Covering Democracy

Case study: President Obama's Visit to Ghana

On July 10, 2009, shortly after attending the G8 Summit meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, U.S. President Barack Obama paid his first visit to Africa as president. Addressing a fully-packed parliament in Accra, Ghana, Obama discussed public health, energy, conflict and election processes in Africa. Above all, his speech emphasized that if Africa is to develop further, democracy and good governance needed to be supported.

As African-American writer Dayo Olopade noted in TheRoot, Obama emphasized the need for democracy in African society, because, as Obama said in his speech, there is a ''direct correlation between governance and prosperity.'' Africans need to attend to the level of democracy in their own societies before they can tackle other issues such as health care, conflict and war, according to Obama.

In effect, therefore, analyzing media coverage of Obama's historic visit not only addresses how world media covered the tour of a Black American president to Africa but also how that media chose to cover the issue of democracy in Africa.

A variety of media across Africa and the rest of the world covered Obama's one day tour in Ghana. Even days before his visit, excitement and anticipation led to talk shows, interviews and debate. According to AfricaNews.com, Obama's tour “…is not passing by unnoticed to the African political elite class, the media, some interested persons in the public and more.” Africans' eyes and ears were open—everyone was watching.

Global interest in Obama and, indeed his popularity around the world, would not have been possible without the media—both conventional and new media. News about Obama's visit to Africa received maximum coverage on the web: bloggers and other Internet users exhaustively gave their views and opinions on the tour. According to Google Africa Blog, searches for “Obama” increased by 150% in Ghana over the week preceding the historic visit. AfricaNews.com for example posted interviews from Cameroonians, Zimbabweans, South Africans and Congelese, most of whom expressed excitement and anticipation and made predictions about what his visit would mean. Even streets buzzed with the news: posters and tear sheets spread the word of his coming. The president’s visit became the ‘Big Talk’ among the people.

Prior to Obama's visit, a number of articles ran in various media discussing  why the president chose to visit Ghana and not Kenya, on his first trip to Africa, as some observers had expected. (Obama's father was Kenyan and close relatives remained in that country.)  The British newspaper The Guardianhypothesized in its story “Obama Is Like the Messiah: Cameroonians React,” that Obama chose Ghana and not Kenya, because of Ghana’s smooth power-shifting from one president to another and its dedication to democratic values: Ghana has had five successive democratic elections since 1992. Confirming that hypothesis was Obama's own statement after his Ghanaian Speech, as reported byCNN, where Obama praised the country for its achievements and also called on other African leaders to take responsibility for the future of the continent.

Accra Mail (Ghana), and the two leading Ugandan online posts, The New Vision and The Monitor, dedicated colorful pages of Obama’s visit to Ghana. These three publications portrayed the event as a positive one--full of jubilation and excitement. Discussion boards were open to the public, resulting in an incredibly widespread participation in the event as it unfolded and revealing the broad interest in the visit.  David Smith, a Guardian Africa correspondent, interviewed different individuals from South Africa, DRC, Zimbabwe and Botswana. They revealed excitement and pride in having Obama come to visit the continent, also seeing it as an opportunity for change in the way their countries are governed. Other news outlets noted that the U.S. president's visit to Africa immediately followed trips to Italy and Russia--the outlets argued that this signaled that Obama saw Africa as an equally essential player in global affairs as Europe and Asia.

Some online sources such as YouTube, that relayed videos of Obama’s address to the Ghanaian Parliament, received tremendous traffic. Many people chose to comment on the online versions of the speech; on YouTube, for example, there were over 100 responses to the posted video--a sign that the world was watching--and more of the comments showed approval for Obama’s remarks than criticized it.  Ayo Johnson, an analyst on SKY515 used Twitter to create a forum for people across the continents to post their views on Obama’s visit to Africa. Opinions were diverse among Twitter users, especially Africans. Ayo used this social network to get people to discuss the important issues surrounding the historic visit. Discussion boards were also created on Facebook to give way for views and comments on the same topic. The event in Africa was closely followed by other people in the rest of the world, giving birth to broader questions and issues from the visit. 

Despite all this online global attention, media in many specific regions of the world under-estimated the deeper significance of the visit. Whereas in Africa the event attracted substantial mainstream media attention and coverage, sparking off further debates and talk, in Europe and Asia, there was relatively little traditional media coverage. In Asia, especially, there was minimal coverage of the visit--where it was mentioned, the trip was depicted as merely yet another visit of the U.S. president to a foreign country.

In the U.S. and some nations in Latin America, such as Argentina, there was more traditional media coverage of the president's trip, arguably because Obama is the U.S. president, and also because of his popularity among the Argentinean and other Latin American populations. But even in those media, most coverage tended to portray the visit in a colorful way, without much in-depth reflection about the political implications of the visit for the African continent.

Obama visited Africa to discuss important global issues that Africa is part and parcel of--conflicts and wars, health care strategies, the global economic crisis, and above all, democracy. Without proper governance and civic freedoms, it remains a bigger challenge for African governments to solve such issues. Many third-world countries receive foreign aid from developed countries, and one of the ways to maintain such ties is to embrace democracy. To help promote this principle in society,  media can sensitize the public about their right of access to public information and their right to participation in election processes.  African media need to increase their attention to the issue of democracy, so that it becomes  part of the public debate. Outside Africa, media can also be of help, if they approach the issue of democracy in that continent as they would do in reference to any other.

The level of coverage of President Obama's trip to Ghana shows how important access to information is to individuals in society. In Ghana, Obama spoke about democracy as the core of development in any society. In his speech, he stated, ''... the strength of your [Ghana's] democracy can help advance human rights for people everywhere.''

In this respect, African media played its role: debates and talk-shows on democracy and other related topics were aired on TV and radio; journalists, reporters and news correspondents for both newspapers and online posts wrote articles and stories related to democracy in the continent.  But that was not the case in other countries--a situation which highlights how the same event can receive global coverage with very different local approaches.