Africa: The Western Media and Rwanda

11 September 2013
guest column

Yolande Makolo, the communications director at the Presidency in Rwanda, reflects on Western coverage of Africa, with particular reference to a recent New York Times interview with President Paul Kagame.

Much of the Western media's coverage of Rwanda and Africa - with notable exceptions - is governed by an undercurrent that assumes that nothing good can come out of Africa, so when it does there has to be something sinister behind it.

For that reason, my boss, President Paul Kagame, has long been comfortable with the idea of never meeting the New York Times's East African correspondent, Jeffrey Gettleman. We found his writings on both Rwanda and the continent as a whole disappointingly biased. Accordingly, we turned down persistent requests for an interview.

But when mutual acquaintances argued that we should set aside our reservations and facilitate a meeting, I agreed. I knew it was a gamble - journalists are not public relations agents - but I regretted the decision as soon as I heard the way the interview was going.

For someone who wanted only an hour of the president's time in order to understand what he was all about - and was given three - the reporter's continued references to a long list of complaints from former officials didn't seem to me the best use of his time. Still, President Kagame was open and honest about his character, placing his actions in the context of his work as a leader.

When I saw the resulting report, however, it was clear that his frankness was misused to confirm the preconceived narrative I have referred to - that Rwanda's success must have sinister undertones. I asked colleagues and contacts around the world for their opinion on the story. Those who were not from Rwanda, and not from Africa, mostly thought it was balanced.

I am sorry but "balance" hurts Rwandans, and Africans. Even when stories reflect more positives than negatives, the positives don't carry as much weight overall as the negatives, which chip away at the agency we are working to accumulate. Balance thus erodes our reputation and standing in the global pecking order, keeping us on a pedestal that says we are and will perpetually be second class.

I write this as head of communications for a president, a leader who understands only too well how the international system works consistently to keep us Africans in our place. But I also write wearing another hat, that of an African and a mother whose son is growing up in country that works, that cares for him, but in a deeply racist global system seemed designed to trip him up if he dares get too ambitious.

Perhaps there's not much we can do about this, but we don't have to like it. Nor do we have to accept it.

Yolande Makolo is communications director at the Presidency in Rwanda.

Read the New York Times report to which this article refers>>

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