over the years.

“In general, Somalia lacks structures of central government, so in countries like this that might be called ‘failed states,’ there are very high levels of impunity. It’s a combination of the lack of political will as well as the lack of institutional capacity,” said Courtney Radsch, CPJ’s advocacy director. “That’s the key challenge ― [the government] doesn’t have access to certain parts of the country, and they don’t have a fully functioning judiciary system or police force.”

Rare government investigations into journalist killings only occur when the accused perpetrators are al-Shabab militants, and almost never lead to prosecutions, according to Human Rights Watch. Promises from Somali authorities to improve media laws and protections have repeatedly fallen short.

Laetitia Bader, a senior researcher for HRW’s Africa division who has reported on killings, threats and arbitrary detention of Somali journalists, said they’re being “pulled and threatened by all sides.”

“Since the start of the civil war, there wasn’t really a strong civil society per se,” she told HuffPost from Nairobi, Kenya. “It feeds into a broader problem of just lack of state protection of individuals, although journalists have always been targeted throughout the conflict in Somalia.”

Somali journalists are being “pulled and threatened by all sides.” Laetitia Bader, Senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch
Journalists are also particularly vulnerable, Bader explained, because the news “is a very big part of everyone’s day and a key source of information” in Somalia. “Somalis love listening to the news … so fundamentally, there’s a recognition that journalists can play an important role in getting your agendas across.”

An increasingly complex political situation in the country has led to “more political actors with much more at stake,” she said. “So once again, this need to control information has become a bigger issue.”

Threatening and punishing journalists can be lucrative for political figures who want to “control the narrative,” said CPJ’s Radsch.

“It’s not surprising in a country like Somalia where there are so many warring factions,” Radsch said. “They want to control the narrative, or cover up their own corruption, or gain political power. Journalists often stand in the way of that, or uncover uncomfortable revelations.”

The cycle of impunity

Somalia is hardly the only country in the world where there are extensive risks for journalists.

In its latest report on “the safety of journalists and the danger of impunity,” the U.N. concluded that impunity for journalist slayings around the world is “alarmingly high,” and perpetuates “a cycle of violence that silences media and stifles public debate.”

But the danger in Somalia is particularly acute. The country’s impunity rating, which CPJ determines by calculating countries’ numbers of unsolved journalist killings per capita, has shot up by 198 percent since 2007. Radsch attributed this drastic increase to the cyclical effects of impunity.

“It’s very dangerous to be a journalist in Somalia, and it’s very unlikely that murders will be investigated,” she said. “When people see that there is no one who has been convicted, and no follow-ups on the murder of journalists, it sends them the signal that ‘Oh, it’s ok to murder journalists.’”

While conducting research in Somalia, Bader has spoken with several journalists who survived assassination attempts, but were hesitant to report the attacks to authorities.

“Half said, ‘We did [report], and we got laughed at or were told to go get guns,’ and the other half basically laughed at me saying ‘Why on earth would we go to the authorities?’ ― who are often the ones threatening them,” she said.

As the numbers reflect, many journalists have not been fortunate enough to escape with their lives.

Radio journalist Abdiaziz Ali was reportedly gunned down while walking through Mogadishu last September. He covered the civilian toll of Somalia’s conflict between government forces and al-Shabab militants for the Shabelle Media Network, an employer of at least eight slain journalists over the past decade.

Months earlier, gunmen fatally shot 24-year-old Sagal Salad Osman in the head before fleeing the scene. Osman was a university student and worked for the state-run Radio Mogadishu.

“The killing of Somali journalist Abdiaziz Ali must not be allowed to become yet another statistic in a country notorious for not bringing journalists’ murderers to justice,” Murithi Mutiga, CPJ’s East Africa representative, said at the time. “We urge Somali authorities to leave no stone unturned in determining the motive for Abdiaziz’s and Sagal’s killings and finding and prosecuting those responsible.”

But more than a year later, the culprits behind their killings are still at large, like dozens of others before them.

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British Miss Universe model says people need to #StandwithSomalia if newspapers don’t

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Muna Jama, the model who represented Britain at this year’s Miss Universe contest, has urged everyone to show their solidarity for Somalia after Saturday’s horrific terror attack.

At least 300 people were killed and another 200 injured when a lorry bomb was detonated in the centre of Mogadishu.

Five days later, people in the city are still clearing away the rubble – and the charred remains of their loved ones – from the city. Around 165 people have had to be buried without being identified, as their bodies were so burned they were beyond recognition.

Muna, who is a British woman of Somalian heritage, made history in August by becoming the first Miss Universe contestant to wear a kaftan rather than a bikini. As well as having spent time campaigning in the country, Muna has a lot of family and friends living in Somalia – but after the attack happened she struggled to find information about it online. But she told Metro.co.uk she later realised that, where the mainstream media fails, the general public needs to step in.

It’s shocking because a typical Saturday in the western world is a day filled with happiness – it’s a day to recharge, to meet up with your family and your loved ones. So to hear what happened in Somalia, considering I’m British-Somali myself, is just shocking,’ she said.

It was overwhelming for myself and my loved ones because we’re over here, and there’s nothing that at the time we felt like we could do. ‘The numbers from the attack are just horrendous. Amongst the victims are young boys, young girls. ‘Myself, I recently came back from Somalia earlier this year when I was campaigning out there against illegal migration, and I bore witness to the severe drought and ongoing famine, and that’s something the people of Somalia are currently dealing with, still. ‘So many Somalis are homeless – and then, for this terror attack to happen… I guess we were all taken aback.’
Muna added that the show of solidarity on social media that she’s seen has almost made up for the relative lack of traditional media coverage. She said: ‘Just today I saw a message of solidarity sent all the way from Brazil. I know it’s not in a newspaper, but it’s still in the media in a way, because it’s on social media. ‘

We need more people to not sit in silence, to use their platforms to speak to one another.’ Muna recently joined the conversation by adding a photo on Instagram with the hashtag #StandwithSomalia. Now, she wants people to use that hashtag to share images and information from the scene, as well as support from around the world.

‘I want people to use that hashtag to share information or updated photos, or anything that will encourage positivity and show that the one common goal we have internationally is to stand against terror,’ she continued.

‘We witnessed that here in the UK, and it was such a dreadful time, but we stood in solidarity and unity – and that was despite our religion, despite our backgrounds, despite our colour, because Britain’s so multicultural and diverse. ‘Somalia needs to know that they’re not alone in this, and that it’s not acceptable.

We need to donate to groups working on the ground in Somalia, and to use hashtags to communicate with one another.’ With that in mind, she’s pledged to use her considerable platform to speak to others, so that they can share information and get it out there for people.
‘I’m British-Somalian – and it’s powerful to know that I can be from two different backgrounds, but still be able to use my voice to share people’s feelings and thoughts,’ she said. ‘It’s really good to know that although I’m so far away from my loved ones and those affected, technology brings us closer together. We can communicate online and people can upload messages.

‘The world should know that Somalia is a lot stronger than it appears. ‘There has been a lot of suffering, but these people are brave. They’re standing together within the community.’ A Gofundme raising money for Aamin Ambulance – Somalia’s only free ambulance service – has raised more than £22,000 so far

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