The Decolonial Imperative

But there is a decolonial imperative in journalism.
“Since 1945,” according to Immanuel Wallerstein, “the decolonization of Asia and Africa, plus the sharply accentuated political consciousness of the non-European world everywhere, has affected the world of knowledge just as much as it has affected the politics of the world–system.” [Immanuel Wallerstein, “Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science”, New Left Review, Issue 226, November-December, 1997].

Across the disciplines, the subaltern has spoken in a language of his/her own and can finally be heard. An entire new corpus of literary, poetic and artistic works has emerged from the imaginations of the previously silenced. Histories are being rewritten, and counter-narratives to debilitating and reductive colonial representations are available for all to read. Entire archives of knowledge and experience have been discovered while existing colonial archives are being read against the grain.

The voices of the marginalized are heard alongside what was once considered the “canon” and are expanding our understanding of Europe’s / the West’s pluralist heritage and mongrel history. The once ignored and silenced voices and perspectives of women, the indigenous, and the colonized are today enhancing our understanding of our plural selves, entangled histories, and shared legacies.

However, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang warn about the ease with which the language of decolonisation has been “superficially adopted” by different disciplines [Tuck, Eve & Yang, K. Wayne, “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2012:1-40 ]. They fear that the casual, faddish use of the term can become a “form of enclosure, dangerous in how it domesticates decolonisation” and “recapitulates dominant theories of social change” [Ibid:1-40]. This was always the danger in any decolonial move, and even Fanon warned that the “settler knows perfectly well that no phraseology can be a substitute for reality” [Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, 2004(1963):45]. But a decolonial move is an essential first step before we can undo current practices and create new ones. We need to understand the problem.

Journalism does not need another critique because it is one of our most critiqued disciplines. That journalism is failing is a truism that few bother to examine and most simply regurgitate. Today, the knives are out as mainstream journalists, digital journalists, independent journalists, and social media commentators go at each other and argue over who gets to speak, for whom, when, and how [Glenn Greenwald, “Journalists Start Demanding Substack Censor its Writers: to Bar Critiques of Journalists,” Substack, March 11, 2021; Matt Taibbi, “We Need a New Media System,” Substack, January 12, 2021].

And yet, the world of journalism and photojournalism remains strangely deaf to these transformations, and journalists continue to produce works that are surprisingly ahistorical, culturally essentialist, based on a presumption of Western universalism, and committed to an unquestioned belief in the West’s responsibility to judge, moralize, and intervene in any way necessary. The irony remains that corporate media celebrates “globalization”, yet “…bifurcates the world into the ‘West and the Rest’ and organizes everyday language into binaristic hierarchies implicitly flattering to Europe: our ‘nations,’ their ‘tribes’; our ‘religions,’ their ‘superstitions’; our ‘culture,’ their ‘folklore’; our ‘art,’ their ‘artefacts’; our ‘demonstrations,’ their ‘riots’; our ‘Defense,”’ their ‘terrorism.’” [Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, Routledge Press, 1994:2].

These debilitating and marginalizing constructions of the Other are not evident, nor the exclusive purvey of a few media extremists, and insidiously and dangerously buried within even overtly liberal and “humanitarian” discourses. These narrative constructions, prevalent across Western media’s foreign reporting, place the White Westerner/European as a maker of history, active, conscious, intervening, leading and saving, and the African, Asian, Muslim or however else the Other is defined, as merely victims of it; passive, helpless, waiting, anticipating, unimaginative, trapped, unchanging if not unchangeable.

Then there are the venture capitalists, research foundations, journalism funds, and university departments investing tens of millions of dollars in digital and other entrepreneurial ventures to address journalism’s limits and discover solutions. However, despite all this, journalism’s epistemic (intellectual, historical, cultural) foundations and normative worldviews are rarely examined. Journalism’s claims to objectivity and neutrality are taken at face value and as a universal norm, veiling their roots in a Western, white, male social order.

There is also an ambivalence about questioning journalism’s role as a defender of the white, male, Western social order, one that has emerged after a long history of racial segregation, economic exploitation, economic inequality, and social injustice. Most focus on “improving” journalism’s practices, methods, technological sophistication, and market reach but rarely take a step back to ask about how and why it sees and speaks about the world as it does and what gives it the power to pose as an “objective” voice in our society?

People get excited about the latest VR tool or some other such gimmick but do not want to question the ideologies, world views, power interests and capitalist drivers that create what is shown and how it is shown or commented on. There is an amputation of technology from its social and political roots and a near idolatry belief in technological “innovation” for its own sake, separated and amputated from any moral, ethical and human concern.

We have seen this techno-fetishism repeatedly, even recently amid a Palestinian genocide where journalists and photojournalists have expressed greater “outrage” at World Press Photo’s (WPP) decision to judge AI-generated images in its annual press photographer awards than they have publicly expressed against the Israeli violence in Gaza [See the original declaration of this decision here: (last access November 2023)].

Journalism’s techno-fetishism and its unexamined belief in technology as an inevitability, something outside social and political interests, has become journalism’s lullaby. It has been used to deflect from the degradation and decline in the ethics of the discipline and from its sordid marriage to profits and markets.

The local has disappeared behind narratives of Western progress, development, modernity, and liberalism and is constructed as backward, underdeveloped, anti-modern, and illiberal. This onto-epistemic violence, where European ideas of the world eradicate alternative ways of being and relating, is fundamental to the project of Western journalism and the disappearance of the histories, consciousness, and ways of being of the Other.

It is because of such disappearances of the Other–this clearing of space–that a non-Western geography like Africa “serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism…[and]…has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike saviour…[m]any have done it under the banner of ‘making a difference’” [Teju Cole, “The White Savior Industrial Complex”, The Atlantic, March 21, 2012].

Equally, it has allowed the industry to ignore the rot that sits at its very centre, i.e. its unchecked and problematic relationship to political power, capitalism, nationalism and ethnocentrism. Its professionals avoid addressing Edward Said’s questions about the Western journalist’s power and privilege to turn up and write about the world:

Must we inevitably forget the cmplex reality that produced the event just so that we can experience concern at mob violence? Is there to be no remarking of the power that put the reporter or analyst there in the first place and made it possible to represent the world as a function of comfortable concern? Is it not intrinsically the case that such a style is far more insidiously unfair, so much more subtly dissembling of its affiliations with power, than any avowedly political rhetoric? [Said, Edward, Reflections On Exile, Harvard University Press, 2000:97].

Said challenges us to question the journalist’s neutrality, notice the selective erasures of histories, and the simplistic representation of people, and understand the relationship between power and knowledge. He wanted us to see what Walter Mignolo (citing Santiago Castro-Gómez’s work) called the zero-point hubris, the ability to centre the West as the place of universal knowledge while relegating or silencing to the barbarian margins of other histories, experiences, knowledge, and epistemologies [Walter D. Mignolo, “Introduction,” Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 2007:155-167]. (Aside: I am aware that there are critiques of Castro-Gómez’’s use of this term and its implication for post-Enlightenment knowledge. I use it here, keeping this critique in mind and questioning the critique itself equally.)

For Said, these questions weren’t merely academic because he understood that narrating was the power to decide between life and death. We can’t lose sight of the gravity of what we do as journalists and the consequences it has for lives. When nations go to war, they use the media to unroll the red carpet for the tanks. What journalists say and show about the world, especially outside the “civilised” geographies of the West, has consequences. It leads to disappearance.

It is a disappearance that is enacted at many levels, including the level of the so-called “international community.” Mahmood Mandani has argued that “For the institutions that claim to represent ‘the international community’–the Western press, international NGOs and UN agencies–the armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been a paradigm of senseless violence.” It is the construction of a “paradigm of senseless violence” that reduces the Congo and its people to colonial-era troupes and racist representations and deflects from revealing that the roots of the violence in the DRC “…lie in institutional practices introduced under colonialism, which 50 years of independence have only exacerbated.” [[Mahmood Mamdani, “The Invention of the Indigéne”, London Review of Books, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2–20 January 2011]].

It is a dehumanizing construction, one that refuses to acknowledge “that even the worst perpetrators of violence in Congo must be understood as human actors caught up in a conflict that started with the colonial conquest a century ago. That means shining the focus from individual acts to the cycle of violence, from atrocities to the issues that drive them.” [Mahmood Mamdani, “The Invention of the Indigéne”, London Review of Books, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2–20 January 2011].

These essays rely on the work of feminists, post-colonial (if that phrase can still be used), Indigenous, and African-American radicals who have challenged the power, privilege and presumptions of objectivity given to the white male gaze. Journalism has remained isolated and immune from these trends, unlike other disciplines that have undergone years of critique and questioning. It lives in a tiny world, repeating and perpetuating prejudices, banalities, simplicities, generalisations and representations about the world that would put any second-rate academic to shame. And yet, journalism has the broadest impact and influence in determining how people see and understand the world, which makes its shortcomings highly dangerous to our collective well-being and welfare.