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The good and the ugly in media coverage of Magufuli funeral

What struck you about media coverage of Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli’s funeral? The Times headline of March 19, perhaps? It fuelled the unending debate about how the West looks at Africa with a jaundiced eye. “Autocrat’s death makes mother of four Africa’s only female leader,” the headline said.

Autocrat is the Western media’s default epithet for an African president. And the Daily Nation agreed with it, saying: “His word was law and if something didn’t take his fancy he simply banned it”.

Just like that, the Twin Towers broke a media taboo. You don’t speak ill of the dead.

“Death makes mother of four Africa’s only female leader” pointed to the continent’s male-dominated politics – until death comes to the rescue of women. But, of course, there are many African female leaders. Does The Times know the Ethiopian president? She is Sahle-Work Zewde.

Motherhood is not just celebrated throughout Africa. It is sacred. So, why would a paper use “mother of four” in a headline like an insult? What does having children got to do with being president?

Kiswahili editorial pontiffs at the Twin Towers sent people rolling on the floor with laughter with their March 20 Taifa Leo headline: “TZ yapata Suluhu baada ya Pombe”.

Suluhu is Kiswahili for a solution or truce in a conflict. Pombe doesn’t need translation. A certain kichwa malenge noted that the Nation ran a suggestive alcohol advert below the headline and picture of Magufuli. A coincidence, don’t you think?

Readers who missed the Taifa Leo joke thought the paper was being cheeky at a time of mourning when headlines should probably be all weepy. Well, language is not just about communication of meaning; it is also about aesthetics (beauty). Writing is an art. Heard of artistic license?

Through daily reporting and live coverage of TZ’s national mourning, leading TV stations united the region in grief and strengthened the bonds of the East African Community. Excellent.

Mourning is never only about expressing grief upon the death of a person. It is also a moment to bring people together to reflect upon the meaning of life and celebrate shared values.

But Lion Place apparently found itself out of its depth trying to cover the huge regional story. Paul Ilado and his gang should “go back to the drawing board” and “find a way forward”, si ndio?

The Star’s weekend issue of March 19-21 had the story, “Pombe ‘The Bulldozer’ could have died in Nairobi a week ago”. The main source for the report was exiled Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu. But the rest was speculation.

“There are reports Magufuli was admitted at The Nairobi Hospital until March 10,” the paper reported. What reports? None were named.

“There are reports of a quiet power struggle that ensued after Magufuli’s death which could have delayed the formal announcement”.

“However, there are claims that some influential people within the establishment could have been uncomfortable with Suluhu, who hails from Zanzibar, from ascending to the presidency”.

Who made the claims? When? Where? To whom? Conjecture. Yellow journalism.

The next issue of the paper on March 22 carried the story, “Why world leaders may avoid Magufuli’s burial.” The paper reported the leaders could skip the funeral over Covid-19.

Nowhere in the story was it stated who among world leaders had said they would not attend. State House Spokesperson Kanze Dena could not be reached.

So, how did Lion Place decide that world leaders may not attend Magufuli’s burial “over Covid-19 that continues to ravage the country?”

In fact, on the day the story appeared, nine presidents, two vice presidents and a prime minister attended the state funeral. Maybe those were not “world leaders” because they were all African?

Finally, the media entirely ignored a major story that broke in Tanzania during Magufuli’s funeral. Five members of a family and a house-help were killed in a stampede in Dar es Salaam during viewing of the body. The story was hushed. It could distract from the glory of Magufuli. Who said all human lives are equal?

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