World Council of Churches Office of Communication
Press Release
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9 December 1998

WCC Eighth Assembly - Press Release No. 24

A Kenyan woman has complained to the president of CNN International at the World Council of Churches Assembly that Africa only makes news when it's bad news. The media chief maintained that his network tries to cover the world as broadly and accurately as possible.

"Internationally, when you watch television you have to wait for something really horrible to happen before you know Africa exists," said Dr Musimbi Kanyoro, a panellist in a discussion sponsored Wednesday (9 December) by the World Association of Christian Communication (WACC).

Kanyoro, general secretary of the World YWCA in Geneva, recalled the years that she lived in the United States and watched coverage of Africa on U.S. television. "I didn't know that the continent being discussed was my own," she said. "Events were always portrayed out of context." International media coverage even threatened plans for the Eighth Assembly (3-14 December) in Harare, Zimbabwe, she said, "because Africa is portrayed as very, very violent".

Nearly 200 people trekked a kilometer across the campus of the University of Zimbabwe from the main Assembly hall to the venue of the WACC event. It was part of the Padare, a three-day presentation of concerns by 400 groups, independent of the official agenda. Padare is the Shona word for meeting-place.

The CNN official, Chris Cramer, a former BBC newsman who said that he was hired by Ted Turner to make the network more international in scope, shared the panel with Professor Cees Hamelink, a media critic from The Netherlands. The BBC South Asia correspondent Mike Wooldridge moderated the discussion on "The Power of Global Communication Today".

Cramer said he felt "squeamish" about the notion that CNN has great power. "Influential, perhaps," he said. "Do we have enormous responsibility . . . to get it right? Of course we do." But he reluctantly accepted the criticism that his network "is a mile wide and a half-inch deep" in its international news coverage and vowed to help "take the channel to the next level of maturity".

He heatedly rejected criticism from a Kenyan man that there is a conspiracy to portray Africa and other developing continents in a negative light. "The notion that professional journalists go to work with some forensic notion to distort the news is simply wrong," he said. "Our correspondents have a responsibility to get it right. I completely reject your assertion that there is some kind of conspiracy as far as CNN is concerned."

Hamelink, advocate of "The People's Communication Charter", which claims media coverage polarises societies and increases conflict, said the fault does not lie entirely with journalists. "If you want to change a difficult world you can't delegate it to governments, you have to do it yourself," he said. "People are worried about the hole in the ozone layer but they have brain-damaging television thrown at them night after night. They don't seem to care."

Dr Albert van den Heuvel, seated in the audience, asked the panel why churches do a bad job in communicating their story. "They spread propaganda about themselves and suppress the news," said van den Heuvel, a former director of communication for the WCC and current president of the WACC.

Hamelink joked that van den Heuvel "never asks a question he can't answer better than the panel". Modern churches, Hamelink said, have never shaken off the idea of Pope Gregory XV, who established a "School of Propaganda" in the 15th century. "Churches should develop a more mature attitude toward the media," he said. "Don't see them as channels for your propaganda."

Cramer said there was a debate in CNN as to whether the network should follow the lead of the BBC and hire religious affairs specialists or continue to use their reporters to cover religious news when it happens on their beats.

"Because I'm an inherently dissatisfied man, I'm not satisfied with the amount of religion coverage we do," Cramer said. But CNN has broadcast religion stories from Mecca. And he admitted that "being here (at the WCC Assembly) has alerted me to the kinds of questions we should be reporting on."

The fragility of media power was symbolised during the discussion when a floodlight dimmed, leaving the panel in partial darkness on television monitors, and participants had to shout their questions to panelists when the sound system went out for several minutes.

Contact: John Newbury, WCC Press & Information Officer
Press and Information Office, Harare
Tel: +
E-Mail: WCC media

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 339, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the Assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.