Journalism in Africa: Chronicling Turmoil......And Defining the 'Opposition Press'

During the four years he traversed Africa--visiting 48 of 51 countries, Los Angeles Times correspondent David Lamb observed a continent in disarray, where progress, when it occurs, occurs slowly and with uncertainty. Now a Neiman Fellow at Harvard, the veteran correspondent who has also covered Australia and the Vietnam War, describes Africa as his most difficult assignment. "In Africa, there are no press release," he explains.

While serving as the Times' Nairobi bureau chief, Lamb chronicled eight wars that raged across the continent, involving 15 African nations. He reported on corrupt Zairean president Mobutu, who has enshrined "Mobutuism" as his nation's official philosophy, and on Idi Amin, who for eight years ruled Uganda under a system in which "human flesh was cheaper than beef."

In an assessment of Africa after 20 years of independence, Lamb concludes that Black Africa remains "economically dependent on its former colonial masters, uncertain of its own identity and purpose, divided by ideology, and perplexed by the demands of nationhood."

"For most of the continent's 420 million people, independence has brought little relief from disease, poverty, famine, and illiteracy. Nor in many cases has it brought the African much more freedom than he had under colonialism," Lamb recently reported to the Times.

"Tanzania, for all its self-righteousness, holds more political prisoners than South Africa. East Africa's most respected writer, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, of Kenya, is in jail as an alleged subversive. One quarter of the population of Equatorial Guinea is in exile. Nineteen black African countruss are under military rule," Lamb's report continued. Last week Lamb told a critic who accused the Western press of being overly negativistic in its Africa coverage, that he, too, was tired of going to Uganda to write stories about Amin.


"When there's a bright spot, like the rise of a middle class in Kenya or Nigeria's return to civilian rule, we're certainly eager to cover it," Lamb adds.

In fact, last year Lamb reported on Africans "changes that portend well for the future," an awakening to the need to develop long-ignored agricultural sectors, a realization that primary health-care must come before open-heart surgery. More Africans have access to education and health care than ever before and, in countries like Kenya and Nigeria, a substantial middle class is taking form. But Lamb's overall outlook for the continent is not optimistic.

"Africa is in a real bind," the 40-year-old reporter says. "Africa says, 'Let us solve our own problems,' but whenever there's a real problem, the first thing Africa does is shout for guns or money. Many of these countries are living off the international dole."

Lamb points to Black Africa's "particularly hypocritical" stand on economic sanctions against the white minority regime in South Africa. At least 15 Black African nations trade with South Africa, usually through the back door, Lamb asserts. For this reason he is convinced that sanctions are forever doomed to be ineffectual, and a violent, internal upheaval is the only way to bring about apartheid's fall. Although Lamb says a commitment to majority rule should be top American policy in Africa, "if Black Africa wants the West to adopt sanctions, it is going to have to set an example first. For Black Africa to be yelling at the West now is nonsensical."

Lamb believes that what many Black African countries want from the United States is a policy divorced from U.S. interests, a moral commitment not related to U.S. economic and strategic considerations. "They are asking, in short, for the United States to be more African than the Africans themselves," he recently reported.

Lamb is acutely aware that as a foreign journalist he cannot help viewing African events through the prism of his own American upbringing. At a seminar on Africa and the foreign press last week, Lamb questioned whether it is, in fact, possible for Western journalists to provide fair and balanced coverage of Africa. He himself acknowledges, having "little tolerance for much of the rhetoric of the Third World."

Hostility between Third World governments and the Western media results from differing conceptions of what news is, Lamb told the seminar--his point underscored when General Joseph Garba, Nigeria's former foreign minister and a seminar participant, accused Lamb and other foreign corresondents of "attempting to destabilize Africa by writing catchy headlines about corruption."

"They go to Africa holding very simplistic views, impatient that progress has not been made along Western lines, and then they distort the news in order to grab the attention of readers back home," Garba says.

"Sometimes we cover Africa as though it's a four-alarm fire in Brooklyn. We spend too much time on the crisis, the single, flashy event like Bokassa's coronation and not enought on serious issues like Nigeria's return to civilian rule," Lamb says.

But Lamb believes the African officials actually want "advocacy journalism"--to harness the independent Western press for their own purposes of nation-building. "Like the mayors of small towns in the U.S., African officials want us to cover the opening of a civic center and ignore the war."

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