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African Presidents, Journalists Differ on How to Report on Africa

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, left, greeting the Director of the International Press Institute Johann P. Fritz as Kenya's Vice President Moody Awori, center, looks on in Nairobi, Kenya
The International Press Institute World Congress and the 54th edition of the general assembly of the International Press body has opened in Nairobi, with African presidents and reporters debating the coverage of the African continent in the international press.

The first panel discussion of the International Press Institutes Congress centered on how the African continent is covered by the international press.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame led the discussion. He said there is a fundamental need to change international press coverage of Africa to reflect positive changes.

The Rwandan leader says journalists need a deeper understanding of the continent than appears to be the case now.

"Africa demands an understanding of the historical context, as well as the facts and forces that have shaped it," said Mr. Kagame. "One needs to understand its set of common beliefs and values, its stage in the development process and that people who live in Africa are real people living real lives. Africa has been characterized by a rich heritage, which has contributed immensely to human development and major achievement."

Mr. Kagame says the realization by African states that African problems need African solutions has led them to take steps to solve the problems on the continent and urged the media to report on such initiatives.

Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki also said the continent is undergoing many positive changes and urged journalist to write about these. President Kibaki said 42 African governments had held multi-party elections in the past 10 years, while 18 African countries had recorded economic growth rates of more than five percent in the past year.

But Program Director Joachim Lenz of the international German broadcasting station Deutschewelle does not share the view that Africa possesses special values against which it should be reported or understood.

"Let me add one word to what we are having now and then here, that journalists should respect African value, Asian values, European, American values," said Mr. Lenz. "To me these values do not exist. I only can, as a journalist, accept universal values. There are no values for a particular continent. There are universal values as stated in the United Nations Charters, therefore there cannot be any bonuses or rebates given to any continent on these values."

Mr. Lenz says foreign correspondents often compete for limited space in newspapers and airtime on radio and television with domestic reporters in a situation where readers and listeners prefer domestic news to news from afar. In choosing what news to carry most editors find that stories on disaster or the outrageous beat normality or positive stories.

Reuters News agency Africa correspondent John Chieheman says the Western media's coverage of Africa has in the past been influenced by a stereotype of a place riddled with famine, disease, and military conflict, but the situation is different now. He says media organizations are carrying more positive stories.

In response to criticism by Rwandan President Paul Kagame that the international media concentrated on negative coverage during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda to the exclusion of reporting to deter the genocide, Mr. Chieheman said that coverage was not without benefit.

"On the issue of concentration on bad news, there is a good side to it," he said. "I think President Kagame will agree if not for the international media constantly drawing attention to the hundreds of thousands of women and children trekking across the great lakes in search of safety after the 1994 event, the world would not have seen the real impact of what was going on. As negative as reporting on such events may look, I am certain that these women and children would only have the international media to thank for bringing their plight to homes in long distances across the globe."

The congress brings together media owners, journalist, government officials, and non-governmental organizations. It ends Wednesday.