Seeing Africa in a new light
John Battersby10 October 2006
By this time next year, global perceptions of Africa could be changing radically as two major new international television stations project a different image of the continent and provide African viewers with a global context to better understand global forces and seek advantage for the continent in trade, investment and tourism.
The two new stations - CNBC Africa and Al Jazeera International, which are both set to go live in the next six months or so - will intensify the media spotlight on Africa at a time when the northern hemisphere view of the world is being increasingly challenged by economic realities and reforms at the United Nations and multilateral institutions.
New global realities
A recent cover story in the influential Economist pointed out that the developing world now accounts for more than 50% of global economic output measured in purchasing-power parity.
The rise of major industrialising developing powers - such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and Turkey - have prompted reforms at the UN, IMF and World Bank as the global centre of gravity shifts closer to the developing countries.
Major corporations in the developing countries - such as India's Tata Industries and South Africa's SABMiller - now account for more than a third of all foreign direct investment in the developing world.
South-south co-operation is no longer a political slogan - it has become an economic reality. Increasingly, global economic growth depends on the economic growth of developing countries.
24-hour Africa business channel
In recognition of these new realities - and the emergence of Africa as a major trade and investment partner of China and the new developing powers - CNBC, the global business TV leader, is set to open a 24-hour Africa business channel by mid-2007 with an initial investment of R190-million (roughly US$25-million).
CNBC Africa, an autonomous unit with its headquarters in Johannesburg and set to train a new genetation of African financial journalists, will beam six hours of dedicated Africa programming each week day and will have correspondents in Cape Town, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and London. It will also incorporate its Asian, Middle Eastern and European services for its African viewers.
Zafar Siddiqi, chairman of CNBC Africa, said that the new service would address dysfunctional broadcasting policies between African countries, poor communications and inadequate marketing on the continent and an over-sensationalisation of news.
"We will set a new standard in broadcasting on the continent that will spur others ... we will work closely with all broadcasters around Africa," Siddiqi told the the first International Media Forum in Johannesburg last month.
The Forum, which was partnered by the International Marketing Council of South Africa, sought to promote a dialogue between international media and South Africans about mutual perceptions of the country and the African continent.
Al Jazeera: five new Africa bureaux
Al Jazeera International, a new English-language station spawned by the successful Qatar-based Arabic station serving the Middle East, is due to go live before the end of the year with a 24-hour global news service with five bureaux in Africa.
Al Jazeera has hired some of the top names in British journalism, including the legendary interviewer David Frost and former BBC heavyweight Nigel Parsons, who heads the station. It seeks to portray global news from a centre of gravity which lies outside of the industrialised world, and will portray global news from a developing world perspective, thus reflecting the new global realities.
"We will set out to normalise news coverage in Africa," said Andrew Simmonds, Al Jazeera International's Africa bureau chief, who attended the Forum.
The renewed interest in Africa is being driven by a confluence of forces: increased global interest in Africa's rich resources - particularly oil and steel - the rapid rise of the continent as a destination for Chinese and Indian investment and trade, major growth in South African investment in Africa, and a deeper understanding of the link between terrorism, poverty and failed states.
No built-in bias against Africa
Delegates to the International Media Forum heard a succession of influential speakers representing the world's leading news organisations - CNBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, the Wall Street Journal, BBC, DowJones Newswires, Reuters and Africa Confidential - sketch the news global realities and the rising importance of Africa in a globalised world.
The messages that come through repeatedly were that news organisations are driven by what their readers and subscribers want - rather than focussing on either negative or positive news - that there is no built-in bias against Africa, and that African countries and companies need to develop better communication strategies to compete in the global market place if ideas and enterprises.
South African Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad, who spoke at the conference, welcomed the tone of speeches from the international editors and suggested that South Africans should revisit the view that the global media was a monolithic bloc that sought to marginalise the continent and entrench negative stereotypes.
"We cannot simply dismiss negative reportage as the product of the racist or the colonial mindset, nor must we paint all reporters with the same brush," he said. "We also need to be more open to investigative journalism."
Randy Walerius, London-based Africa and Middle East editor at Dow Jones Newswires, said that the slogan and driving force of his news organisation was: "news to profit by".
"We don't look at news as positive or negative," he said. "It's whether the news offers news [for readers and subscribers] to profit by."
Importance of open communication
Themba Maseko, the new director-general of South Africa's Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), presented the government's new communications strategy, which seeks to correct preceptions by clear and repeated communication of government policy and its achievements, and promised better access for journalists.
Addressing a dinner of the international media and invited guests, Pahad suggested that the Forum should become a regular event on the annual calendar.
The Forum kicked off an overdue debate between the international media and South African stakeholders in business and communications about differing domestic and international perceptions of South Africa and the importance of open and clear communication to promote good governance and economic transparency.
South Africa's challenge is to ensure that just as opportunities open up for Africa and South Africa with changing international perceptions, we do not become prisoners to our own stereotypes that global opinion is biased against us and always looking to reinforce the negative.
It is time to open ourselves to international scrutiny and put our case more convincingly and more professionally.
John Battersby is the UK country manager of the International Marketing Council of South Africa, based in London. He recently accompanied a group of leading international journalists, editors and managers on a visit to South Africa to attend the first International Media Forum.