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Setting the record straight - African journalists reporting on Cop21 climate change conference

By Daniel Finnan

Journalists from across the globe gathered in Paris over the past two weeks to cover the Cop21 climate change conference. Africa has been high on the agenda during the conference with discussions about financing for clean energy initiatives and preparing for the impact of global warming. But coverage of these stories is frequently dominated by the powerful western media. So what do African journalists think, what are their audiences interested in and what has it been like for them to cover Cop21? RFI spoke with three journalists from the Pan-African Media on Climate Change.

"Over the years there have been a lot of complaints that the issue of adaption has not been taken seriously," Cameroonian journalist Elias Ngalame told RFI. Adaptation to the effects of climate change are of key importance to people in Cameroon, says the Thomson Reuters freelance journalist.

Finance relating to projects that lead to a reduction in carbon emissions is a significant concern for newspaper readers in Malawi, says Sellina Nkowani, a journalist with The Nation. "Where are we getting this money from," she questions, referring to the purported move away from fossil fuels.

In Nigeria, the general public look for something very specific from the media's coverage of Cop21, says Atayi Babs, editor of ClimateReporters.com. "There is a very wide disconnect between public understanding of climate change issues," Babs says. The environment and climate change are not popular topics, he says, instead Nigerian media consumers are more interested in football, politics and music. "All they're interested in is, 'where is the money?'"

"The western media highlights the plight of Africans," says Ngalame. "Most of the western media gives the impression that African negotiators or stakeholders are participating in the issue from a point of weakness," says the Cameroonian journalist. He refers to Africa's forests, which he sees as one of Africa's strengths since they can act as a store of carbon in the face of climate change.

"We're here to correct the narrative put out by the western media," says Nigerian journalist Babs, who points out that many western media outlets are frequently supported by "oil companies that are wrecking communities in the Niger Delta in Nigeria".

"We make sure that we stay close to the African story," says Babs, "the African story is inextricably linked to the concept of climate justice."

The western media's treatment of Africa in terms of climate change is "abstract", says Malawian journalist Nkowani. Recent floods in Malawi that killed some 300 people served as a stark reminder of climate change's impact, she says. "I'm connected with the people, I'm telling a story with a human face," says Nkowani, explaining that the western media does not have the same "passion" for the story since they are telling the story in terms of "theory".

African journalists face a number of challenges covering the Cop21 event, says Babs of ClimateReporters.com who has covered several climate change conferences. Securing a budget for travelling to "far flung places" is difficult, he says. Then once arriving on a reporting trip it is hard for African journalists to acclimatize to temperatures they are not used to, often resulting in sickness, the Nigerian journalists says.

The size and nature of the conference itself also presents a challenge for journalists, says The Nation's Nkowani. "Sometimes the stories are slipping right in front of us, we fail to capture everything," she says, when discussing the size and level of activity at Cop21's venue at Le Bourget.

Furthermore, African journalists have found it hard to get information from Sudan's delegation who led the African bloc during Cop21 negotiations. "We should be their point of contact in terms of the media to get stories out," says Nkowani, "it's been hard to get information."

"In previous conferences we've had a close working relationship with the African group of negotiators," says Babs. "Since we came [to the Paris conference] we've basically relied on speaking to individual delegations," he says, reiterating the difficulties in obtaining information from Sudan's delegation on the African bloc's negotiations.

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