The online media changing African news

Africa’s news sites are gripping audiences with digital innovation and bold directions. Helen Fitzwilliam talks to editors at three platforms.

The World Today
3 minute READ

Helen Fitzwilliam

Journalist and filmmaker

Lydia Namubiru
News editor of ‘The Continent’ (South Africa)

At the start of the pandemic, we realized a lot of fake news was being shared on WhatsApp. So, The Continent chose to launch on that platform to insert some real journalism in a way that could easily be shared. We now have about 100,000 readers across Africa and the rest of the world, but we had to dramatically change the way we write and edit stories: to compete with the likes of Twitter and Instagram, we try to keep stories tight at 300 words. 

There’s a real variety. We can run an investigation into corruption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a week after a front page on the fashion designer who dresses Africa’s ‘big men’ [powerful leaders]. We cover feminist issues, the backlash against LGBT people in Ghana; we’ve had the Namibian first lady talking to us about misogyny. These are not the sort of topics a typical African newspaper is going to lead with.

There are refugees in camps doing data operations being paid a pittance to help create multimillion-dollar systems for US companies – that’s a future issue

With a story such as Ukraine, the war’s impact on the cost of living has been the most obvious angle for us. It has driven countries such as Malawi into crisis, forcing a devaluation of the currency.
As for the future, we see two issues looming. Workers’ economic rights and their treatment by multinationals will be a big story. There are refugees in camps in Kenya working in data operations and being paid a pittance to help create huge, potentially multimillion-dollar systems for US companies. 

Second, Africa has the world’s youngest population and the oldest leaders, so this will likely lead to activism and protests. The young are exposed to the global village, so they want different things and have different values. They speak a completely different language their leaders do not understand. It will be an interesting conflict, but could lead to real violence. 

John Githongo
Editor of ‘The Elephant’ (Kenya)

We set up this platform four years ago. Due to political and commercial pressures, mainstream media wasn’t doing much critical reporting. We have between 30,000 and 80,000 readers a week, the majority of them in Africa. 

The digital space reaches a completely different demographic. When The Elephant started, it was 80 per cent male and over 40, but we have gained more younger people and more women. Now it is 60 per cent men, 40 per cent women and that is something we have been working at. 

Our editorial approach is that as long as a piece has a strong argument and fits into our pan-African brief, we will publish it – even if we don’t agree with it.

The conflicts in Ethiopia and parts of the Sahel make the war in Ukraine pale in comparison. So many people have died in Ethiopia or been displaced and now we have the onset of a famine after four years of failed rain. During the 1960s and 1970s, when the Cold War found its way on to African soil, millions of people died – so there is caution about getting involved in a European fight.

Ahead of the election, we are exposing those trying to change the level of debate with reputation-laundering

There is always a lot of fake news around during elections. But people are beginning to be more sceptical. We go after those who attempt to change the level of debate with reputation-laundering and try to expose their actions. 
The future of democracy is going to be a big issue. When Africans were watching the attack on the US Capitol last year, they were hoping it was not a Black Lives Matter protest, which could have resulted in a ‘blackbath’. As soon as they saw the white guys wearing horns, people laughed with relief. 

There is an ongoing recalibration of Africa’s geopolitical relations with the rest of the world. A poll released in June showed China has overtaken the United States as the foreign power having the biggest positive influence in Africa in the eyes of young people across the continent. The younger generation is writing its own narrative. 

Wale Lawal
Editor of ‘The Republic’ (Nigeria)

Nigerian audiences are increasingly online and tend to read both local and international publications. They also know that the issues they care about are either under-reported or reported at lower quality levels. 

At The Republic, we provide political journalism that tends to require high levels of expertise. Yet online audiences also prioritize engagement: it is not enough for an issue to be important, it also needs to be interesting.

Some topics we have covered that Western media tend not to include how people experience blackness in different parts of the world; the waves of mostly female-led and youth-led movements rising up against autocratic governments across Africa; and relationships between countries within Africa itself. In the early days of the pandemic, we launched a Covid-19 and Africa series, having noticed a glaring lack of African expert voices in global media.
We also cover Africa’s evolving relations with Russia. Whenever we encounter a story like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the first thing we always ask ourselves is what missing voice can we add to the current discussion? All we were reading about after the invasion was how neighbouring countries were opening their borders and their homes to Ukrainians. Most people saw only that. 

We knew that around 15,000 Africans were studying in Ukraine when Russia invaded, but their voices were missing from the discussion

But we knew that around 15,000 Africans were studying in Ukraine, that Africans routinely face harsh treatment at international borders, and that clearly their voices were missing from the discussion.

With fake news and information gaps on social media, our usual approach is to develop expert-led columns and circulate these as widely as possible.

Our next mission is to think about the role that independent media can play in supporting democracies, such as by increasing voter turnout. During the last election in Nigeria, less than 35 per cent of those who registered to vote eventually did so.