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Not Reporting Angola: Ignored By International Media – OpEd

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By Lara Pawson

‘What does it take,’ an Angolan political activist asked me recently, ‘to get the BBC interested in what we are trying to do?’ He was referring to a series of demonstrations that have been taking place in the Angolan capital Luanda since the 7 March this year. [1] The focus has been on President José Eduardo dos Santos’s 32 years in power. The most recent was held on Saturday 15 October and, according to Voice of America, involved about a thousand people, which is impressive given the level of fear that characterises oppositional politics in Angola. [2]

Indeed, it is the very rarity of crowds of people openly expressing their disgust at the president that makes these demonstrations important. And it is this that vexes the activist. Desperately, he asked me, ‘What would make the BBC consider us newsworthy? What do we need to do to get attention?’ Trying another angle, he made a suggestion: ‘Perhaps you know someone at Al Jazeera, someone who could sneak our cause into the news through the backdoor or under the floorboards.’

These questions raise two troubling, yet contradictory, lines of thought about the relationship between the mass media and political life today. First, that Angola, for some reason or other, is of little interest to two of the world’s largest media corporations. A politician, writing to me from Luanda with as much concern as the activist, suggested that the country’s massive oil resources might explain the consensus of silence. In other words, if Britain had no interest in Angolan oil, the protests might have been covered by BBC television crews. But if that were the case, one might ask why the BBC and the British mainstream press report ongoings in Nigeria – another major oil producer of significant interest to Britain – much more than they do Angola.

Perhaps then, a lack of interest in Angola lies in Britain’s colonial history. Most former colonial powers seem stuck in a time-warp, preferring to focus their media energies on their former colonies. So Portugal obsesses about Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola and so on, whereas Britain ties itself in knots over Zimbabwe especially and to a lesser extent Kenya, Nigeria and other countries where English is spoken, South Africa in particular. While this might go a little way to unravelling the BBC’s lack of focus on Angola, it does not explain Al Jazeera’s.

The Qatari corporation has an office in Johannesburg from where, like the BBC and other media corporations, it covers many African countries. According to one insider, what deters Al Jazeera from visiting Angola is language (apparently no one in their Johannesburg bureau speaks Portuguese, let alone an indigenous Angolan language), the very high costs of staying in Luanda and the difficult task of getting Angolan visas. Contacts at the BBC offer a similar range of excuses. Language, they say, is a problem. Few staff members speak Portuguese, even less since the BBC Portuguese for Africa Service was closed down earlier this year as part of the cuts. But this does not explain the lack of English-language coverage, especially on the mainstream television channel, which covers many non-English-speaking countries. One former colleague suggested that the BBC has simply never caught up with Angola since the war ended nine years ago. ‘We are unsure of the narrative,’ she said.

An investigation exploring why the mass media picks some countries to focus on and not others would be a valuable piece of work, but I do not have the space for that here. I want to move on to the second troubling set of ideas that are implicit in the questions posed by the Angolan activist. His desire for news coverage from major media corporations conjures the notion that the courageous efforts of a minority of young Angolans this year are of little importance if they are not documented by the international media. This is not a new idea. The US author and critic, Susan Sontag, famously wrote, in On Photography (1977), ‘Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it . . . A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened.’ More apposite to this discussion are the observations of British cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, who said, in a lecture about the mass media, that ‘an event has no real meaning in the obvious sense until it has been represented… in a way, it doesn’t exist meaningfully until it has been represented’.[3]

The very complex matter of representing Angola with integrity has troubled me ever since I first went to work there as a BBC correspondent in 1998. Within days of my arrival the war between UNITA and the MPLA erupted once again. Quickly I began to feel like a conveyer of statistics – of the dead and the starving, of tonnages of aid supplies and military hardware, of ambushes and anti-tank mine explosions, diplomatic visits, UN speeches and the occasional Miss Angola event to lighten things up. Although I tried hard to produce more optimistic, complex and varied news, I came to believe that no matter what I reported, none of it, to borrow from the Palestinian literary theorist, Edward Said, was ‘free’. My reports could never gain autonomy from all the other images and accounts of events and people in Africa that had also been seen and read by BBC audiences across the world. The meaning of my work was always set in a broader, biased history of the representation of an entire continent.

When the Angolan war finally ended in 2002, aside from the initial international media frenzy around Jonas Savimbi’s death and the subsequent peace deal, foreign media interest in the country quickly waned. Once labelled by many foreign journalists as the country with ‘the forgotten war’, Angola became the country with a forgotten peace. In 2007, when I was briefly back reporting in Luanda, one BBC producer advised me that unless the situation became considerably worse, the corporation would not be wasting its precious budget covering matters Angolan. It was at around this time that an assassination attempt was made on the UNITA leader, Isaías Samakuva. While the BBC spewed out endless reports on an appalling assault on Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai, they almost completely ignored the parallel attack on Samakuva. I was infuriated by what I felt were hypocritical news values.

Over time however, I have begun to wonder about the value of intense media interest in a place, event or person. In the case of Zimbabwe, the British media obsession has, at times, been bulimic. In the mid-noughties, partisan reports pitched precariously on the triumvirate of President Robert Mugabe, the war veterans and the white farmers, dominated our screens, airwaves and papers for months on end. Subsequently, devoted long-term research into the complexity and even success of the land reform policy – for example, ‘Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities’ written by a group of respected academics from Zimbabwe and Britain – has barely been noted. [4]

With this in mind, I have pondered the benefits of trying to increase mainstream media interest in Angola. The activist, who wrote to me in September, seems to have some faith that coverage on BBC television and Al Jazeera will strengthen Angola’s oppositional movements, lending more power to the protesters. From this point of view, the foreign mass media offers a means of transferring knowledge from one part of the world to another, just as one might transfer clothes from a Chinese factory to a Primark store in Leeds. He – and others – have told me of their desperate desire to be heard by powerful groups and individuals outside Angola. They want the ear of the United Nations Security Council primarily and the United States government among others in order to add pressure to their cause to push Dos Santos from power.

This presents us with a paradox. It requires little imagination to understand why a section of the Angolan population is longing for major changes to their country’s political and economic landscape. However, as a British journalist based in London, I feel increasingly uneasy about media representations of the politics and people of southern Africa. Although I have written two commentary pieces about the Angolan demonstrations for the British newspaper website, Guardian online, this year I worry that in the minds of many British readers, my work has merely reproduced the stereotype of the African dictator and the put upon citizen. You only have to read the comments to get a pretty clear idea of what some readers, at least, are thinking.

‘Wow, isn’t Africa great?’ wrote one albertcornercrew in response to the September piece. ‘Another example of how postcolonial governance is hardly worth the bother. Slink into anarchy and expect the world to pick up the bits. Again!’ [5] In response to the first piece I wrote in March, SharminMann wrote: ‘Hang on. I thought that Angola had liberated itself from Colonialism and Imperialism back in the 1970s. Surely, its problems have now been solved. So why would they need to have any sort of demonstration?'[6]

Leaving aside the curious use of the capital letter in SharminMann’s views, the sarcasm oozing from both commentators is alarming. Although two individuals are not representative of the entire reading public, their views nevertheless underline the fact that we cannot control the way our work is interpreted. Meaning is given to a piece of journalism more by the viewer, listener or reader than the initial author. While I have no difficulty in stating that Dos Santos’s leadership broadly fits the definition of an autocrat, I feel uneasy about promoting an idea of Angola that risks reinforcing yet more profound ignorance.

To challenge the stereotype requires much more space and time than any mainstream British media outlet seems prepared to give, and certainly to pay for. An audience might only begin to understand a country more fully if they are provided with complex and subtle reporting by well-informed journalists over many months and years – not to mention the broader political, intellectual and artistic culture available too. If, as is usually the case today, one is given 800 words or less to explain a complex news event, it becomes very hard to do much more than peddle a few facts placed within a broader historical framework.

So what to do? Write nothing and avoid provoking banal even racist responses to the African continent, or write something – however short, however infrequent – to try and maintain some sort of public awareness of a particular place or group of people? Some might argue that the best thing to do is to write positive stereotypes in a bid to somehow erase or neutralise the negative ones. But this strikes me as equally unsatisfactory. Not only do positive stereotypes carry their own risky relationship to truth, they are also prone to misunderstanding. There is, in other words, no guarantee that it will work.

This leaves me wondering – as I have elsewhere in the past – whether foreign journalism has any value at all. In desperation, I find myself looking to academia as a better alternative for pursuing knowledge and, dare I say it, truth. There again, however, I am confronted by the problematic Said posited in 1981 in his brilliant book ‘Covering Islam: how the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world’. At the very beginning of Chapter Three, on knowledge and power, he admits ‘it may seem exceptionally futile to ask whether, for members of one culture, knowledge of other cultures is really possible.’ Of course, Said was writing about the relationship between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’, but 30 years on, I believe this conundrum is as relevant today as it was then. Certainly, it is as relevant to the relationship between ‘the West’ and ‘Africa’ as it was and still is to ‘Islam’.

END NOTES

[1] The Guardian
[2] VOA News
[3] Youtube
[4] jamescurrey.com
[5] The Guardian
[6] The Guardian

Lara Pawson is a freelance journalist and writer who has been working in and travelling to Angola since 1998.

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