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The racist reaction to the Ethiopian Airlines crash was all too predictable


Some of the media reporting around the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, in which 157 passengers and crew died, has sadly tended to repeat and reflect the same racist tropes that for a long time bedeviled portrayals of the ‘Dark Continent’. But while in times past most Africans were reduced to flailing helplessly at the latest offense offered up by the Western press, today it is much harder to get away with this reflexive insensitivity. The New York Times learnt this lesson when it published graphic photographs from the terror attack on the Dusit D2 Hotel complex in Nairobi in January, receiving heavy criticism both within Kenya and from across the continent.

The Associated Press (AP) still has lessons to learn.

As lists of the nationalities of the dead were published online, AP offered up a curated list in a tweet that read: “BREAKING: Authorities say Canadians, Chinese, Americans, Italians, Indians, French, British, Egyptians among those killed in Ethiopian plane crash.” 

It was immediately obvious to many that this was no random list of countries that had lost citizens. Rather, it reflected older, racist news values that held that some deaths, and thus lives, were more important that others. The tweet omitted entirely to acknowledge that 32 Kenyans were amongst the dead, the highest number of fatalities of any country, or the nine Ethiopians that died.

Apparently the deaths of Africans are only newsworthy if they die in biblical numbers from some terrible famine or savage civil war.

Other media houses and reporters were also keen to rehash the old stereotypes of African incompetence and recklessness. One anchor on Turkey’s TRT World was keen to emphasise that Ethiopian Airlines had a “poor safety record” and a “history of hijackings”, despite the fact that it remains one of the safest airlines in the world. 

The “history of hijackings” to which she referred amounted to one tragic incident in 1996, in which 125 of the 175 passengers and crew on board were killed. However, as aviation analyst Alex Macheras — TRT’s guest at the time — points out: “Claiming [Ethiopian Airlines] is an airline with a ‘poor safety record’ because of hijacking attempts over the last 20 years is irresponsible. By that logic, American Airlines, United & Air France are also airlines with…’poor safety records’.”

But even when defending Ethiopian Airlines, some could not hide their underlying perceptions of what “African” stands for. Take CNN anchor Richard Quest. “Ethiopian Airlines is a very, very well-run airline,” he said. “There is no safety issue on Ethiopian. They’ve made it their business to be the African airline that operates like a western airline.” What is wrong, exactly with being an “African” airline?

There was a time when African airlines had a poor safety record. In 2011, according Tony Tyler, former CEO of the International Air Transport Association, “despite improvements, the safety record for Africa was 9 times worse”.

However, things have changed drastically since then. As Michael Wakabi reports in The East African, from accounting for “more than two-thirds of fatalities just over two decades ago, Africa entered new territory when it reported zero deaths attributable to a commercial jet aircraft accident in 2016.” And again in 2017. And in 2018. Suddenly, airlines that operate like African airlines do not sound like such a bad idea, do they, Mr Quest?

The lesson that media, both within and outside the continent, repeatedly fails to learn is that there really is no such thing as an “African” story. Trying to compress the experiences of 1-billion people living in 54 countries on a continent with tens of thousands of distinct cultures will always say more about the prejudices and laziness of the journalist than about his subjects. 

Rather than report about “Africa” and “Africans”, why not try simply reporting about human beings in Africa?

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Patrick Gathara
Patrick Gathara
Patrick Gathara is a communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.

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