Black press for sale: the Nigerian government buys cover.
During the 1930s, several black newspapers brought the atrocities of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia to the homes of black Americans. During the 1980s, the black press helped step up the campaign to free Nelson Mandela and South African blacks by running stories and editorials that shed light on the ravages of apartheid.
But apparently that mission has changed, at least when it comes to Nigeria. Last September, a delegation of black newspaper publishers, led by Dorothy Leavell, president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and publisher-editor of the Chicago Crusader, traveled to Nigeria. The publishers went, they said, to contest the mainstream media's coverage of Nigeria, which they termed "pessimistic."
The NNPA represents more than 230 black newspapers read by approximately 15 million people. Besides acting as a lobbying arm for the black press, the organization operates a wire service that distributes copy to member newspapers.
When Leavell was elected last June, she said the NNPA "will remain fully in the forefront of the continuing struggle for black rights." But when she reported her Nigeria findings at a press conference in New York after her trip to Nigeria, readers had to wonder who the NNPA was struggling for.
"There was no evidence of a dictatorship or `thug-ocracy' in Nigeria, contrary to widespread media reports about that country," Leavell stated during the October 4 press conference. "While there was spirited debate and often disagreement, it was in the form of loyal opposition among people who want to be permitted to work out their own problems among themselves without foreign intervention. . . . As a concerned group, we wish to say that everyone in America who has an interest in Africa and Nigeria should start to look to the pages of black newspapers across the country."
Leavell's statements came one month before the Nigerian government, led by General Sani Abacha, executed writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others on trumped-up murder charges.
Saro-Wiwa was the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People and known for his stinging criticism of the Nigerian government and the Shell Oil Company.
But the fact that Saro-Wiwa and his codefendants were facing execution at the time of the black newspaper association's tour did not seem to bother Leavell.
"To this point, Nigeria has made three false starts at emulating democracies, we conclude that we should not . . . impose an alien democracy on that country as some in America demand to be done," Leavell said.
What Leavell's October 4 comments--and subsequent articles about Nigeria from the organization--failed to mention was who paid for the trip. According to William Reed, executive director of the NNPA in Washington, D.C., the Nigerian government covered most of the expenses.
Doesn't this pose a serious conflict of interest? "No," Reed says. "What they saw is what they saw."
As for Ken Saro-Wiwa, Reed says, "The press was trying to make this man look like St. Francis of Assisi." While Saro-Wiwa may not have pulled the trigger, "he put out the hit."
"We disagree categorically," says Adotei Akwei, the African government program officer for Amnesty International in Washington, D.C. "We considered Ken a prisoner of conscience. He never advocated violence."
Akwei says that the NNPA lost all credibility when it took the fact-finding trip to Nigeria on the government's money, then bought into Abacha's disinformation campaign concerning Saro-Wiwa.
Leavell did not return phone calls. But she remains unapologetic about taking the trip, according to an article in the April 6 edition of Editor & Publisher, a newspaper trade publication.
"If Editor & Publisher would like to send us on a trip, we'll be glad to accept," she told that publication.
Leavell said the U.S. government should use "even-handed tactics" in dealing with Nigeria. "You've got China, which has committed some of the worst human-rights atrocities in the world, and there are no sanctions against that government," she said.
On its trip, the NNPA managed to ignore one of the principal actors in the Nigerian controversy: Shell Oil.
"I don't think anyone with the delegation dealt with Shell Oil," Reed says. "A meeting was not under consideration."
How could Shell and the environmental destruction of Ogoniland, as well as other regions, be overlooked by the delegation and its reporting on Nigeria? Reed says the "suggestion could be made" that such a meeting between the NNPA and the company take place in the future.
Reed, however, has met with Shell officials. "It's a dirty business. It doesn't enhance the environment," Reed says, but he insists that Shell has worked with local residents and the government in order to curb environmental abuses.
"Shell officials said that Ken Saro-Wiwa had `extracted his pound of flesh,' " Reed says, adding that Shell officials told him Saro-Wiwa had received consulting contracts and fees from the company.
"There is no information to that effect," Akwei says. "This is being done to discredit Ken."
The National Newspaper Publishers Association continues to front for the Nigerian government. Readers of the March 3, 1996, edition of the Oakland Post, for example, found a colorful eight-page insert, NIGERIA: A CLOSER LOOK. The Post advertisement doesn't make clear who paid for the insert, although the Nigerian national seal is prominently displayed throughout.
Approximately 200 newspapers nationwide used the tabloid, which was distributed through Amalgamated Publishers in New York. Amalgamated is the advertising representative for many black newspapers.
The insert included a December 26, 1995, letter to President Clinton from Roy Innis, national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, and a letter to the editor from the Reverend Maurice A. Dawkins, a freelance writer for the NNPA. Both letters accused Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni opposition group of being murderers and terrorists.
Dawkins's letter also accuses the United States and the British governments of being racist and neocolonial for denouncing the current Nigerian government and its leader, General Abacha.
Keith Jennings, executive director of the African American Human Rights Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the former mid-Atlantic director of Amnesty International, does not spare his feelings for the NNPA.
"Look, they are in the payment of Abacha and they are confusing people," he says. "When are we going to be consistent? You can't talk about democracy here and not there. As for Ken Saro-Wiwa, they want to rewrite history. These guys, if they were honest, they'd say they were doing this for Abacha."
It irked Jennings that the same arguments used by the NNPA in its support of Abacha were used in defense of Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearings.
"We've got to get away from this give-the-brother-a-chance thing," Jennings says. "You don't need a lot of foreign-policy experience to see what's right and what's wrong. You can have legitimate debate, but [the NNPA] is being dishonest. They should admit there is a material benefit. They are getting advertising dollars."
The coverage of Nigeria by the NNPA has brought into sharp focus the need for a coherent policy toward Africa by black leaders in this country. "What should our foreign policy be toward Africa?" asks Jennings, adding that simply saying Africa doesn't need to be run by white folks isn't the solution. "Transnational corporations, along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and their destructive structural adjustments--there you have your neocolonial dynamic."
Where the South African conflict was black versus white--which was easy to sell to black America--the Nigerian conflict is black versus black. Nigeria is involved in class warfare, with Abacha and the Nigerian ruling class searching for and finding friends among America's black bourgeoisie. The black press is at a disadvantage when it comes to covering Africa because of limited resources. Most papers do not have an international section, much less an Africa one. But this doesn't excuse fronting for repressive regimes and the World Bank, as in the case of an April 29, 1995, story in Leavell's paper, the Chicago Crusader.
"With World Bank advice and financial help--interest-free (forty-year) loans to Africa totaling $10 billion over the last four years from the International Development Association, the soft-loan arm of the World Bank--many African countries have undergone remarkable changes bringing greater efficiency and better use of resources," says a page-one article without a byline, entitled AFRICA: A CONTINENT OF OPPORTUNITY. "But not only is IDA good for Africa, it is good for America. Business profits from it."
A month later, the paper printed an editorial on the Ebola virus outbreak in Zaire, EBOLA--SPONTANEOUS GENERATION OR GENETIC ENGINEERING?, that crossed the line between skepticism and paranoia. The editorial writer openly wondered if the World Health Organization was purposely spreading the Ebola and AIDS viruses in Africa.
"Once again--why Africa? Some people can't help but think something is fishy and that we don't have the real story," the May 20, 1995, editorial reads. "The AIDS virus . . . has demographics in Africa that coincidentally follow the path of WHO immunization projects."
Of course, not all black newspapers have lost their way like the Chicago Crusader.
The City Sun, a Brooklyn-based weekly, is one of the few black newspapers that features an international page. The paper ran the NNPA's Nigeria insert, but also ran an opposing editorial.
"In terms of the black press in general, I think most African-American papers are just kind of focused on black people in this country and not in general," says Karen Carrillo, deputy editor of the City Sun. "The sad thing is that the NNPA can get away with this because most people don't know what's going on."
The mainstream media, she said, has not done a good job of covering Africa, save for spot coverage of wars and famines, and the black press does not have the resources of the mainstream. This void allows the Nigerian government, through the NNPA, to play upon the longstanding notion that the mainstream white media are ruthlessly attacking a poor, beleaguered African nation.
"We get letters in support of Nigeria from people and they can't even spell Abacha's name right," Carrillo says. "There is just an ignorance about what is going on."
On February 7, The Richmond Afro-American/Planet--the oldest continuously run black newspaper, founded in 1883--went out of business. For the black press, this was an unmistakable symbol of hard times.
As with the mainstream press, circulation is falling among black newspapers. According to the NNPA, 90 percent of the black community subscribed to a black-owned newspaper in the 1950s. Readership today has fallen to less than one in three.
Meanwhile, newsprint costs have skyrocketed 83 percent since 1994 alone. This combination of falling circulation and rising costs could prove fatal for more black newspapers in the months ahead.
But if black papers continue to act as apologists for brutally repressive governments like the one in Nigeria, maybe they deserve to go out of business.
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|Title Annotation:||U.S. black newspapers|
|Author:||McKissack, Frederick L.|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1996|
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