End of an era for African news agency AITV

Aitv

For those following this blog, you will have noticed that my most recent postings have been content produced for the news agency AITV. They are a Paris-based arm of France Televisions that produces video content for African television and other TV channels that focus on African news. AITV standing for the generic-sounding Agences Internationales d’Images de Télévisions.  I was employed as a freelancer to work on their English language desk, producing video sent from colleagues across Africa. It was an enjoyable place to work and so it is regrettable that it will be officially defunct within a few days, the 7th of December, I believe.

That said, former colleagues of mine say they are not giving up the fight – at least not until the plug has literally been pulled.  News production is continuing aplenty in the hope – probably vain – that it will be miraculously plucked from the abyss. If it does go under, it will definitely be a loss on a number of fronts. Firstly, and most importantly, it is a public service that has real journalistic merit.  AITV employs 28 staff in Paris as well as freelancers like myself and regular correspondents in Africa. Despite being a sinking ship, almost all the journalists have refused to jump, partly because of diminished opportunities for journalists, but also for a real connection and passion for their job. In today’s market that’s a rare commodity so it’s a shame that wasn’t capitalised on. AITV has built up a formidable network of journalists and fixers in Africa and has a treasure trove of footage dating back to its creation in 1986. It documents the end of the independence era and the potholed road towards nation building. It should have been the shiny new thing that stole the thunder from the increasingly influential Radio France Internationale (RFI). After all, its initial raison d’être must have been to emulate this behemoth of broadcasting on the African continent, just with pictures. So what went wrong? Or did it even go wrong?

In truth, it’s hard to say. The fact that it’s being scrapped doesn’t necessarily mean that it has become irrelevant.  Indeed, it is highly relevant to the many who tune in to watch, either on France O (the France Overseas Info Afrique news bulletin), France 24, TV5, or the 60 African news channels that use its content daily. Its output combines on the ground knowledge with slick production from an experienced team of journalists in Paris. It had a pan-African approach that built bridges and contributed to a common sense of identity. Why shouldn’t challenges in Botswana shed light on similar ones in Benin or Togo. Wouldn’t Kenyans be more likely find common cause with South Africans or Nigerians or vice-versa if a media landscape allowed a window into each others daily existence as AITV has been doing.  Budget-squeezed African news channels are unlikely to dedicate resources to such noble causes. And yet there still seems to be very little political will at least in France to keep AITV on life support.

In my opinion, one of the reasons why AITV has been vulnerable for the chop is its extremely low profile. The reason I heard of AITV was because a friend and colleague informed me of freelancing possibilities. A quick Google search revealed an AITV wikipedia page but little else. Not only did it have little online presence itself, it seemed as if nobody was talking about it. Ok, you could say that AITV is a news agency so doesn’t need to generate a buzz. As long as it’s on the receiving end of public funds and its content is getting used, then why go to the extra effort of trying to engage with the end user, i.e the viewer?  Though, if it had gone that extra mile in engaging an audience, I think it would have garnered more sympathy from the public. As it stands, people aren’t going to fight to save something they hardly know exists. The AITV staff have put up a worthy fight led from the front by trade unionist Didier Givodan that included a sit-in demonstration during the broadcasting of France 2’s flagship evening news bulletin. That was brave and helped put AITV on the media map but was probably futile. Other efforts have since helped such as the setting up of a Daily Motion page of the AITV-produced Info-Afrique bulletin and an informative Facebook page to win public support. But for an organisation where image is paramount, why did it thoroughly reject its own?

AITV came into existence during the first Francophonie summit in 1986 celebrating a shared cultural heritage and language. Its demise coincides with the 15th such summit currently taking place in Dakar. The fact that this worthy journalistic entreprise has been relegated to junk status by the French powers-that-be speaks volumes about France’s vision of itself in the world.  But perhaps not in the way you might first think. Whilst it could be interpreted that this is a symbol of France abandoning its neo-colonial ambitions in Africa, it is more likely an act of cowardliness. After all, who in France is going to mourn the loss of something that has been going by the decidedly unsexy name of International Agency of Television Images?  By axing AITV, France is casting aside its better instincts and its ability to stand up to the frenzied and unprincipled world of 24 hour news.

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