Where are all our Foreign Correspondents?
South African media houses have lost the scope of coverage in international affairs. Content to piggy-back off global wires, there are precious few local newspapers or media outlets in general who give international affairs more than the courtesy kick required to make a publication appear well-rounded. As a consequence we have entered into a downward spiral in international journalism. By failing to cover foreign affairs with local journalists, and by keeping the regurgitation thereof to a minimum, South Africans themselves are becoming increasingly ignorant about international affairs and how it affects them. We have become satisfied with gleaming merely the shallow surface tidbits of globalised media, gossiping about the royal wedding or decrying the evils of America’s latest neo-liberalist expansion into the unwashed Arab masses. All of this we do with a thinly-veiled relish, and it has made our society shallow.
For example, how many South Africans readily criticise the national military as lazy incompetents who are predominantly HIV positive and strike annually as if it’s in vogue, yet are blithely unaware of the valuable contributions we are making or have made in the DRC, Burundi, Sudan, Mozambique (on land and at sea) and elsewhere? I would wager very few, and if there is some dim perception of South Africa’s broader involvement in international affairs, it is swiftly overshadowed by the latest local scandals. Julius Malema is after all far more worthy of front page coverage (from which no small portion of his power is derived) than the work being done to prevent civil war in Africa. This is an objective failure of the media houses to put the importance of foreign affairs above chasing the juiciest tale occurring nearby. It is expensive to send a foreign correspondent into deepest darkest Africa, after all, to cover a conflict which nobody knows about and nobody cares about. But that’s the point; foreign affairs has become irrelevant to South African interests because nobody knows what our involvement is there, beyond vague Reuters or SAPA snippets mentioning large UN peacekeeping contingents which contain a miscellany of African forces.
The media have a responsibility to provide objective coverage, and that comes with a cost. Eliminating the foreign correspondent has cost far more than money to our society. It has as a result generated the complete ignorance of vital foreign crises in which we get involved. There was a time not so long ago when our foreign press were world-renowned for their efforts. Kevin Carter anyone? But this has disappeared, with the only local journalists covering foreign events are those on the buck of the government (to write glowing reports of diplomatic exchanges between presidents) or those doing it for non-South African media (Greg Marinovich, for example.)
The prime motivator must be money. If it is not a question of budget, then the lack of foreign journalists is baffling, since they add substantial value in what they do. Not just in reporting foreign events from a South African perspective, but in creating a national awareness of just what it is that goes on in our world, and how our country is or is not involved. So the logical explanation is that the newspaper houses have no money to put someone in Central Africa to tell us what the SANDF are doing, or in Afghanistan to cover the hundreds of South Africans working there either in NGOs or for Private Military Contractors, or even in the Coalition Forces fighting there. We have nobody looking into the spread of Pirate attacks occurring down in Mozambican and Tanzanian waters, and we have no idea beyond the wires’ 200 words on just what South Africans should think about the sentencing of 2 Croat generals at the Hague.
So we assume we don’t need to worry about that stuff since the newspapers could not be bothered to have any serious discussion about it, and continue instead the coffee table chatter about how horrid Malema looked while dancing outside the court, or the gosh-darn potholes which aren’t being fixed. Important issues for the South African public sphere, but it is not the complete picture. For that we need to tune into overseas signals, and that’s a crying shame.
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