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the Western bias in chronicling war

18 December 2011

"Filming Liberia: The Transition (CAD Productions)" shared via cc license from Flickr

In an African Arguments post about Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, Robtel Neajai Pailey interviews Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney, director and producer of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” the award-winning film documenting the peace movement, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. The filmmakers discuss the challenge of chronicling the peace movement:

Disney and Reticker admitted that while it was very easy to extract war images from Liberia, finding footage of the Mass Action for Peace was like searching for a needle in a haystack. “It’s much more seductive for the West to come in and film images of nine or 10-year-old boys with a gun. I found a lot of the footage that I did look at to be pornographic, in fact, because it’s prurient. It just reinforces certain stereotypes,” said Reticker during our interview. When they unearthed the footage, which had been buried in damp basements, dusty boxes, drawers, and personal film collections, Disney and Reticker admitted that the story began to unfold in an organic way. They argue that the film gave Gbowee a medium through which to speak her truth, and the truths of countless women who joined forces with her in solidarity. (emphasis added)

It’s hard not to think the availability of a wide range of material would be more likely if we had a more diverse group of people chronicling war. But the power to document still lies largely in the West. An especially relevant post from earlier this week comes from Idil Holif, a blogger at Afrolens,”Somalia and Media: How the new ‘heart of darkness’ proliferated the success of Ragtag Journalism.” From it:

I’ve recently had some interesting discussions with many Somalis working within various facets of the media about the proliferation of amateur journalists venturing into Somalia to cover our nation’s fall from grace (but really in search of book deals, and D-list media personality-hood). Until now I’ve resisted the urge to engage these amateur political paparazzi and expose them for what they really are; shameless self-promoters. This group believes that they can skip key steps to becoming a journalist like formal educational training in the craft and years of work experience, and skip right ahead to notoriety and success on the backs of Somalis and Somalia… What’s wrong with this picture? When did Africa become the stomping ground for talentless thrill seekers with stars in their eyes?

Holif focuses in particular on SomaliaReport, self-described as a “non-partisan website that hires Western editors to work with Somali journalists inside the country to cover all aspects of the region: piracy, conflict, terrorism, government, local news, culture and key issues.” Holif asks why the editor has to be from the West (and is particularly scathing about SomaliaReport‘s editor Jay Bahadur), especially when there are so many Somali reporters in the diaspora that would be capable of editing. She writes of SomaliaReport‘s founder, Robert Pelton, when she says, “If Mr.Pelton had an iota of integrity, he would at least attempt to hire a Somali national from the pool of seasoned Somali journalists in Nairobi, and instead he chose to fly a novice from Toronto to serve in a leadership capacity.” The post has already generated 43 comments, some from Pelton trying to defend SomaliaReport. (Of course, I don’t know how seriously readers will take Pelton when his first comment begins with “Haters gonna hate but Somali [sic] already has too much of that.”) My only background in journalism was my high school newspaper, but even then I learned how much of what we reported on was driven by the editor’s vision. Sure, SomaliaReport uses Somali journalists, but how different might the publication be if the editor was Somali?

As Africa Is a Country featured last week, Time‘s “iconic” images from Africa this past year were all from conflict situations. One of those images was from Somalia:

As a researcher, I wonder about the future. Some time in the future when a researcher (or, in the case of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a filmmaker) wants to learn more about a war or about a place during a tie of war, what will they have to rely on?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 December 2011 6:14 pm

    The assumption at Afrolens appears to be that Somalia Report is making no efforts at either preparation or cooperation. From my experience working with them as a copy-editor, they do both. The assumption that hiring Jay Bahadur is ‘Western prejudice’ and ‘”Heart of Darkness” Orientalism’ is highly specious, and insulting.

    RYP has spent a great deal of time trying to speak to people in warzones, and has spent more time on the ground in Somalia then dozens of journalists. Jay is not ignorant either, and has a political science degree from UofT – most of the Afrolens
    blog entry consists of anger at his interview with Jon Stewart, which took place on a comedy show. FFS, overheating at this seems ridiculous.

    I will speak with my Somali friends and get their informed perspective on whether SomaliaReport is of value to them, thanks – and living in Toronto, I live amongst the second-largest diaspora population of Somalis in the West.

    RYP is white and a westerner, but I don’t think that he is implicitly racist or ignorant because of that. I travelled for many years in Asia and the Middle East, and I didn’t tell everyone who voiced an opinion about America or Canada (even when most of those didn’t even know Canada was a different country, larger than the US geographically, or what our political structure or stance on global issues, such as the war in Iraq which we opposed and didn’t join) that they were racist or ignorant for having an opinion different than my own.

    And, for the record, there are a number of Kenyan and Somali editors working behind the scene at Somalia Report. Most of them, especially those on the ground in Somalia, would prefer not to be named as they are working on stories about al-Shabaab and other groups that execute their critics. Mocking Jay, RYP or myself for not being Somali is fine and fair enough, but please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and dismiss all of the reporting we cover as biased because of that.

    Somalia Report could just target security contractors and NGOs (white westerners who need security news about Somalia) but RYP consciously chose to represent views of Somalis for the diaspora, as well. and pays for that out of his own pocket, not for profit.


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