An India-Africa summit? Yawn

BY shubha singh| IN Media Practice | 11/04/2008
An African journalist asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whether there was sufficient interest in India about Africa since there was nothing in the Indian newspapers to reflect it!
SHUBHA SINGH is surprised at the lacklustre newspaper and television coverage.

Six Presidents, two Prime Ministers, two Vice Presidents and a few assorted special representatives and senior ministers put together should be able to make a newsworthy picture. South African President Thabo Mbeki, Congo¿s President Joseph Kabila Kabange, President of Ghana, John A Kufuor, Senegalese President Maitre Abdoulaye Wade, Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and Tanzanian President, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete were in Delhi on April 8 – 9 to attend the first India-Africa Forum Summit, which was billed as India¿s re-energised thrust towards Africa to build bridges of cooperation across the Indian Ocean. But for the Capital¿s newspapers and television channels it was just another government function, largely ignored on the small screen or relegated to the inside pages of newspapers.  


The government had assigned a great deal of importance to the summit which was being attended by leaders of the seniority of South Africa¿s President Thabo Mbeki and African Union Commission chairperson, Alfa Oumar Konare. But the Indian media was not impressed at this gathering of African leaders in Delhi. However, in sharp contrast to the coverage of the Forum meeting in India, the foreign media showed much greater interest in the summit. It was closely followed by the Chinese media, with the Chinese news agency, Xinhua filing several stories on the summit, while articles in newspapers and news organisations like Shanghai Daily, New York Times, Washington Post, Voice of America, took note of the conference. Several foreign media news reports and commentary compared China¿s own Africa summit, hosted in November 2006 with the Delhi meeting and referred to it as a race between the two Asian countries for Africa¿s abundant natural resources.


The conference involving 15 African countries had considerable political and economic significance in these days of soaring food and oil prices. The leaders discussed critical issues such as evolving a common position on the subject of Climate Change, international trade and market access, United Nations reform and expressing support for each other¿s candidature for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. India offered its expertise to help African countries to usher in a ¿Green Revolution¿ in Africa.


There was, however, more interest in the Summit before it took place with several newspapers carrying curtain-raiser articles about the forthcoming conference. Jyoti Malhotra, writing in the Mint said: "India, it is evident, wants to better its economic and diplomatic ties with Africa in a geopolitical given where China is the unnamed opponent."  But the conference itself received a humdrum attention in the news media.


The newspaper and television coverage was so lacklustre that at the joint press conference on the conclusion of the Summit, an African journalist asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whether there was sufficient interest in India about Africa since there was nothing in the Indian newspapers to reflect it! A perusal of the day¿s morning newspapers showed that only one newspaper had thought the summit of sufficient importance to carry a photograph and a story on the front page. Delegates and ministers could be seen intently turned the pages of the daily newspapers, so thoughtfully provided by the organisers, on every seat, looking for news about the conference. Even the Indian Express which had carried a curtain-raiser on the event the week before did not consider the actual event of enough significance to merit a front page story or even a photograph of the African leaders.


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh responded to the question by saying: "What appears in the media is a reflection of what engages the attention of the public at that particular time. However, as far as the ¿thinking population¿ was concerned, there was enormous recognition among all sections that India and Africa must become partners in bringing about social and economic development. This conference has been born out of the feeling that we need to do a lot more to bring India and Africa together. I am quite sure the Indian media will draw the appropriate conclusions. This is an idea whose time has come."


Only the Hindu newspaper carried a front page, five column report with a photograph of the opening plenary session of the meeting, with two more reports in the inside pages. The Hindustan Times carried a news report plus a commentary on the first day of the India-Africa Forum Summit together with a graphic on India¿s trade with Africa, but placed it on page 13. The Asian Age had a story on page 3 but found the shots of four individual delegates and a group photo of the spouses of the African leaders with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wife, Gursharan Kaur more exotic and picturesque than the leaders themselves.


Both the Times of India and the Indian Express which had carried articles on the prospective event looking at its political and economic significance did not give the actual summit a similar importance. The Indian Express viewed the summit as a purely economic event, pushing the story on to the business page. It focused on the Prime Minister¿s announcement of duty free preferential market access to Least Developed Countries and the African leaders search for greater investments from India.


The business daily, Mint reported that the government had asked all officers of the rank of joint secretary and above, at least in the ministries of Commerce and External Affairs, to attend the inauguration at the Capital¿s Vigyan Bhawan. The inaugural session on April 8 was packed to capacity, but interest had clearly dwindled among the invited audience by the next day for the concluding session. Business Standard pointed out that ¿although the African leaders expressed happiness at the outcome (of the summit), they were baffled at the signs of indifference on India¿s part. Most of the seats in the front rows at the Vigyan Bhawan, meant for Cabinet ministers were vacant¿.


The Times of India had lost interest in it by the next day, though the Hindustan Times and Indian Express made amends by taking the conference on the front page, after the pointed reference to the earlier day¿s coverage had been made at the concluding press conference. But for the trivia-obsessed television channels, the conference remained a non-event, while there was nothing to suggest from the week¿s newspapers that a major international event had been hosted in India.





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