By Pilar Rukavina, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
A few weeks ago, I had commented on a recurring theme that regularly surfaced during the European-African Alliance Conference in Brussels last month, namely the media´s distortion of the African continent´s image abroad. Mahlet Ayele, a participant from Ethiopia (and independent pan-African activist/consultant and African Union Liaison Officer) made a convincing case to support this notion through her presentation “Africa-Europe Alliance on Media: Correcting the Misrepresentation”.
Mahlet rightly outlined the immense power of the media to shape perception and influence opinion. This starts at the grassroots level i.e. the ordinary viewer such as you and I, thus forming public opinion which in turn influences policy-making at the official level, with at time devastating consequences. It is for these reasons that the importance of correcting the damaging image of Africa that the media is perpetuating cannot be overstated.
Mahlet pointed to the regular stereotypes that creep into our media outlets; Africa is one country, defined by diseases, wars, jungles and witchcraft. In particular, Mahlet´s home country is associated with a specific attribute: famine and hunger. To name a more specific example, Mahlet highlighted the portrayal of Somali piracy by the Western media. While we were told about SOMALI armed piracy on a day to day basis, news outlets failed to mention the background and cause of this activity, which is, according to Mahlet, in fact WESTERN fishing piracy in Somali waters. Overall then, Mahlet is arguing that there is a fascination for negative news about Africa, something she attributes to (neo)colonialism and contemporary Western policy towards the African continent.
Regardless of how controversial some of these arguments are, it is indisputable that the image of Africa worldwide is one that needs improvement. And this is where Cultural Diplomacy comes into play as a vehicle through which to transmit more accurate and positive information about African abroad. Ideal ambassadors of Cultural Diplomacy are spread across the globe; the African diaspora. Alongside African publications in foreign countries, the potential that African communities residing in other continents have to act as spokespersons on behalf of their origins is immeasurable.
Cultural Diplomacy is certainly not the only manner by which to transform the African image, but it is a tool that is available to all those who feel their cultures, values, qualities and successes are underrepresented. Let us take advantage of this and show all those with skewed perceptions of Africa that it is symbol of diversity yet unity with a complex past but a bright future.
Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication