Why RMPBS missed the mark on Cameroon story

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RMPBS story on CameroonRocky Mountain PBS TV

Karen de Bartolome, Mary MacCarthy and Cynthia Hessin on the set of Colorado State of Mind. September, 27, 2013

On September 27, Rocky Mountain PBS TV, a local affiliate of the PBS TV Network in Denver, broadcast a story about elections in Cameroon. The broadcast took place during the Colorado State of Mind, the station’s flagship public affairs program moderated by RMPBS host Cynthia Hessin.

Mary MacCarthy, a correspondent at Feature Story News who is based at the station, recently returned from a U.S Department of State sponsored trip to Cameroon where “she helped train newspaper and television journalists about the intricacies of election coverage,” the station reported.

As a practice to help journalists in developing countries sharpen their skills, the U.S. government organized the training session in Cameroon, ahead of the country’s scheduled legislative and parliamentary elections on September 30.

Because of a partnership between RMPBS and World Denver, a non-profit specialized in global affairs and cultures; World Denver Executive Director Karen de Bartolome was brought in to the discussion as well.

As a Cameroonian I give credit to RMPBS for the story. Much of Colorado’s media organizations have neglected coverage of the African continent, except when disaster strikes. I tuned in to RMPBS out of my interest in public affairs and more especially for the balanced news presentation that is a hallmark of PBS. But after an impressive panel discussion from Gwen Ifill and his team on Washington Week, I was led to conclude the day in a rather disappointing manner after I finished watching Colorado State of Mind.

I was disappointed with the narrative and the way the story was framed.

Not only was the introduction of Cameroon as “one the one most corrupt nations on the planet” unfair, it represented what many of us have long feared–the biased way that Western journalists present news about Africa to their audiences.

“The media shamefully neglects Africa — until it decides to swarm a story with terrible coverage,” says Laura Seay, a professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Seay made the comment while referring to the way Western media presented the news about Mail, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic respectively when these countries faced recent domestic challenges. She thinks are better ways to report about Africa.

More than news, you have reporters who fly into African countries for the first time; they conduct a few interviews, gather some footage, rush back and the story makes the news headlines. And, more often than not, Americans believe they are getting the real truth about the country.

Parachute journalism – that’s what it is.

In the case of Cameroon, MacCarthy and Bartolome gave us some snippets of information about the country, such as “the abundance of voices and a rich media landscape.” But beyond that, they failed to say in what ways this has influenced the flow of news about the country today. Clearly, the organization and conduct of elections in Cameroon, what the government does and does not do, is a subject for debate. MacCarthy and Bartolome are no experts on that.

MacCarthy, who was in Cameroon to train journalists on election coverage, did not say whether she heard other perspectives about the conduct of those elections in the country. Did she talk to different sides, government and opposition party members, about how elections are conducted in Cameroon?

While Cameroon does see its share of corruption, we can say the same for many Western countries, including the U.S. Just think about Wall Street. More importantly, the effort that the Cameroon government has put into this issue is unprecedented. Today, there are many former members of the Biya administration, including a former prime minister, who are in jail for their corruption. The administration deserves some praise for this.

A greater question to ask to is: Why would corruption be the lead for the story, except to debase the country? Or is negative characterization a better way to draw in the audience? Just saying that “technically the country is not a dictatorship” and that it is “not such a closed nation like maybe North Korea or Iran,” is insufficient information. What is it?

What intrigued me more during the short discussion, which came after an I-News talk about the Colorado Black Roundtable, was that RMPBS did not care to bring in someone local from Cameroon to help complement, if not to provide context and perspective about the country. There are many Cameroonians living in the metro area today.

Won’t it be useful if people realized that, amid a struggle for democracy, Cameroon retains one of the highest literary rates in the world? And yes, the country is bilingual in English and French, and citizens are free to express themselves in either of the two languages.

But Cameroon is not only a bilingual country; it is also bi-cultural, with a past that is steeped in British and French traditions.

Won’t it be helpful as well for people to know about Cameroon’s apparent stability in a turbulent region? As described in this May 25, 2010 International Crisis Group report, the country’s stability is something that “cannot be taken for granted.”

While Paul Biya has been president of the country for more than 30 years, experts have placed part of the blame for this on the country’s opposition parties and the complacency of its citizens.  In Cameroon, “potential organizing forces are weak and dissipated,” the Crisis Group says. They are weak and dissipated because they have given up. The youth and opposition forces can’t give up, sit back, complain and then expect change in the country.

RMPBS host Cynthia Hessin failed to challenge her guests, and did not do her due diligence on the recent history of Cameroon. The question she should have asked MacCarthy is: If Biya has been in power for so long, what are Cameroonians doing about it?

And to leave the impression that the administration is to blame for most of what is taking place, such as corruption and election rigging, is not fair and balanced journalism, the very thing MacCarthy wants to teach.

The larger point is that the other side of the story needs to be heard, and RMPBS failed to reach out to anyone to voice it.

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