Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

“Why don’t we promote the positive?”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, International Development by Adam Westbrook on May 6, 2007

Here’s a really interesting statistic, you probably didn’t know: 60% of all the people who access the BBC News Africa page via their mobile phones…do so from Nigeria.

Frontline logoIt’s just one of a whole host of interesting points to come out of a debate on how the media cover Africa at London’s Frontline Club this week.

And the big question that came out of it was: “why don’t we promote the positive?

Here’s another fact that proves the point: Zimbabwe has the continent’s worst economy. Inflation was at 1600% last time we all checked. And it get’s argubly the most coverage in the western media, alongside the conflicts in Somalia and Sudan.

And the country with the continent’s best economy? Angola – it’s growing massively. But when was the last time you saw an article on Angola in the western media? Well I’ll help you out a bit: June 16th 2006 was last time a specific article was published in the New York Times.  When was the last time you saw it on a TV news bulletin?

The debate was handed to an audience of journalists working from Africa and they raised some interesting points – here’s a summary:

  • Western media has a “soft touch” with Africa, born out of colonial guilt.
  • Most African newspapers are now online, so there’s no excuse for not knowing what’s going on.
  • Is there an Africa fatigue?
  • Western editors follow the news agenda like a flock of sheep – courageous editors and reporters are needed to break away and cover the uncovered.
  • We are failing because we’re not making African stories interesting to western audiences.
  • Is it time to help normal people in Africa tell their own stories?
  • And the most worrying point: “Nobody cares – editors don’t care.”

And the one thing I’d add to that myself is money. A problem in the eyes of coin counting editors is that it just costs too much to report on Africa. Maybe the answer might come from enterprising young multiskilled journalists going out with cheap kit and reporting it at a lower price? Who knows.
So is all news out of Africa bad news? For the most part yes – but then most news out of anywhere tends to be bad news. I definitely agree with the point that we’re not making it interesting enough and we’re not connecting stories from Africa to our own lives.

And with hundreds of western corporations investing in Africa, we are most definitely having an impact on the shaping of the continent. And not always for good.

There are many journalists and bloggers freelancing in Africa at the moment – I’d be interested to see what they think…


A good start for Ban Ki-Moon

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on January 27, 2007

Three weeks in and the new Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon’s begun his first foreign tour. And he’s chosen Africa as his first stop.

Ban Ki-MoonToday he’s been in Kinshasa, the capital of a country which let’s just say had an eventful 2006. After months of wrangling, violence and uncertainty, elections were held in the D.R. Congo; the country can now justify the “democratic” part of its name.

Incombent Joseph Kabila won convincly with his rival Jean-Pierre Bemba joining the opposition…the country now seems on a more stable tack.

Addressing the Congolese national assembly today, Ban Ki-Moon hailed last years elections as a sign of hope for the country and urged law makers to start a “good governance pact” to see it continue.

After this, the UN Sec-Gen’s heading to the African Union summit in Ethiopia and meeting the not-so-applauded Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir.

A good sign

To visit these countries first is a promising sign. It shows that Ban Ki-Moon’s serious about following his predecessor Kofi Annan’s commitment to peace on the African continent.

It would be easy for the South Korean to put more emphasis on problems closer to home, like the North Korean nuclear missile issue, but he’s made it clear that issue won’t take the spotlight off Africa.

And with Darfur still rumbling on, often without notice, Ban’s come at the right time.

Kofi AnnanBut we can’t get our hopes up too much. Africa was Kofi Annan’s mission too, taking his post in the raw years after the Rwandan genocide. And while victories for peace and progression have come in some places, like Liberia, Sierra Leone and D.R. Congo, Somalia only got worse and now Sudan’s in turmoil.

With so many concerted efforts gaining pace elsewhere to erradicate malaria and tackle HIV, Ban Ki-Moon needs to show he’s not all talk but a leader who can tie these threads together and really make change happen.
He’s got 10 years, starting from now.

And once more back to Somalia

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on January 11, 2007

It seems my prediction that Somalia would become a big story in 2007 has proved true..albeit earlier and in a more bizarre fashion than expected. On Monday the US military revealed that they had spent a relaxing Sunday bombing the shit out of suspected Al-Qaeda militants.

Interestingly the news came from the US and not from the ground itself; southern Somalia being so remote no reporters in the country new much about it at first.

And it’s interesting on another level because it marks the first American intervention in Somalia since the imfamous ‘Black Hawk’ incident in the early nineties, which until Monday, caused an utter withdrawal from Africa and (some might say) let the Rwandan genocide continue unheeded.

And up one level more, it hits the interesting mark as the interim government, until two weeks ago holed up in a tiny town miles outside the capital, have supported the foreign intervention.

One Somali in Mogadishu told the BBC on Monday:

“I see that the warplanes that were used in the bombing were chasing terrorists and we Somalis have to support the efforts of the transitional federal goverment”

The interim government are taking a dangerous move in embracing foreign intervention from both the Americans and the Ethiopians, especially when that intervention comes loaded and ready to fire.

Most worryingly it’ll do nothing to salve the divide growing inside the country: interim government, US and Ethiopia on one side, Islamists and Eritrea on the other, each vowing to wipe the other off the map.

As usual with the US War on Terror (c) (TM), the two outcomes were the same:

  1. They didn’t actually kill who they wanted too.
  2. And – according to the excellent Nima Elgabir on site for Channel 4 News – they killed dozens of civilians including a wedding party.

More soon.

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Damned by debt relief

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on November 5, 2006

This week I came across a charity called WORLDwrite who, among other things, recruit volunteers to make films as a way of fostering global understanding.

They’re touring UK universities to promote a new 28 minute documentary called Damned by Debt Relief which puts a compelling case that the G8/Live8 extravaganca of 2005 didn’t do all it promised.

The documentary was shot in Ghana by a group of WORLDwrite volunteers; Ghana was one of the so-called “HIPC” (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) that had it’s debt cancelled as a result of Gleneagles and “I hate Mondays”. What we weren’t told was all the strings that came attached, that some say, has made the situation worse.

It would appear that the idea of helping poor countries to help themselves has been forgotten and western governments still insist on telling poor countries how they should spend their money.

After living in Ghana for a while in 2003, I’m unabashedly in love with the country; I left feeling that although there was great poverty in places, it is still a modernising country, stable, peaceful, with a bourgeoning middle class and ambitious young people, like the audacious and witty E K Bensah.

Obviously there were some things I missed – see this NYTimes article on child labour in Krete Karachi (on the northern shores of Lake Volta) where I’ve been, but didn’t notice well enough.

Next March is Ghana’s 50th Anniversary of Independence. It was the first country in Africa to gain independence from Britain, so I reckon it’s a big deal. Ideally I’m hoping to go back briefly next year (money permitting), possibly with a camera in hand to see how Ghana stands on the brink of fifty.

And in contrast to all the negative, patronising publicity HIPCountries get too often, Ghana was recently surveyed as the 10th happiest country in the world – above both the UK and the US. So something’s going right!

I’m going along to the next WORLDwrite meeting in a couple of weeks to find out more – I’ll fill you in. In the meantime, watch a shortened version of their Damned by Debt Relief video – it’s a very interesting 3 minutes 30.

More biased coverage

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 12, 2006

From AFP (French Press Agency):

200 leading journalists gathered in a recent conference in Johannesburg, and agreed that western media do not grant Africa fair coverage, failing to report positive economic and democratic news. “Every time a country like South Africa is reported internationally, we are reminded about escalating crime and diseases such as HIV and AIDS,” said Tim Modise, a presenter at Johannesburg-based South African 702 Talk Radio.

A confirmation of the fact that the coverage of African stories needs to be enhanced, can be seen in the recent decision of major international media organizations to have a more significant presence in the country.  Zafar Siddiqi, chairman of CNBC Africa, an affiliate of the US NBC, said he is planning two new offices in South Africa, and others across the country. Al Jazeera announced the same intention, and offices will be opened in Abidjan, Cairo, Harare, Johannesburg and Nairobi.


More proof of what I’ve been saying for ages. But it’s a problem that we’re not seeing any attempts to correct bar, perhaps, this conference earlier in the year.

In April I wrote about a Commonwealth Broadcasting Association survey into whether television was reflecting the real world and my conclusion was something along the lines of:

News producer need to be more creative in the stories they find, reporting the good and the bad, in new and original ways that are more reflective of the continent, as well as the rest of the developing world.

And producers from other genres must broaden their horizons. The survey has found that audiences do want to see more from the outside world, but they’re tired of the same repetitive formats.

Good to see Al-Jazeera will be boosting it’s Africa coverage when it finally launches later this year.

The solution isn’t simple, but I’d be really interested in what bloggers in Africa think…do you think British/American/European media outlets reflect your world accurately? Make some noise!

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Darfur: enough talking?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on September 16, 2006

The pressure’s starting to build on the Sudanese government this weekend.

As U.N. ambassadors meet in New York to discuss Darfur, thousands of people are taking to the streets in America and Europe to urge government action; they’re joined by thousands more bloggers too. And yesterday George Clooney gave an impassioned speech to the U.N. urging tangible action now.

“Make no mistake, this is the first genocide of the 21st century, and if it goes unchecked, it won’t be the last.”

Strong words. But are words enough? I’ve been writing furiously on Darfur for the last 2 weeks trying to get people to take notice and to criticise journalism’s lame effort on informing people so far.

So have hundreds of other bloggers, from Jewels in the Jungle, to the Sudan Watch, to the Hell on Earth blog.

But a comment left on Sudan Watch this week got me thinking. It was in response to an article on water shortages in Sudan. It elicited a stern response criticising all us bloggers:

Please take this as the constructive input it is intended to be. In my view it is time for all of us involved to make certain that our efforts are not feeding our penchant for voyeurism. You have done a wonderful, compassionate job of helping us see. NOW, IT IS TIME TO HELP PEOPLE ACT. Don’t let us be comfortable watching. We need more courage, more commitment. NOT, more information.
As Dr. King said, “When you are right you cannot be too radical….”
“… when a person is bleeding to death, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed…… Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved…civil disobedience is a strategy for social change which is at least as forceful as an ambulance with its sirens on full.”

I can see his point. It’s all very well us decrying the attrocities and bemoaning the international response, but is blogging going to help the people of Darfur? Is it going to change Bashir’s mind?

Jay McGinley, who wrote the comment is taking direct action by the looks of it. He’s been protesting outside the White House for 110 days and has been on hunger strike for over 30.

Could the rest of us be doing more like this? And wouldn’t it raise the profile of the crisis more than a blog article or link to another article ever could? Perhaps we have to live up to the fact that blogging is an easy cosy way for us to relieve our conscience; “doing our bit”.

Perhaps. But lets not forget that some of these blogs do acheive something. Because to be able to change something we have to be able to understand it. And blogs, especially like Sudan Watch, do a valuable job in tirelessly alerting the blogosphere to the lastest developments that help us form our opinions.

Afterall, in the drought of western media coverage of the crisis, how else would Jay McGinley know how desperate the situation is in Sudan today?

And if you don’t believe me, check out this piece of praise for Sudan Watch from Daniel Davies of the Guardian no-less:

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that if there had been a website as good as Sudan Watch in the runup to the Iraq War, a lot of things might have become common knowledge a lot earlier which have in fact only really come out since the war. It’s an excellent website and deserves a lot more publicity.

So yes, we should be pulling our fingers out and doing more physical action and making more sacrafices, but we mustn’t belittle the importance of information and understanding. Without these, the battle for the people of Sudan would have been lost before it had even begun. 

New York Times: Darfur “trembles”

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on September 10, 2006

Darfur Trembles as Peacekeepers Exit Looms

An excellent article by the New York Times‘ Lydia Polgreen. Vivid, descriptive and a timely summary of the dire conditions prevalent in the refugee camps.

‘They call this place Rwanda…Many who live here say the camp is named for the Rwandan soldiers based here as monitors of a tattered cease-fire. But the camp’s sheiks say the name has a darker meaning, one that reveals their deepest fears.

“What happened in Rwanda, it will happen here,” said Sheik Abdullah Muhammad Ali, who fled here from a nearby village seeking the safety that he hoped the presence of about 200 African Union peacekeepers would bring.’

Click here to read the article in full

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Darfur audio

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on September 9, 2006

About a year ago I produced a couple of reports on the Darfur crisis for Radio Warwick, the student radio station at Warwick University where I was studying. It was the summer of 2005 and the run up to Live8; Africa was getting due prominence in the media, if only for a short time. Although most of the reports are a year old and out of date, I still thought it would be worth putting them out there; if anything, they have some interviews with some very interesting people.

Audio buttonBackground to Darfur :: first broadcast May 2005
A brief introduction to the situation as it was in summer 2005, including an eyewitness account from Adrian McIntyre, an Oxfam aid worker who had just returned from Sudan.

Audio buttonNo lessons learned :: first broadcast June 2005
An interview with the amazingly brave Beata Uwazaninka-Smith, a Rwandan woman who was just 13 when the genocide happened in Rwanda. She tells me her story outside 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s residence in London) where she was joining a rally to raise awareness about Darfur. Find out more about her campaign here.

Audio buttonA student in Sudan :: first broadcast May 2006
In April 2006 I interviewed Guiseppe Papalia, an Italian student who had spent his summer holidays working in Sudan. He was there when the peace deal collapsed and joy turned to despair.
Whether any of our reports on RaW News raised awareness of the Darfur crisis in 2005 is debatable, and student radio never has the highest audience figures at the best of times, but it would still be interesting to hear what you think of them. Let me know!