Friday, May 14, 2010

good journalism needs good research - good politics does too!

On the internet, content is everything and everything is content. Content stands for a very generalized category of proposals on the internet, whose substance is only of secondary importance as long as it is marketable. Economical interest is the main factor in determing what is being published and what is not. There is nothing wrong with that: Also films, books and music have to be sold to cover the costs of their creators and producers. 

Nowadays information is also treated as an economical good. Is this new? We are used to pay for newspapers or magazines but expect information to be for free on the internet - and until now it mostly is. So is the internet killing journalism as we know it, asks Miriam Meckel, professor for corporate communication at Switzerland's university of St. Gallen, in a recent article published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung?

Yes and no is the answer. Sure, the web has truly changed the publishing world. Individuals, motivated in particular by their self interest of being heard, of being exposed (just as yours truly), find it much easier to get their messages across. The internet enables the "spontaneous expression of momentaneous thoughts", as U.S. blogger Andrew Sullivan put it; it is a "writing out loud", free of form, free of restrictions and full of subjectivity.

But: the traditional art of journalism is still here and is maybe more needed than ever. A journalism of research, investigative reporting, literature-like stories and critical commentaries. One of these well crafted, old school journalistic pieces is Howard French's "the next empire", examining China's economic adventures in Africa, published in this month's Atlantic magazine. French steps deep into Africa, undertaking and describing a journey on a Chinese built railroad from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia.

In its search for a strategy for Africa, China goes deep and way back too. At Chinese universities, anthropology, ethnology and intercultural communication are widely taught subjects. To prepare even better for Africa, Chinese has now started researching European colonial history. Recently a Chinese delegation visited Brussels wishing to see old colonial maps of the resources rich Congo. It becomes clear that the Chinese are focused on opening up the heart of the continent.


But the truest intellectual forerunner of China's strategy seems to be a plan once pursued by Germany before World War I. Germany's dream was Mittelafrika, the creation of a contiguous entity between its colonies in Namibia, Tanzania and Cameroon, covering the breadth of the African continent from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Given the richness in natural resources of the (Belgian) Congo alone, this region would accrue considerable wealth to the colonising power through the exploitation of natural resources, as well as contributing to another German aim of economic self-sufficiency. Obviously, because of the following World War, Germany's plans didn't materialize, but the idea was still present in geostrategical minds.

Just as journalists do research do build their stories, China is very thoroughly studying colonial history and geostrategical theories in order to draft its strategy towards Africa. They are not out to change Africa politically, they have their hands full with controlling politics back home. But they are in for the resources and in for the business. For the benefit of Africa too? Not all the Africans are convinced. As one lawyer in Lubumbashi Congo said: China is taking the place of the West and we remain under the same old schema - our cobalt goes off to China in the form of dusty ore and returns here in the form of expensive batteries.