“Africanizing” Media Coverage of Threats to Peace and Security on the Continent

“Africanizing” Media Coverage of Threats to Peace and Security on the Continent

 

A recent surge of terrorism has compounded preexisting threats to Africa’s peace and security, manifesting in complex forms of conflicts that are undermining the continent’s developmental ambitions. Creative solutions are needed to mitigate conflict and address the new threats, which include religious fundamentalism and extreme forms of violence. Of particular note is terrorism, now mutated to bring more women to the front lines, from the al-Shabaab/jihadi brides in East Africa, to the rise of female suicide bombers in West African countries like Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. The trend appears to be starting in East Africa, as well. It is important, not only, to pay close attention to how the media approaches covering such cases of extremist violence, but to consider the media as an active player that could help prevent the spread of terrorism.

 

Generally, the media is seen as practicing “war journalism,” in which the state is usually portrayed as a winner based on its so-called “monopoly of violence,” while terrorists, including female suicide bombers, are represented as losers. This tactic seeks to prevent the spread of fear and mass hysteria among citizens and to forestall terrorism in the short term by creating a sense of security through the impression that the state is determined to protect citizens rights. Unfortunately, this approach may inadvertently increase the number of those who feel alienated from the state, as it fuels perceptions that the state is against a section of the population (Muslims) and thus may increase the number of sympathizers for the terrorists’ cause.

 

In East Africa, a similar trend of media representation is characterized by a zero-tolerance, “no-nonsense” approach to terrorism, which journalists support by quoting state officials when framing narratives of terrorist events. In reporting on a recent attack by three armed female terrorists on Central Police Station in Mombasa, Kenya, for example, one of the mainstream newspapers, Daily Nation, quoted the police commissioner as follows:

 

These attackers were strapped in bulletproof vests, had knives and petrol bombs, a clear indication that they were ready for war. But a police station, whose core business is security, is not a wedding venue, and you must expect ferocious fire that you have never seen if you provoke the officers.[1]

 

This kind of reporting, driven by Western ideas of what constitutes news, may undermine journalists’ efforts to undertake the careful research necessary for a more nuanced approach to covering terrorism, even as they work against deadlines for breaking news. The question is, should Africa continue applying these old-fashioned Western journalistic approaches to address the serious threats being posed to African security by terrorism and the emerging role of women[2] on the front line? Or should it take a different approach?

 

Terrorism thrives on publicity. Sensational reporting by the media, supported by images like those that appeared during the Westgate, Mandera, Garissa, Bamako, Grand Bassam, Paris, Brussels, and Lahore attacks, therefore undermine strategies to defeat it. The tendency of journalists working for media institutions to sensationalize terrorism can be seen as an ideological problem born of necessity: to survive. These institutions are obliged to sell news as a product with a user value (audience interest) in the “culture industry,” which demands they report news as it happens. This approach to news is guided by traditional Western ideologies of news coverage. Unfortunately, this approach, guided by the “man bites dog” aphorism does not seem to work well in terror-related news stories, since it creates fear and anxiety in the minds of audiences.  This can then prompt state actors to take actions similar to those proposed by the government of Kenya, in the contentious National Security (Amendment) Act of 2014.[3] The bone of contention was the concern that the bill, which criminalized publication and circulation of texts and images related to terrorism, among other things, limits the right to receive and impart information, and therefore, impinging on individuals freedom of expression

 

How, then, should the media in Africa deal with the recent surge of terrorism? Although obliged to play the role of society’s watchdog, African journalists and journalists in Africa must create and use their own philosophy of news coverage, premised on an African gnosis to report news in a manner that takes into account the contextual realities on the continent. This calls for a radical departure from sensationalism.

 

Peace journalism, which can be defined as good journalism for conflict resolution can provide the ideological seedbed for conceptualizing an African journalistic philosophy. Such a philosophy should infuse elements of peace journalism with African wisdom to produce a pan-African approach to conflict news reporting, called Hybrid Peace Journalism (HPJ). This could be used to guide the profession in Africa. For peace journalism to be more successful in Africa, it needs to be guided by philosophies that follow the African tradition, found in narratives like those of Kwame Nkrumah’s pan-Africanism, Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa, Jomo Kenyatta’s Harambee and Nelson Mandela’s Ubuntu, all blended together.  Utu/Ubuntu or Humanity, Umoja or Unity, and Harambee or togetherness are therefore the pan-African philosophical principles defining HPJ. This philosophy of journalism is premised on peaceful, prosperous, and humane communal belonging, imbibing the character and thinking of these great African Leaders. Practitioners of African peace journalism must be generally guided by the philosophy of peace, love, and unity in covering terror-related stories. When doing so, they should also consciously, deliberately, and repeatedly make reference to the word “peace” in their coverage of terror incidents through the sources they quote in their reports.

 

In the aftermath of the recent Mombasa attack, involving three female terrorists, a prime example of HPJ reporting was witnessed. The Daily Nation, quoted the call of the governor of Mombasa, Ali Hassan Joho, for unity and togetherness:

I appeal to the community [Ujamaa], leadership and everybody, let’s remain together [Harambee]. To every one of us I say protect your life but also be your brother’s keeper [Utu/Ubuntu] . . . Let this incident help us emerge even stronger as a community [Umoja].[4]

 

 

Similarly, according to the report, the area’s Parliament member termed the incident “unfortunate” and “asked the public to remain calm [peace].”

 

 

[1] Nation Reporters, “Attackers’ Phones Lead to Arrest of 3 Suspected Accomplices,” September 12, 2016, http://www.nation.co.ke/news/Phones-lead-to-arrest-of-3-suspected-accomplices/1056-3377018-dy4qxnz.

 

[2] Fredrick Ogenga, “Don’t Ignore Women in War on Terrorism,” Daily Nation, September 15, 2016, http://www.nation.co.ke/oped/Opinion/Do-not-ignore-women-in-war-on-terrorism/440808-3381230-mfil8j.

[3] Republic of Kenya, Security Law Amendment Act, Republic of Kenya Gazette Supplement Acts, Nairobi, December 22, 2014, http://kenyalaw.org/kl/fileadmin/pdfdownloads/AmendmentActs/2014/SecurityLaws_Amendment_Act_2014.pdf.

[4] Ibid.

About the Author

Fredrick Oduor Ogenga is the head of department for Communication, Journalism and Media Studies at Rongo University College, Rongo, Kenya. He is also the found director of the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security and chief executive officer of The Peacemaker Corps Foundation Kenya. Dr. Ogenga is a 2014 recipient of an African Peacebuilding Network Individual Research Grant.

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