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African-Envelope Journalism

Image: blog.epic.org

· Africa

Too many Western journalists continue to practice African-envelope journalism: attention grabbing “scoops” in exchange for publication (at least ¼ of a page) in mainstream news media. We all know that commercial media requires mass audience in order to make money. But this kind of “scoop” is generally grounded in an underlying message of a “hopeless continent” and is driven by political and cultural biases and business interests.

There’s nothing better for an American or European audience than a scoop on how Africa is socially dysfunctional and in need of “civilizing” because it has problems we “don’t have”. But it’s amazing just how lazy this type of journalism has become among American journalists when reporting on Africa from Africa.

Sharing mafia-like behavior and corruption

In an April 6, 2021 article entitled “They have another door for their friends”, published in The World section of The Washington Post, Rael Ombuor and Max Bearak, The Washington Post's Nairobi bureau chief, expound on how the rollout of the Covid vaccine in Kenya exposes inequality and even mafia-like behavior. According to a teacher interviewed, “Without a godfather to help you through this process what are you supposed to do?”. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of stories popping up everywhere in print and online media about how the rich and privileged around the world are getting preferential access to the vaccine and skipping the lines. Yes, surprise! surprise!, even in America.

A cursory 30 minute internet search produces at least 150 stories on Covid vaccines preferential access, mafia-like behavior and outright corruption. Just to give you a taste, here are some headlines:

Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2020: The wealthy scramble for COVID-19 vaccines: ‘If I donate $25,000 ... would that help me?’ They’re offering tens of thousands of dollars in cash, making their personal assistants pester doctors every day, and asking whether a five-figure donation to a hospital would help them jump the line.

New York Times, February 2, 2021: The Wealthy Are Getting More Vaccinations, Even in Poorer Neighborhoods. Officials acknowledge that the coveted shots are disproportionately going to white people and that plannersʼ efforts to course-correct are having limited effect.

WebMD, February 8, 2021: With COVID Vaccine Restricted, Line Jumpers Sneak In

 

What’s the real story?

 

The Associated Press, February 9, 2021: The wealthy in Brazil cause controversy as they try to buy quick access to vaccine. Already nearly 230,000 Brazilians have died from COVID-19, the second-highest tally in the world.

 

The New York Times, February 25, 2021: V.I.P. Immunizationʼ for the Powerful and Their Cronies Rattles South America. A wave of corruption scandals is exposing how the powerful and well-connected in South America jumped the line to get vaccines early. Public dismay is turning into anger.

Chicago Tribune, March 4, 2021: After his wealthy Florida Keys enclave got early vaccines, ex-Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner gave $250,000 to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Balkan Insight, March 12, 2021: North Macedonia to Probe Corruption Concerns in Vaccine Procurement Affair. Anti-Corruption officials and the country's president say allegations that the Health Minister pursued a dodgy deal to procure Chinese COVID-19 vaccines for his own profit must be carefully investigated.

Axios, March 13, 2021: Wealthy people are taking COVID-19 vaccines allotted for others.

America's wealthiest are finding ways to access the vaccine ahead of those who qualify for it.

Herald Tribune, April 2, 2021: Yacht clubs, golf courses, gated communities: Florida’s pop-up vaccine clinics raise ethical concerns.

CBS News, April 7, 2021: Some wealthy Americans accused of skipping vaccine line. Luxury retirement home accused of giving COVID-19 vaccines to wealthy donors.

The Washington Post, April 7, 2021: Vaccines for poor Chicagoans ended up at Trump Tower.

Vatican News, April 7, 2021: South Africa: Xenophobia and corruption threaten fair and effective distribution of covid vaccine. As South Africa begins to roll-out its anti-covid vaccination campaign, the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Jesuit Institute South Africa are raising some serious concerns regarding who and how people will receive the vaccine.

Euractiv, April 7, 2021: Ukrainian minister says corruption accusations hit vaccine procurement

What’s the real story?

The real story is not that in Kenya the well-connected are skipping the vaccination line. This is happening all over the world, including in America. The important stories are how vaccine rollout means heightened corruption around the world; how vital transparency and accountability if the vaccine is to overcome Covid-19; how failures in distribution to ensure the right people get the right vaccine at the right time will allow COVID-19 to remain at large; how vaccine nationalism is medically and morally reprehensible.

THE REAL STORY is about how the world is wallowing in moral failure due to unfair vaccine rollouts and preferential treatment of the rich, whether in Africa or elsewhere. Moral failure has no nationality and is not exclusive to one part of the world or another. Indeed, the WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned of a “catastrophic moral failure” if vaccines are not rolled out equitably between “the world’s haves and have-nots.”

The catastrophe is already upon us not because the well-connected have deep pockets and can money their way through the vaccination line to get preferential access. It’s because of the hypocrisy about ideals and morality among leaders around the world, including African and Western leaders. While the Western leaders have a bad habit of inconsistently applying the same standards of morality to the West as it does to Africa, forgetting the history of colonization and the atrocities committed, African leaders often present “Western ideals” as bad and in opposition to African culture.

But the concepts of liberty, equality and justice are neither Western nor African; they are human concepts. Nor is the wealth gap exclusive to the West or to Africa. It is a direct result of a moral failure on the part of political leaders and other authority figures, like economists and the media, who worship the “greed is good” tenet. This tenet maximizes selfishness and certainly does not make the world a better place. Combined with the fact that politicians ignore the need to create a social contract that leads to a strong social fabric, the hypocrisy of leadership results in structural and real violence.

This is especially relevant to Africa, where the history of European empires and American neocolonialism in sub-Saharan Africa highlights the extra-medical factors that affect health and human security across the continent. If the militarization of economic development can never be justified on the grounds that it will improve conditions for people in Africa while causing considerable harm, vaccine nationalism harms everyone and protects no one.

Economic statecraft is not a zero-sum game, and neither is vaccine allocation or access to vaccination.

The “heart of darkness” and Mathew 7:3

So when an American journalist touts line-cutting in vaccine lines in Kenya as a world event, it’s nothing but lazy journalism that is underpinned in a certain negative and racist attitude, perception and interpretation of Africa. The correspondents almost gleefully relate the story of how the well-connected skip the vaccination line (through “another door for their friends”, amid “a sudden hubbub” where “hundreds of people clamored” from a “sprawling slum”, crowded together amid “ensuing shouts” and “denunciations of a more insidious plague” resulting from an “opaque rollout” – i.e. an apocalyptic African world). At the same time they obviate the same or worse behavior in the United States and the West in general. This is a prime example of how correspondents do a disservice not only to Africans but to non-African readers as well. Corruption is contemptible and unethical wherever it takes place.

The discursive metaphor of “heart of darkness” that pervades the American media when covering Africa has, once again, led to the publication of an easy story with lazy journalism. The routine underlying use of this metaphor in news headlines and texts - “Women in Senegal fear unrest silences victims”, "Kenyan police shot dead a teenager on his balcony during a coronavirus curfew crackdown”, “Trump administration officials work to build global antiabortion coalition", “Construction boom comes at expense of Dakar’s young” - creates a particular pattern of association and meaning grounded in ideological and cultural bias. And it has become a template for certain journalists who frame news about Africa by sustaining and reproducing stereotypes about the “dark continent” while devaluing African issues.

Western media has habitually demonized the African continent, ever focused on the negative while pushing the view of how development aid and corporate investments help “save” Africans while exploiting the continent’s mineral resources, natural resources, strategic metals. So it’s really no surprise that Western, and particularly American, journalism gets Africa wrong so often through reduction ab adsurdum.

 

This is not to say that there aren’t good reporting on Africa. All foreign correspondents should not and cannot be lumped together. Not all correspondents are sloppy with their facts and their attitudes. But when a foreign correspondent based in Africa writes stories that reflect views and opinions emanating from some far away ivory tower long divorced from reality on the ground, both in Africa and in their home country (in this case, the U.S.), it evidences poor and lazy journalism and involves a certain lack of ethics. This is absolutely cringe worthy.

There is, of course, nothing like hooking the American audience with an article about something that is relevant in the daily lives of Americans right now: access to the Covid vaccine. That’s the job of a journalist. The problem is that African envelope journalism bombards the audience with portrayals of the dysfunctionality of African countries while conveniently ignoring the dysfunctionalities of one’s own country. Unfortunately, this is all too common in the coverage by The Washington Post’s Africa correspondents.

Journalists would do well to reflect on Matthew 7:3 (new international version): "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? In the King James Version of the Bible the text reads: Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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