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    Xenophobic violence: one year on - newsroom lessons

    South Africa will this month commemorate the first anniversary of the xenophobic violence, a deadly ‘ethnic cleansing' directed against African immigrants that made headlines in local and international media last year. The violence prompted some media watchdogs to take a critical look at local media's ‘xenophobic reporting' that allegedly might have played a role in the violence.

    The nationwide attacks, which started in the impoverished township of Alexandra north of Johannesburg in mid-May 2008, left 62 people dead - 21 of them South Africans - scores of women gang-raped, more than1500 injured and drove more than 30 000 people out of the country.

    Media's role

    As the media's role came under the microscope, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and its partners laid a complaint to the press ombudsman against the Daily Sun newspaper over its use of the word ‘alien', which it said discriminated against foreigners and made them look as if they were causing SA's social ills such as Aids, crime, unemployment and many more.

    The newspaper later issued a front-page apology and ‘swore' not to use the word ‘alien' again.

    Now a year later, went out to find out if those media have indeed learned their lessons.

    “Following our settlement, Daily Sun has since avoided the use of the word 'alien'. However, the identification of people by nationality, especially if they are the alleged perpetrators of crime, continues,” MMA research manager Sandra Roberts told this week.

    “Although often media just repeat official sources in identifying the nationality of perpetrators, this continues the idea that many criminals are foreigners, whether this is true or not,” Roberts added.

    Sought to provide coverage

    For more than a month last year, local and international field reporters and photographers had their hands full, running from one place to another while violence soared and casualties mounted, and they sought to provide coverage of a desperate foreigner being beaten up or maimed or even burned alive by an angry mob.

    Headlines such as ‘Flames of hate' (The Times), ‘Ethnic cleansing, SA style' (Sunday Independent), ‘I was paid to kill foreigners' (Sowetan), ‘Mbeki will send troops to Gauteng hotspots' (Business Day), and a ‘live picture' of a Mozambican man being burned alive shook the world and raised questions about SA's much-publicised concept of ubuntu (generosity or humanity).

    However, certain media houses vociferously condemned the attacks and embarked on emergency humanitarian programmes to help the victims of the violence. William Bird, MMA executive director, told “I think the media did many positive things during the violence last year and we noted those as well.

    “I think they are more conscious now of the issue of xenophobia than they were before and are more likely to report on it before it takes on the scale of the violence we saw last year.”

    Two projects

    Bird said that the MMA has been carrying out two projects looking into how media represent these issues, so that they can have a good idea of the challenges and which areas need to be addressed.

    “We have also conducted and been involved in some training with journalists and other key partners and are also currently fundraising with other partners (Cormsa and Fray Intermedia) for more extensive training to take place to ensure more effective and better quality reporting.”

    Roberts added: “We continue to monitor Daily Sun to ensure that they abide by the settlement to not use the word 'alien'. We are also currently winding up our second project on race and xenophobia since the attacks. This project focuses on community media. We are also involved in discussions initiated by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to stop the practice of nationality identifiers by official sources and media.”

    About Issa Sikiti da Silva

    Issa Sikiti da Silva is a winner of the 2010 SADC Media Awards (print category). He freelances for various media outlets, local and foreign, and has travelled extensively across Africa. His work has been published both in French and English. He used to contribute to as a senior news writer.
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