Reporting Africa, blog by blog

Becky Hogge
28 February 2007

"Reuters is not responsible for any content provided by external sources", reads the notice posted beneath a list of links to blog posts on the international news agency's new portal, africa.reuters.com. With that disclaimer in place, the Reuters website, launched on 21 February 2007, promises to aggregate pan-African news from a number of sources, including the Harvard-based Global Voices project.

Global Voices was founded in the aftermath of a conference on blogging in December 2004 by Ethan Zuckerman, the founder of GeekCorps, and Rebecca MacKinnon, a "recovering" CNN journalist, working out of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. MacKinnon and Zuckerman's key realisation was that while American weblogs were talking to one another and gaining lots of exposure in the establishment press, blogs from the rest of the world needed a bigger audience.

The pair set out to redress the balance, recruiting a team of volunteer regional editors to create a number of "bridge blogs", daily digests of activity across the international blogosphere that let the English-speaking world listen in on global conversations. In late 2005, they attracted financial support from the Reuters Foundation, hosting their first international get-together in the news agency's London headquarters.

At the time, many within the community speculated as to where the relationship with Reuters would take the pioneering project. The announcement of the new Africa portal on 22 February 2007 has provided a partial answer. Although Global Voices's content is not visible on the front page of Reuters Africa, its feeds are clearly evident once site users make a selection from the "News by Country" page.

For example: to the right of the "latest news" headlines from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - generated by Reuters and its own crisis wire, AlertNet - are more links, listed under "Blogs ... Provided by Global Voices*". (The asterisk refers to the content disclaimer.) One link leads to a discussion of the richness of the Bantu language Lingala, spoken widely in the northwest of the DRC. Another leads to comment on the growth of a new African dancing style, inspired by the moves of the Ivorian football star Didier Drogba.

Zuckerman - speaking to Mark Glaser of MediaShift - said he was excited by the new African portal because it would point to daily life and opinion beyond the usual stories of war and tragedy. The editor of Reuters Africa, John Chiahemen, echoed this view in the Guardian's media section, saying: "We want to show that Africa can be covered as a business story, not just a disaster story. While it is true that African information is available from other sources, there is no single media I know that has the breadth of content Reuters has available."

Formerly openDemocracy's technology editor, Becky Hogge is executive director of the Open Rights Group. Her writing on music, technology and intellectual property law has been published in several British and international publications, including the UK Guardian, Index on Censorship and Dazed and Confused. She blogs here

Read Becky's "Virtual Reality" column on openDemocracy here

Behind the screen

Reporting from Africa is hard work. The influence of Ryszard Kapuściński lives on beyond his death on 23 January. His tale of Angola after the Portuguese exodus, Another Day of Life (Random House, 2001), inspired a generation of reporters - including many who have written for openDemocracy - to travel to Africa to report its story to the rest of the world. Yet, more and more, these reporters are working without the support of a newspaper or magazine back home.

Beyond large news agencies like Reuters, the western media are increasingly unwilling or unable to fund the correspondents needed to cover life on the vast continent - to the detriment of colour, depth and context. It is often left to enterprising and brave young stringers to make their own arrangements and ensure their own safety. (I will always remember one email that arrived from the Côte d'Ivoire on the eve of unrest, sent to me by a correspondent about my own age: "The UN are pulling out all non-essential staff. I'm going to stick around and see what happens.")

Some western reporters now find their trips sponsored not by independent media outlets, but by disaster-led international NGOs. A veteran of the continent once communicated her wariness at this new set-up to me, expressing concern over the abundance of tragic images it produces for the audience back home. Beyond pictures of starving children and displaced families are cultures and contexts which often go unreported, a situation which can stunt the west's capacity for imagining solutions to Africa's troubles.

When Reuters first partnered with Global Voices, many believed that the citizen journalists the latter was fostering would grow to replace the dwindling voices of reporters sent across the globe by western news outlets. Indeed, this scenario was offered to media traditionalists who complained of revenues lost to the always-on, always-free demands of new media - more often than not to sounds of sneering derision.

It seems that the path Reuters has chosen for now is a far more subtle one. "There's a level of concern in the journalistic community: "'Are they out to replace me?' The answer is no, God no", Reuters president Chris Ahearn told MediaShift. Instead, the agency's Global Voices feeds can provide the depth and context that traditional western coverage, for whatever reasons, miss out on.

But can we really rely on blogs to give us a picture of a continent where internet penetration is so low? Although all of Africa's capital cities have internet connectivity, the situation in rural areas, where the communications revolution is being driven by the mobile phone, is quite different. The continent is seeing ferocious growth in connectivity, yet at the beginning of 2007 overall penetration was only at 3.5% of the population, compared to 18.8% for the rest of the world combined. This state of affairs was driven home to me two weeks ago, when I met a Nigerian delegation at a conference on freedom of expression and networked communications. Neither delegate had experienced blogs before.

Rachel Rawlins, managing editor of the Global Voices project, believes the Reuters move "demonstrates the increasing value placed by news organisations on the ability of authentic voices to provide perspective, background and context to the events they cover." But she recognises that the value this provides is only nascent. Announcing the Reuters project to her community, Rawlins ended with a hope that "the involvement of bloggers in projects such as this not only gives a platform to those whose voices have long been left unheard, but also encourages others to join the conversation and brings pressure to bear on behalf of those who want to speak but cannot."

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