Media Coverage of Eritrea’s Achievements: Allergic and Formulaic

News Opinions Sophia Tesfamariam
The media has been allergic to any good news about Eritrea
The media has been allergic to any good news about Eritrea. Like a political tsunami, the story of Eritrean athletes at the Tour de France almost shuttered the misrepresentation created by the corporate media and the whole world once again started to see the true image of the country and its people through these young men.

By Sophia Tesfamariam,

THIS has been an exciting week with Eritrea’s cyclists, Daniel Teclehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus, who are not only making history as the very first Africans in the 102 year old history of the Tour de France, but are also forcing mainstream media into reluctantly acknowledging not just their presence on the Tour, but also their athletic excellence and sportsmanship. The mainstream media has been allergic to any good news about the State of Eritrea, its leadership or its people. This historic moment in cycling history, will also take note of the racism that is wittingly or unwittingly perpetuated by journalists and sportscasters, while it showcases Eritrea’s many talents…and successes.

It took a few days for the mainstream media to come to terms with the historical significance of the participation of the Eritrean duo in the Tour de France. From the very beginning, some journalists who have an aversion to good news from Eritrea tried to downplay the historic moment. The Telegraph’s Tom Cory in his 2 July 2015 article, “Tour de France 2015: MTN Qhubeka to become first African team in competition’s history”, wrote the following:

…Daniel Teklehaimanot, one of two Eritreans on the Tour team – Eritrea being one African country where there is a culture of cycling thanks to their former colonial masters Italy – won the King of the Mountains title at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné…

The tidbit on Italy was unnecessary and an example of such subtle racism. Cory’s intent to drive in the message that Eritreans on their own could not possibly develop this culture without the benevolence of the colonizers is transparent. Such attitudes of the mainstream journalists and sportscasters in the portrayals of athletes of African descent have been the subject of much research.

Much has been written in the past about the media and coverage of athletes of different races and nationalities and there is no doubt that there are stark differences in the ways that Anglo Saxon and African players are depicted in terms of innate athletic skill and perceived intelligence. Researchers have noted that when journalist,
sportscasters described players, they would highlight intellect-related qualities for white players, but physical qualities (particularly their appearance) for black players.

James A. Rada and K. Tim Wulfemeyer in Color Coded: Racial Descriptors in Television Coverage of Intercollegiate Sports described the difference in the way African American athletes were portrayed in the mainstream media. They say:

“… Along with the overt associations that come with describing African American athletes in animal terms, such descriptions also create the impression that they are closer to nature and, thus, further away from civilization… White players receive an increasingly disproportionate amount of positive commentary, and negative commentary toward White players is scarce, often to the point of being entirely absent… we found that announcers continue to paint a picture where African American athletes are portrayed as physical specimens using their God-given, natural ability, whereas White athletes are hard working and intellectually endowed…”

Racial bias in sports announcing is not a new phenomenon but one that is being increasingly challenged. Journalists reinforce racial and nationality based stereotypes which perpetuate social injustices with the frames and themes used in their articles. The media provide interpretation of events for consumers and if misleading, these can have negative consequences on society.

Peter Martell, a journalist who in the past pounced on the minutest of incidents in Eritrea teetered on pronouncing this historic event and when he did, he got it all wrong. In his 27 June 2015 Tweet, he claimed that the cyclists had been “allowed to participate”, giving his readers that impression that they would not otherwise be allowed to leave Eritrea. What he didn’t bother to tell his readers is that these two athletes have been training and living outside of Eritrea for quite some time now. The big news at the Tour was not about the white “Kenyan born” athlete, it was about the two Eritreans, Peter Martell could not bring himself to even acknowledge their presence there, let alone the milestone in the Tour’s history.

Martell then proceeded to argue that the two Eritreans were not the first Africans as there was another, the “Kenyan born” Chris Froome who won in 2013. But Froome is “white” and does not claim to be Kenyan, or even use the hyphenated British-Kenyan citizenship. But for Martell, it was a bitter pill to swallow, to acknowledge the fact that an Eritrean, an African, a black man, was actually participating in the Tour. It is best that journalists like Martell stay away from good news from Eritrea lest it triggers another allergic reaction.

But there were some journalists who got it just right. Martin Herman reporting for Reuters on 4 July 2015 article, “Historic moment for Africa as Teklehaimanot starts Tour” said:

“…The first black African to ride the Tour de France was given the honour of being the first of the 198 riders to set off in the medieval Dutch city of Utrecht, where crowds estimated at 700,000 gathered to watch a 14-kilometre individual time trial … Teklehaimanot, 26, is part of debut-making team MTN Qhubeka, the first African pro-cycling outfit to line up in the world’s greatest race…”

Daniel Teclehaimanot, his infectious smile and his demeanor has won the hearts of millions around the world who have been glued to the TV screens watching him make history and when he did, the story had to be told right. Social media is abuzz with goodwill messages.

At first, sportscasters struggled to pronounce his name but soon everyone was saying it with ease, he is fast becoming a household name.

The excitement was palpable. The coverage befitting that of a trailblazer. The media was adjusting, for they risked being left behind. Soon the headlines bore his name and his country-Eritrea and the story for the day remained the same:

…On today’s sixth stage into Le Havre, one of the team’s two Eritreans, Daniel Teklehaimanot, got himself in the day’s breakaway with the express goal of landing the polka-dot jersey of the mountains classification leader. He managed exactly that, taking maximum points on the stage’s three, fourth-category climbs and overtaking stage 3 winner Joaquim Rodriguez in the KOM classification as a result …. In doing so, Teklehaimanot becomes the first African to wear the KOM jersey in the Tour de France and the first black African to wear a Tour de France classification jersey of any kind. In all, just three Africans have worn a leader’s jersey at the Tour de France: Robbie Hunter with the white jersey in 2001 and Daryl Impey with the yellow jersey in 2013…”

Red polka dots…summer fashion?

But racism threatened to rear its ugly head and ruin an otherwise very pleasant event, when the following was reported by the Daily Mail:

…The first African team to compete in the Tour de France claim their black riders have been subjected to racism and bullying in the professional peloton… On a day when MTN-Qhubeka celebrated the first black African rider to wear a Grand Tour jersey — Daniel Teklehaimanot was in the polka dot ‘King of the Mountains’ jersey here in Le Havre — it emerged that one of their other riders was branded a ‘n****r’ in a corresponding professional race on Wednesday… MTN made an official complaint to the UCI race jury at the Tour of Austria after their rider Natnael Berhane, of Eritrea, claimed he was racially abused by Branislau Samoilau, a rider from Belarus with the CCC-Sprandi-Polkowice team…

In Eritrea, most will say, “himaq melati wiilu ሕማቕ መዓልቲ ውዒሉ ”, and will probably not remember this faux pax and un-sportsmanship behavior by Branislau Samoilau. But he is a product of his environment – in Eritrea they will say “ata’ababiya zibedelo ኣታዓባብያ ዝበደሎ ”. When white athletes are portrayed as hardworking, diligent and persistent, and those of African descent are portrayed as being over-reliant on their natural gifts, as opposed to their work ethic, which perpetuates the broader stereotype of black people as lazy, Samoilau and others like him probably don’t know that these Eritrean athletes are known for their hard work and determination. He probably only knows Eritrea through the lenses of the mainstream media – and its youth as being mere “slaves”.

Doug Ryder, the Team principal knows that it was hard work and determination that enabled his team to be in the tour:

…It’s amazing what you can do when you get an opportunity…When we announced we’d have our team in the Tour de France, it was kind of like a door was lifted off [the riders’] heads … we’re in the biggest race in the world … we’re here to compete and we’re here on merit; we’re not here because we’re African.’ We are absolutely here on merit and it’s given them that extra few percent in mental confidence. Physically they were there and now they’re racing like they own it…

So the stories of Eritrea’s athletes will be told over and over again, but in the end, the whole world will see in these young men, a true image of Eritrea. Natnael Berhane in not wanting the Belarussian rider Branislau Samoilau to be kicked out of the event is another testament to the magnanimous character and culture of the Eritrean people-misrepresented by the mainstream media whose allergy to anything Eritrean is fast finding a cure in success…