It’s time to change the racist narrative in coverage of Ukraine (opinion)


Publisher’s note: Moky Makura is the Executive Director of Africa No Filter, a group working to change stereotypical and harmful narratives around and about Africa through storytelling and community building. The opinions expressed in this comment are my own. Read more opinion articles at cnne.com/opinion.

(CNN) — “It’s very emotional for me because I see how they kill Europeans with blue eyes and blonde hair.” These were the words of Ukraine’s chief deputy prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, during a recent BBC interview about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It wasn’t so much what he said, it was more what was implied; that not all lives have the same value. And that idea—the belief that some races are superior to others—is a fundamental tenet of racism. It is alarming to me that Sakvarelidze was not questioned during his interview.

As a black African woman without the benefit of blue eyes or blonde hair, it has been equally emotional to see the amount of racist and ignorant commentary in coverage of Ukraine that has gone unchallenged by the interviewers and media platforms that have transmitted. CBS, Aljazeera, France’s BFM TV and ITV they have reported on the invasion in ways that illustrate a deep bias, informed by a belief system that screams of an old-world, white-led order.

ITV News correspondent Lucy Watson on ITV reporting on the studio summed up the collective hypocrisy and underlying narrative that the Ukraine war has exposed when he said: “The unthinkable has happened…this is not a third world developing nation. This is Europe!”

According to the narrative she believes, “unthinkable things” happen only in “third world nations” (it’s an obsolete and derogatory term now, someone should tell her), and that narrative is perpetuated by the kinds of stories she and many like her have heard about the continent.

In Africa, they are the stories of the conflict in Ethiopia, the insurgency in Mozambique, the electoral violence in Uganda, and the recent coups in Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso, and Guinea Bissau. But it is clear that many are not paying attention to them because the people in these stories are not rich or from the Global North.

It’s why the “unthinkable things” happening in places like Africa are usually reported in terms of problems, numbers and trends, rather than people, emotions and lives destroyed. In Africa, our stories tend to offer simplistic analysis that lacks context and nuance, prioritizing headline-grabbing proclamations like this one from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres over a “coup epidemic” in response to six coups in five of 54 African countries over an 18-month period.

These examples have shown us that the global media is complicit in perpetuating racist narratives by failing to encourage diversity in its newsrooms and by providing an unfettered platform to influential reporters and spokespersons with implicit biases that go unchallenged. But instead of dwelling on this, I want to share some of the facts that should make us all rethink the traditional and stereotypical ways we dismiss non-white, non-rich countries and their people.

The traditional world order is undergoing dramatic change, fueled by COVID-19, China, Russia, and movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. The new world order is providing an opportunity for the world to reconsider what little it knows about the rest of the world.

Mbappé and his perception of racism in football 6:12

By 2050, Nigeria will overtake the United States as the third most populous country in the world with a population of 400 million people. That is reason enough to pay attention. Africa’s population is growing rapidly and experts predict it will account for half of the world’s population growth in the next two decades.

This means that more than a quarter of the world’s population will be in a single continent: Africa. The idea that the world will be invaded by Africans (there are no blue eyes or blonde hair here) will be an uncomfortable idea for some people, especially if they do not know the almost 125,000 millionaires, 6,200 billionaires, 275 hundred millionaires and 22 billionaires that exist on the African continent today.

In fact, a report of the University of Southern California in 2019 highlighted how poorly Africa is represented in the US It also revealed that Americans rarely see mentions of Africa or Africans on television entertainment shows or in the news.

When they do, the representations are often negative and stereotyped. According to the report, the majority of mentions of Africa (43%) appeared in national or local news and tended to be ‘hard’ news which often fed the stereotype. After politics (32%), crime received the most mentions (16%), while business and economics accounted for just 8% of news coverage.

More than 60 research papers, reports, books and academic journals that we analyzed since 2000 writing about Africa in the media told us that poverty, conflict, corruption, disease and poor leadership were the five frameworks to through which most of the stories about Africa are told.

This persistent portrayal of a single story is why, over the years, Africans have defended themselves with hashtags like #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou and #SomeoneTellCNN in a 2015 CNN report that described Kenya as a “hotbed of terror”, which was later modified. And organizations like Africa No Filter, who set out to change stereotypical narratives about Africa. It’s why the Twittersphere recently erupted when journalist Alan Macleod gathered his greatest hits of racist coverage of the Ukraine invasion. Thanks Alan!

Contrary to what negative media portrayals might lead you to believe, Africa actually has some of the fastest growing economies in the world. For example, to most of the world, Rwanda is synonymous with the 1994 genocide. But with an expected average GDP growth of 6.7 between 2021 and 2025, is between top five fastest growing economies along with India. Rwanda has been able to attract foreign direct investment and is one of the easiest places to do business in Africa (after Mauritius) according to a world bank index. This means that Rwanda and countries like the Seychelles, Mauritius, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Kenya are worth considering as potential investment destinations, not just development dollars.

Don’t ignore the data that shows there are over 400 companies with annual revenues of $1 billion or more in Africa, or that the second fastest growing tourism market in the world is right here in Africa.

It’s also unlikely that many in the Global North know any of this because it doesn’t fit the narrative they’ve both been given about non-white “third world countries.”

The fastest growing developer community and ecosystem of tech startups in the world is in Africa. Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania are ranked in the top 20 of the Global Cryptocurrency Adoption Index. This means that they have some of the highest grassroots cryptocurrency adoptions in the world. In fact, Kenya ranks first in the world when it comes to peer-to-peer cryptocurrency transactions. Given all this digital activity, it is not surprising that Africa is one of the fastest growing markets in terms of venture capital and financial technology activities.

Africa is also considered the second fastest growing and profitable banking and payments market in the world after Latin America, according to this McKinsey study.

The reality is that much of what is happening in Africa today is unexpected. For example, six countries; Namibia, Cape Verde, Ghana, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Botswana have a higher press freedom index than the United States, according to Reporters Without Borders.

But that doesn’t fit with the persistent image of a broken continent where nothing works, and where its sad and dependent people lack representation to make a change. The truth is that there is a new dynamic energy and entrepreneurial spirit on the continent, which is a largely untold story, and is evidenced by the low regard in which we are held by those in the Global North.

It is a story that is hidden because its heroes are not white and do not come from “up there.” But the way the world is evolving, that won’t matter much anymore. Everyone, including the media covering the Ukraine invasion, needs to pay attention.





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