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    Reporting on Trade: A Kenyan View


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 4/2006

    © Rights Features John Kamau at his news desk in Nairobi. Trade stories are hard to come by in many developing countries.

    The media has a duty to inform the public about trade matters that affect their lives. But with limited resources and too little interaction with trade bodies, Southern journalists have a hard time.

    Covering trade issues in the South is no mean feat when most of the drama and decision-making sessions take place a long way away and government bodies do not want to part with information.

    Yet journalists are supposed to be the watchdog for millions of people who are not aware of what is happening. It is our job to break down the jargon for them, immerse them in the debates and explain the impact of trade arrangements on their lives.

    As trade reporters we see ourselves as having a duty to report in a way that educates the public, makes them aware of the decisions that government officials are about to make and explains how these will affect ordinary people.

    The assumption in the North is that Southern media understand the multilateral trading system. In fact, understanding is fragmented and poor.

    Local journalists, driven by local stories, usually find it hard to comprehend the actions of international players - let's say in the global coffee market. As a result, media stories may not, for example, highlight the impact of global prices. Trade bodies need to work with journalists so that the right information reaches farmers.

    Demystify trade

    If I were in a government trade department, I would find ways to interest journalists to look deeper - for example, brainstorming on how to cover stories such as the negotiations on Economic Partnership Agreements. (These regional negotiations between Europe and countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific are set to replace the Lomé Conventions and are slotted for completion in 2007.)

    This trade policy debate is often ignored by the mainstream media and is still hidden from the general public in academic and trade journals. There is little effort to interest them and little talk about it outside government boardrooms and among non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Local editors have yet to comprehend its impact.

    As for international debates involving Africa, it is hard for a journalist to keep up - especially when there are no specialized reporters.

    African media houses still have no capacity to send journalists to cover many of these sessions. While most of the big media companies send several journalists to cover trade talks, I have often been the only person from the South to cover them.

    For instance, I was the sole Kenyan journalist covering the WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in 2005. The national broadcaster and the government-run Kenya News Agency were absent.

    Writing from the South, it is hard to know who is pressing for what tariff and why. Southern angles are often missing from reports since most Western news agencies - Reuters, Associated Press, AFP (Agence France-Presse), etc. - focus their reporting on disputes among the bigger players.

    Getting answers requires reading, research and talking to sources. But they are not at our fingertips. One can scroll the Internet for data or do a "Google" search, but the most current information may not be there. Also, not many journalists in the South have access to the Internet. When they do, it is frustratingly slow.

    The other problem is that material from many NGOs and think tanks can be confusing. Getting to know which think tank is liberal or conservative is a nightmare. Most are based in the North. Each one feeds you with its research - showcasing the organization as right. How are we to judge which information is most relevant?

    Our job is not to ignore any group perceived to have a significant interest in an issue. But getting in touch with all of them - government officials, politicians, business representatives, trade lawyers, trade associations and NGOs - to obtain a comment is a Herculean task.

    Build relationships

    For example, there is little information flow and a total lack of synergy between public or private trade promotion bodies and newsrooms. This has led to poor coverage of trade and trade policy issues. We face the handicap of lack of current data on imports and exports or trends in business. Journalists could play a major role in helping business sectors break into new markets, but we are not consulted enough. So the coverage is usually disjointed, rambling and at times stale.

    Governments, too, have been unwilling to share information about their negotiating positions, treating it as top secret.

    One of the major challenges that I had to overcome at a personal level was to gain the confidence of the Kenyan officials whom I met, not in Kenya, but at international meetings. If we had not met there and shared drinks, maybe they would not have opened up to me in Nairobi.

    What to do about this? There is an urgent need to train a pool of African journalists to exclusively follow globalization stories from an informed perspective. What we have now are general practitioners thrown into a surgery ward, each trying his or her best in a catastrophic situation.

    Training should also target rural newspaper bureaux. Most stories come from rural areas and that is where about 70% of Africans live.

    How do we change the agenda? We must localize the stories by giving them a human face. But that can only be done by increasing capacity within newsrooms, which are handicapped already.

    Finally, should we take sides as Southern journalists or should we just report?

    Ordinarily, journalists are not supposed to take sides… otherwise they are accused of playing ball with NGOs or being on their payroll. But ignoring crucial debates is much more harmful. It is better to take sides and trigger a debate rather than stay on the fence and produce boredom.

    For us in the South, poverty is real. Trade talks are not about statistics. They are about people, living, walking and surviving. It is these people we have to report on and, in turn, tell them what is happening in the world they do not know. That is our role as the media in the South.

    John Kamau (jkamau@nation.co.ke) is Associate Editor of the Nation Media Group, based in Nairobi, Kenya.