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Telling our own story - Elizabeth Ohene writes

Now that everyone with a smartphone is a citizen journalist, the question of who tells our story needs to be redefined.

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For years the burning question was about who tells Africa’s story, who tells Ghana’s story, who tells the story of the rural areas, who tells the story of the disadvantaged, who tells the story of the youth, who tells the story of anyone who feels out of the mainstream.

The world’s story was told by an identifiable group of powerful voices. They owned the news agencies, the radio and television stations, the newspapers that dominated the world.

Their reporters and their stories defined events and personalities. When communications were not as fast and convenient as today, when cameras were expensive gadgets that very few people had access to and when it took days to send stories from one part of a country to another, these reporters wielded unbelievable power.

We saw the world through their eyes. They painted the picture of what Africa was like and people took their image and perceptions about Africa and Africans from these stories told by these powerful news outlets. 

There used to be endless conferences and workshops on the subject of Africa’s story not being told by Africans. Many people have tried to do something to remedy the situation. Some might remember the Pan African News Agency, PANA.

It was going to coordinate the telling of the African story, so newsrooms on the African continent do not have to rely on Reuters, AP, UPI, AFP, BBC, VOA, PRAVDA and all the others.

Needless to say, all those interventions did not work and the African story continued to be told through the lenses and microphones of foreign correspondents.

There were great arguments in newsrooms around the continent about the responsibility of African journalists to tell the “other side of the story”. In other words, if the foreign correspondents only saw and told the ugly side of the African story, we owed it to ourselves to tell the “beautiful side” of the African story. 

Decision

When I worked with the BBC African Service, the accusations of the BBC concentrating on only “bad stories” from Africa were so keenly felt that a decision was made to allocate a specific slot on the programme to “good news stories”.

This decision was announced to the listeners and our stringers around the continent were encouraged to seek out such stories. Indeed, a few such stories came and were broadcast, but it did not last.

There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm, not from the London end, but from the continent. Some of the stringers felt asking them for “good news stories” was condescending. As one of them asked pointedly: “would you be looking for good news stories in London? You would want  stories and that is all, why do you want to change the parameters and lower the standards for us?

As for me, I shall send you stories and leave you to decide if they are good or bad stories. I am not in the business of “good news stories” And that was the end of that experiment. But it did not put an end to the age-old complaint about Africa’s stories being told by foreigners.

It is a long time since I was in a newsroom and things have changed a lot, especially with technology, which should level the playing field. But it looks like the old complaints persist that our stories are being told by foreigners who only look to portray us in uncomplimentary ways and without empathy or cultural sensitivity. 

But is it still the fault of these powerful foreign news outlets that Africa is seen through their eyes? How come you can listen to the news in Ghana every day, read the newspapers in Ghana every day and know nothing about our immediate neighbours, Togo, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire?

How come that whatever news that trickles in about these neighbours invariably comes through the same old suspects, BBC, CNN, Deutsche Welle, France24 and other such?

Yes, maybe we don’t have the type of money they have to send correspondents or pay for stringers, but why don’t our newsrooms have arrangements with newsrooms in our neighbouring countries so we can just carry whatever they deem to be their news and they also carry ours as a matter of routine? Why do we have to rely on what the international news outlets consider as news from our neighbours when we can get it direct?

Once upon a time, the Daily Graphic had arrangements with news outlets in Lagos, in Dar-es-Salaam and in Nairobi.

Why

But why am I going so way back into the past when thanks to technology, news coverage has changed so dramatically? Everybody is now a citizen reporter and increasingly, the official newsrooms appear to rely on individual social media postings for their programming.

Now that we are in full control of what news we carry and not having to rely on the biased reporting of the Western news agencies, I wonder why there has been no change in the tone of how our countries and continent is portrayed.

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I used to complain that foreign correspondents had an obsession with photographing dying or dead persons in Africa and display dignity to their dead. It is remarkable that not a single dead body was ever shown in the coverage of the 9/11 attacks in America in which almost three thousand people died.

Today, I note that when citizen journalists and professional journalists  in this country arrive at an accident scene, the first thing they do is to take their cameras and linger on the injured and dead. There is no hesitation in putting out the goriest details of injuries.

Now that everyone can take their own photos and tell their own stories, it is interesting that the stories and photos and videos we get from villages and other places who used to complain about being neglected, are no different from what the foreign correspondents used to offer.

When demonstrators are telling their own stories with their cameras, it is interesting to note that they zoom in on the use of foul language, the destruction of furniture, the setting ablaze of the most sacred building and the kicking in the face of the old woman who happens to be in their way.

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I have been wondering about the old complaints that foreign correspondents portrayed Africa in the most uncharitable manner. And they did. If there were 18 well-dressed and healthy children on the school playground, they would zero in on the two children in faded, torn clothes. 

Here we are now, telling our own story and it doesn’t sound very different from what the biased, neo-colonialist foreign correspondents used to say. I wonder if, horror of horrors, those foreign correspondents were right or if our current storytellers have fallen in the trap and assumed their attitudes.

I wonder what happened to the attempt to tell the story from different angles.

I would not be recommending that we look for good news stories to cover our grim reality, I am saying that we should at the very least, get to know our story and then we can decide how to colour it.

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