Archive for the conflict death tolls Category

An assassination attempt

Posted in Africa, conflict death tolls, Guinea with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 25 July, 2011 by Virgil

President Alpha Conde. Photo by World Economic Forum under a CC Licence.

Last week, explosives were used in an attempt on the life of a head of state. No, I am not talking about Norway. I am talking about the west African state of Guinea.

On the night of 19 July, attackers fired rockets into President Conde’s bedroom at the presidential residence. He escaped harm only because he had been sleeping in another room at the time of the attack. A second attack ensued, with the assailants finally being subdued after a two-hour gun battle.It is still unclear as to whether it was an assassination attempt or a coup d’etat attempt, but several hours later, the former army chief was arrested.

Chances are, you don’t know about this assassination attempt and the ensuing gun battle in Guinea. Why? Because few media corporations have deemed the incident newsworthy. The New York Times printed a 91-word briefing from Reuters on page six. The Times of London devoted 39 words to the incident on page 33. There were no follow-up articles in either case – this was the first and last time Guinea was mentioned. The Australian newspaper and Japanese newspapers (the Yomiuri and Asahi) ignored the events altogether. Thankfully, there were some rare examples of substantive articles provided by AFP, Reuters and Christian Science Monitor.

Chances are, you do know about the attempt on the life of the Prime Minister of Norway and the massacre that followed. On the first day of coverage following the incident, the New York Times placed it on page one in a 1,336-word article – a collaborative effort written by seven contributors, based in Oslo, New York, London, Paris and Washington. It was also page-one coverage for the Times of London – on the first day of coverage, it devoted 1,915 words to the incident. Needless to say, there has been major internet and television coverage as well.

The reasons for the heavy coverage of the incidents in Norway are obvious. There was a blast targeting the Prime Minister, and as the article in the Times of London made sure to mention, the massacre was the worst violence seen in Norway since World War II. It was unexpected, violent and sensational. There was a terrible loss of human life.

But why have the events in Guinea been deemed so unworthy of attention, so ignorable? At a national level, the events in Guinea are arguably more politically significant than those in Norway. The violence in Norway appears to have been an isolated event perpetrated by a single individual. The events in Guinea were a coordinated strike that most likely involved part of the armed forces of that country.

This is all the more important considering that this is a critical stage in Guinea’s nascent and fragile democracy. In late 2010, Guinea held its first democratic elections since independence in 1958. This followed decades of dictatorship under Lansana Conte, followed by a military regime that took power in a coup d’etat immediately following Conte’s death. The historic elections were a close contest and were followed by some violence, but the period since has been Guinea’s best chance at a stable democracy so far. This makes last week’s events particularly significant. Let us also not forget that Guinea is the world’s leading producer of bauxite, which is used to make aluminium.

As for the issue of the loss of human life, while it is true that on this particular occasion, there have been more deaths in Norway (93) than in Guinea, in general, the scale of a humanitarian tragedy has little (if anything) to do with the levels of media coverage it attracts. The military junta in Guinea was responsible for a massacre that killed at least 159 unarmed civilians in 2009. It also failed to generate any substantive levels of media coverage. And the media has routinely paid relatively little attention to conflict in the DRC that has cost more than 5.4 millions lives since 1998. Clearly, the level of loss of human life in itself does not explain the high level of coverage of the events in Norway.

In this case, it is the loss of life in a predominantly white and wealthy European country (the victims are of the type that Western audiences can relate to and sympathise with), combined with the unexpected nature of the tragedy (in an otherwise stable and peaceful place) that has provided the impetus for the coverage.

The skin colour and socioeconomic status of the victims in Guinea leave them at an immediate disadvantage with Western media corporations and their audience. Furthermore, because there is a chronic and widespread shortage of coverage of Guinea, and of Africa in general, audiences in the West have little background knowledge or context to which to relate or attach significance. Guinea is not seen as a separate country with unique circumstances. It is simply lumped together with the other 54 countries that make up Africa. And Africa carries with it an image of violence and political instability (although most of Africa is at peace most of the time). The events in Guinea fit this broad, extremely oversimplified and misleading ‘pattern’.

As such, the events in Guinea are not seen as unexpected – and are therefore not newsworthy, regardless of the political implications. Attacks on democracy, and the loss of human life, are, to a large degree,tolerated, because these things seem to happen there (on the continent as a whole) more often, and because, from a Western perspective, people there are not ‘like us’.

The media coverage on this occasion, of course, does nothing to change this – it perpetuates it. A 39-word briefing on page 33 of a newspaper cannot hope to convey to the audience any political significance of the events unfolding, or offer any opportunity to generate interest, concern or sympathy.

The vicious cycle, the spiral of silence that helps keep that distance between Africa and the rest of us, continues.

Libya and moral imperative

Posted in Africa, conflict death tolls, dictators, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 14 May, 2011 by Virgil

Photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo under a CC Licence

Since it began earlier this year, the conflict in Libya was marked as a chosen one, attracting a powerful media spotlight. This should have come as no surprise. The events in Tunisia and Egypt set in motion a broad movement for reform in many democratically challenged countries and Libya was next in line.

As demonstrations transformed into armed rebellion, media coverage quickly took on a Hollywood action movie format – with Gaddafi as the ‘bad guy’, the rebellion as the true representative of the oppressed people that could do no wrong, and the Western powers (who became the air force of the rebellion) as the heroes who were going to save the day. Nor should this simplification have come as a surprise. In covering foreign conflicts, the media tend to rely on simplicity and good-guy/bad-guy formats to sell their products. And although relations between Libya and Western countries had been thawing in recent years (as witnessed by state visits and the conclusion of major oil and arms deals), Gadaffi had a long history of being a ‘bad guy’ that could easily be revived.

With this good-guy/bad-guy format, comes the implication that there is a moral imperative to ‘do something’. To stop the bad guy and the humanitarian suffering he is causing. This humanitarian focus or sense of moral imperative, while of course being very pronounced and emotive in lighter, tabloid type media, creeps into even the most serious of media publications. Libya has been the subject of a number of cover stories in the Economist, for example, and the sense of moral imperative is clearly a part of that coverage. In an article entitled ‘Don’t let him linger‘, the Economist asks us, “If the death toll suddenly rises into the thousands, can the rest of the world stand idly by?” It answers, “Surely not. But dislodging Libya’s tyrant is proving hard”. It goes on, “if the Libyan regime starts killing people in their thousands—and especially if it uses helicopter gunships or aircraft—diplomatic reluctance should melt away. Too often the world has dithered open-mouthed as evil men have slaughtered Darfuris or Rwandans with impunity”.

One of the problems of such expression of moral imperative lies, of course, in the selectivity with which it is applied. Why is Libya currently the prime focus of our humanitarian concern? Why not Somalia? Can the rest of the world stand idly by as thousands of people are killed? It most certainly can and does in far too many cases. In this world, ignoring or failing to respond in a substantive manner to conflict and its humanitarian consequences is more the rule than it is the exception. Policymakers and the media routinely brush over news of large scale massacres or even the deaths of millions of people from conflict-related causes in cases where attention does not serve their interests or where the story is simply too complex to sell. The very fact that Rwanda and Darfur are mentioned as examples of past shame, but the Democratic Republic of Congo (with a conflict-related death toll measured in millions) is not, speaks volumes in this regard.

This criticism of the world ‘standing idly by’ should not be taken as a call for military intervention. Far too often is military intervention impractical and/or counterproductive, and its deadly results (intended and unintended) equally morally unacceptable. There are so many other (potentially more productive) ways in which ‘the world’ can do something other than standing idly by. For the media, couldn’t choosing to give substantive coverage to the world’s deadliest conflicts be a good place to start? Is it really that hard?

Also behind this problem of moral imperative is the simplistic notion that there is one ‘evil’ leader who, single-handedly terrorizing his/her country, serves as a floodgate holding back an overwhelming dedication to and respect for democratic practice, separation of powers, the rule of law and human rights. The notion that if this one person could be removed from power or ‘taken out’, all would be well. These ‘dictators’, while sometimes mentioned as having ‘cronies’, are seen primarily as lone actors and become recognizable ‘faces of evil’. Where it suits Western strategic, economic and political interests, we remember their names and faces – Saddam, Milosevic, Mugabe, Gaddafi. Where friendly relations with such dictators serves these interests, names and faces tend to disappear from view – Niyazov, Abdullah, Saleh, Dos Santos.

But in international politics, the ‘face of evil’ or ‘school yard bully’ frame really doesn’t hold all that much water. Dictators are able to keep their grip on power through a massive network of strongmen and economic interests that trickle down to even the lowest levels of power holders – groups and individuals that benefit from the current configuration of power. Cutting off the head does not suddenly mean that this network will be dissolved, or that the entire population will rejoice at the removal of a dictator. Demonstrations continue today in Tunisia and Egypt, for example (although admittedly to a lesser degree). In both these countries, many observers (locally and foreign) have pointed out that ‘the dictator is gone but the dictatorship remains’. What is often worse, is that when a power vacuum occurs, those with political and/or economic ambitions rush to fill it, resulting in violent clashes as power structures are reconfigured.

Unfortunately, when looking at conflict and crisis in this world of ours, keeping things simple doesn’t really work. Whether it be in how we go about choosing a particular humanitarian crisis to champion, or how we go about attempting to solve them, a broad view and a healthy appreciation for complexity is clearly in order.

Death toll debate (with Andrew Mack)

Posted in conflict death tolls, Congo, DRC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 May, 2010 by Virgil

I recently had the pleasure of receiving correspondence from Professor Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The Project produces the Human Security Report, the most recent one being the “Shrinking Costs of War”. This report has generated quite a debate over its claim that the death toll in the DRC is not nearly as high as the 5.4 million estimated by the International Rescue Committee.

 I had commented elsewhere on the issue, and Professor Mack invited me to take a look at the Overview of the Debate that the Project had put up on their website. The following exchange followed. The main text is what I wrote, and the sections in CAPS are the responses from Professor Mack.

VH: “Although not able to comment on the methodology of either the IRC methodology or that of the Human Security Report, I see the points you are making, and can understand the huge difference that a small change in baseline assumptions can make in the final tally.

 From my perspective, I had a problem with the “paradox of mortality rates that decline in wartime”. I can certainly understand that advances in child health are being made despite the presence of conflict in a part of a country, and that the means of waging war are less destructive than they have been in the past, but I don’t think that this situation is a paradox, and found the notion a bit misleading.

AM: PRESENTED WITH THE STATS MANY PEOPLE DO THINK ITS A PARADOX — LARGELY BECAUSE THEY DON’T REALISE WHAT A HUGE DECLINE THERE HAS BEEN IN CHILD MORTALITY IN PEACETIME AND THAT TODAY YOU NEED A VERY BIG WAR TO REVERSE THE TREND..WE ACTUALLY SAY IT ISN’T REALLY A PARADOX.

VH: I think it’s somewhat unfair to compare national statistics on mortality and then use those results to say that “mortality rates decline in wartime”. The units of analysis are quite different. As noted in the report itself, the area of conflict and the national borders are not the same thing and can be quite different – the DRC, with a total square area the size of Western Europe, but with a conflict zone largely limited to the Kivus and Ituri, is a case in point.

AM:  THIS IS ONE OF THE POINTS WE MAKE — WARS ARE NOT ONLY SMALLER BUT ALSO MORE LOCALIZED…  BUT OUR POINT––THAT NATIONWIDE WAR TOLLS HAVE DECLINED DRAMATICALLY IS AN IMPORTANT AND LITTLE RECOGNISED ONE.

 IT IS OF COURSE TRUE THAT MORTALITY RATES IN  WAR ZONES ARE INVARIABLY MANY TIMES HIGHER THAN THE NATIONWIDE RATES — AS WE POINT OUT.  WE THINK THAT THESE RATES ARE THE ONES THAT SHOULD BE USED BY NGOS FOR ADVOCACY — INDEED NGOS HAVE TRADITIONALLY DONE THIS — WITH REFERENCE TO MORTALITY IN PARTICULAR AREAS BEING — SAY ‘FOUR TIMES THE EMERGENCY THRESHOLD”.

VH: And even the wording, “mortality rates decline in wartime” almost sounds (if one doesn’t read on) as though mortality rates decline ‘because of’ wartime, rather than the intended ‘in spite of’ wartime. A careful reading of the report resolves most of these issues, but I still find the notion and the comparison of national statistics and conflict zones misleading. 

 I see that the final section of your overview deals with the importance of getting the tolls right, partly because of the risk that aid (and other forms of attention I assume) will not be allocated according to need. A valid point, but in reality, aid is very rarely (if ever?) allocated according to need to begin with

AM: WE AGREE — AND SAY SO.  POLITICS AND THE CNN EFFECT ARE THE CRITICAL FACTORS A LOT OF THE TIME…

VH: - which is probably why NGOs tend to inflate need assessments and arbitrary death toll estimations, to try to get allocations more in line with needs. Conflict scale (death toll) has next to no recognizable relationship with aid, media, and other forms attention to conflict.

 This is what really disturbs me, and where my research is directed. The results of your report notwithstanding, the point is that people who knew (policymakers, media, NGOs, a very small part of the public, academia), believed/thought that each death toll the IRC produced was the best estimate, up to the 5.4 million mark. It was, after all, unchallenged until your report, and the numbers were reported each time fleetingly in the newspapers. The general public did not know (the media hardly touched the conflict), but those in a position to do something certainly did, and yet nothing happened. People/institutions were told 5.4 million people had died, had no reason to disbelieve, and yet serious responses (or even indignation) did not arise. 

AM: ACTUALLY US AID INCREASED DRAMATICALLY AFTER THE FIRST REPORT’S RESULT WAS PUBLISHED, AND THE PEACEKEEPING OPERATION IS NOW THE BIGGEST IN THE WORLD

VH: I go through what I think are the reasons for this in my book, but I continue to scratch my head regarding what can be done to try to change this situation. 

AM: AGREE THAT THIS A HUGELY DIFFICULT PROBLEM — BEYOND THE SCOPE OF OUR REPORT.”

I followed up with this response:

VH: “Thank you for the responses to each of my points.

The points of US aid increasing after the IRC death toll figures were released and the peacekeeping operation now being the largest in the world are duly noted.

By the same token, whether the death toll figures announced were 500,000 or 2,000,000, I think they probably would have resulted in a similar response. Much was made, for example, of the death toll figures on Darfur in 2004 (30,000, 50,000 and so on), and then in 2006 (400,000). The figures were met with great concern and mobilized resources, but few seemed to realize that the ‘known’ death toll for the DRC at the time was some 80 times greater. The DRC figures may have prompted an increase in aid from the USA, but I am skeptical as to whether there would have been much of a difference had the figures been considerably lower. Whether a conflict is a stealth or chosen one is a much greater factor, and the death toll figures are used to add weight to the attention that a conflict already gets.

This is not to take away from your point (with which I agree) that death tolls should be as accurate as possible – the 400,000 figure for Darfur damaged the credibility of the attempt to raise attention when they were found to be inflated.

In terms of the size of the peacekeeping operation, MONUC, I am skeptical on how much this had to do with the announced death toll figures. When the DRC conflict officially ended, there were still only about 4,000 troops there, and yet the ‘known’ death toll was already 2.5 million. The increase to its current levels was a very gradual process over a number of years (perhaps more to do with the sheer size of territory to be covered combined with mission creep?). Furthermore, although it may be the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, at some 20,000 or so, it is roughly one-third of the size of the NATO force that was deployed to tiny Kosovo, which in square area is about 200 times smaller than the DRC.

While I agree that much care needs to be taken in producing accurate death toll figures, and that death toll figures should not be inflated to attract attention where there is apathy, whether the death toll for the DRC is found to be 500,000 or 5.4 million, I think it can be safely said that neither aid nor peacekeeping levels are commensurate with the levels of need.”

This is Professor Mack’s response:

AM: “Agreed that Darfur got far more coverage — and celebrities — than the DRC…

On Monuc remember — I worked for nearly three years in Annan’s office — that the UN moves at a glacial pace …  This was also true of PKO in Darfur.

Kosovo demonstrates the inconsistency of major power responses better than any other case.”

 

So that was the discussion. I’m sure the debate will go on…

Which gets more coverage?

Posted in Africa, conflict, conflict death tolls, Israel-Palestine, media coverage, world maps with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 4 May, 2010 by Virgil

 

Why Israel-Palestine?

Israel-Palestine is used here because of the sheer levels of disproportion (conflict death tolls versus media coverage). Each time there is conflagration of any kind in Israel-Palestine – huge quantities of media coverage inevitably follow. With the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq (and recently, perhaps Pakistan), no other conflict in the world even comes close in terms of coverage levels (and certainly in terms of disproportion).

In 2009, Afghanistan stood far above all other conflicts in levels of media coverage in the USA and coverage of Iraq, while still very high, had begun to decline – all very much in line with US policy interest. Afghanistan and Iraq are not used here because their death tolls are much larger than Israel-Palestine (in the hundreds of thousands, rather than thousands), and because coverage is more easily explained away considering the direct involvement of the USA as a belligerent in these conflicts.

That said, the problem is not necessarily that there is too much coverage on Israel-Palestine (please do not use this graphic as evidence of Israel being unjustly picked on by the media). Organized violence that results in thousands of deaths is not something that should be downplayed or justified anywhere and for any reason. The problem is that there is not enough coverage of the rest of the world’s cases of organized violence. And when this violence is resulting in millions of deaths, its marginalization by the media should result in red flags, flashing lights, alarms and all manner of questioning on the performance of the media in fulfilling its social responsibilities.

Evidence:

The bold statement in the graphic is based on a number of studies. In this study on media coverage of conflict for the year 2000, the media coverage of the conflict in Israel-Palestine was greater than that for all of Africa’s conflicts combined for all sources studies – BBC, CNN, Le Monde, the New York Times and the Yomiuri newspaper.

A study of the Australian newspaper for the year 2007 yielded similar results. In this case, not only was coverage of conflict greater, but coverage of all subjects/topics associated with Israel-Palestine was greater than that for all of Africa’s 53 countries combined.

Another study on coverage of conflict in US media sources for the year 2009 (the New York Times, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC – the results have yet to be published) again shows (surprise, surprise) that conflict in Israel-Palestine gets far greater coverage than all of Africa’s conflicts combined.

A few pre-emptive strikes on answers:

The graphic asks if there is any valid reason that can justify this state of affairs. Based on past experience (particularly in such havens for anonymous comment), I suspect the following three justifications may come up, so here are a few brief pre-emptive strikes.

“Violence in Africa is barbaric”

How is firing a missile from an Apache helicopter into a house that shreds the flesh and bone of any man, woman or child within any less barbaric than shooting someone with an AK47 or cutting someone with a machete?

“Violence in Africa is chaotic”

It is not. Nor is it irrational. Just like any other conflict in the rest of the world, it is complex. Calling a conflict chaotic simply indicates a lack of understanding (or worse, a failure to even attempt to understand) – see this post for more. In fact, lumping all of the various conflicts on the African continent together and trying to somehow do a mass group analysis is over simplification in the highest degree and cannot be taken seriously.

“Violence in Africa never seems to end”

Lumping all of African conflicts together will of course produce the effect of continual conflict, so before getting into this, why not use individual examples of conflict? And by the way, couldn’t we just as easily say “violence in the Middle East never seems to end”?

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Still the deadliest

Posted in conflict, conflict death tolls, Congo, DRC, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 16 February, 2010 by Virgil

Don’t let the media’s silence fool you. Conflict and insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remain at horrifying levels.

When Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) stepped up its offensives in eastern DRC in late 2008, positioning itself to take the city of Goma, and making grandiose statements about heading for Kinshasa to take over the running of the entire country, the Western media paid some attention – not much, but at least a few murmurs that could be distinguished from the usual silence. This all came to an end when Rwanda did an aboutface, making a secret deal with its enemy in Kinshasa that saw the arrest of Nkunda and the ambiguous adoption of the CNDP by the armed forces of the DRC. For the Western media, the show was now over and it was time to go home. Besides, much more ‘important’ things were happening in Gaza.

The official international phase of the conflict (the nine-nation continental war) had ended in 2003, and now with the largest remaining rebel group having been dismantled (and Rwanda being ‘friendly’ with the DRC), one could almost be forgiven for thinking that the violence in the DRC was at last coming to an end.

But alas, this was not to be. In spite of military campaigns against remnants of the FDLR (the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda – a group including, but certainly not limited to, some of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide) and Uganda’s LRA, these groups have not been reigned in, and revenge attacks (for being hounded) on the local civilian population remain rife (international boundaries don’t seem to matter all that much in this conflict). As many other observers have noted, in the absence of serious political measures, a military solution simply does not exist. Several other armed groups have continued to be active in eastern DRC, and the actions of some sections of the armed forces of the DRC mean that they remain seen by many as a threat to the security of the civilian population.

Recently released figures are reflective of just how damaging this conflict still is. More than 1 million people have been driven from their homes in 2009 (see here). I doubt there is another conflict in the world that produced such a high number of freshly displaced persons in 2009. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has recently estimated that more than 8,000 women were raped by warring factions in eastern DRC in the same year. While these figures are undoubtedly conservative, as they are they should be seen as a serious reason for concern. More recently, in one series of attacks by the LRA on 13 January this year alone, 100 people were reportedly massacred.

Speaking of figures, the Human Security Report has attacked the death toll figures (5.4 million by the latest count in 2007) for the conflict in the DRC produced by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), declaring that they have been considerably overestimated. I am in no position to verify which figures are closer to the reality (see this analysis), but given the highly misleading presentation of some of the Human Security Report’s conclusions (the apparent ‘paradox’ that “nationwide morality rates actually decline during periods of warfare” (p.17) – simply explained by long-term decreases in mortality rates due to general improvements in health), I find their motives somewhat suspect. I get the impression that they are determined to prove that the damage from conflict throughout the world is decreasing, and the IRC’s death toll figures for the conflict in the DRC were proving to be a major challenge to this notion.

Nicholas Kristof (the New York Times’ chief salesman of humanitarian indignation) has also recently made his own contribution, taking the liberty of using his calculator to update the IRC’s death toll in the DRC, putting the current toll at 6.9 million.

Unfortunately, we will never know the real death toll from the conflict in the DRC. But whichever figures we choose to use, I think it is probably safe to say that this conflict remains the deadliest of our times, and is still very worthy of our attention and concern.

And yet the Western media are, as usual,  missing in action. The conflict in the DRC remains the ‘greatest’ stealth conflict of all time.

Death toll comparisons

Posted in conflict, conflict death tolls, DRC with tags , , , , , , , , , on 21 February, 2009 by Virgil

In a previous post, I presented some comparisons of conflict death tolls according to regions, and compared them with media coverage. Here is another set of comparisons to help keep the scale of conflicts throughout the world in perspective.

 

The death toll from the world’s deadliest conflict of our times – the DRC (5,400,000) – is compared to the death tolls of a number of other better-known conflicts – those in Israel-Palestine (5,000), Kosovo (10,000), Bosnia (60,000) and Darfur (300,000). The square area of each circle is proportionate to the death toll of each conflict.

 

 

Death toll comparison: DRC and Israel-Palestine

 

 

Death toll comparison: DRC and Kosovo

 

  

Death toll comparison: DRC and Bosnia

 

 

Death toll comparison: DRC and Darfur

 

 

(Death tolls are approximations (see this post) and are calculated as of 2007)

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Israel-Palestine and contagious journalism

Posted in conflict, conflict death tolls, Israel-Palestine, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 January, 2009 by Virgil

Forget the series of Christmas massacres by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in eastern DRC that left more than 400 dead (including more than 45 killed in a church) and the coalition of countries in the region trying to hunt them down. Forget the deadly clashes with Congolese rebels poised to take over the city of Goma. Forget Somalia, where the Ethiopian forces that invaded (with US assistance) two years ago are being forced by local resistance forces to pack and leave. Forget all of these conflicts, because violence has broken out again in Israel-Palestine.

 

The latest conflagration of violence in Israel-Palestine continues to dominate international news around the world. The details of who is attacking who with what, how many people have died (down to single digit figures), and how many of them were women and children, together with in-depth political analysis and a touch of humanitarian concern are all fed through the newspapers, television, radio and internet news outlets on a daily basis. And all with the utmost care to avoid displeasing lobby groups that will rain down thousands of e-mails, telephone calls and letters (flak) upon the unfortunate media corporation suspected of even the slightest bias (and possibly revoke their advertising contracts).

 

The Israel-Palestine conflict is a ‘chosen’ conflict. It always is. It has the rare privilege of being the focus of saturated attention every time there is a conflagration (despite the fact that the conflict is not occurring in a ‘white’ Western country, and despite the fact that the USA is not a direct belligerent in the conflict – always sure factors for a conflict to attract soaring levels of attention). Explaining why this is so would take a book or two, but let’s just scratch the surface here. Politicians in much of the Western world obsess about the issue, largely because a significant amount of their election campaign contributions seem to depend on their favourable attention in many cases. Politicians in much of the Muslim world do likewise, because standing up against the oppression of Muslims at the hands of Israel is much more popular than standing up against the oppression of Muslims at the hands of anyone else. The fact that the conflict region is considered the ‘Holy Land’ by Muslims, Jews and Christians helps cement this process.

 

For media corporations, providing saturation coverage of the conflict is nothing short of automatic. What is considered important by media corporations is based largely on what the policymakers at home consider to be important, almost by default. Keeping reporters close to those making foreign policy at home is much cheaper than sending them all over the world to independently gather news. In the competitive media business, budgets are better spent on packaging and presenting news than actually gathering it. Furthermore, for media corporations that have little newsgathering capacity (and oddly, even for those that do), the news value of a story is often determined by what leading media corporations (like the New York Times) think it should be. In this environment of follow-the-leader (policymakers and leading media corporations) and pack journalism, having a reporter in Africa is optional, having one in Israel-Palestine is not. Once the reporter is stationed there, ‘fresh’ coverage of the issue on demand is cheap and easy (far more so than actually sending someone to far-away and logistically challenging Africa to cover something after it happens).

 

Because of the combination of follow-the-leader, pack journalism, and lack of newsgathering capacity, this state of affairs can be seen spreading to the rest of the world as well. Japan has no cultural or religious affinity with Israel-Palestine, and its politicians are not reliant on campaign contributions from pro-Israeli lobby groups, yet its media corporations follow the Western leaders in devoting heavy coverage to the issue. Even locally-focused news programs that rarely have any time for foreign affairs issues make sure to include news of the latest conflagration in their bulletins. With little budget for foreign newsgathering, Zambia’s leading newspaper (the Post) buys its world news from foreign news agencies. The result is that it gives more coverage to the situation in Israel-Palestine than it does to the eight countries on Zambia’s border combined. In the year 2004, for example, it devoted 9 percent of its foreign coverage to Israel-Palestine, but only 4 percent to all of Zambia’s eight neighbours.

 

On top of this, things have always been this way, so they tend to stay that way. Israel-Palestine has always been considered important, and ‘important’ people think it is, so it must be important. Groups (interest/lobby) and individuals with a special interest in the conflict in Israel-Palestine are also well-positioned to continue the process of drawing copious amounts of attention to the conflict, in political spheres and in the ownership of prominent media corporations. Africa, on the other hand, has not been considered important (for a variety of separate reasons that will be dealt with in another post), and therefore no one knows about it, and therefore it is not important. It becomes a vicious cycle.

 

The public, who remain largely at the mercy of the media corporations in obtaining morsels of information about the outside world, seem to end up with the same distorted view of the world. In a simple classroom survey conducted of 37 Australian university students (studying in a course on war and peace no less) in 2003, the conflict in Israel-Palestine was the most common answer (9 respondents) to the question of which conflict in the world they thought had been the deadliest since the end of the Cold War. Only one of the 37 could even name the conflict in the DRC as one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, and that was at third place behind Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan. In a similar survey conducted of 151 university students in Japan in 2008, not a single one could name the DRC as the world’s deadliest conflict. Fourteen students, on the other hand, thought that the conflict in Israel-Palestine was world’s deadliest, coming in at third place behind Iraq and Kosovo.

 

This is despite the fact that the virtually unknown conflict in the DRC is 1,000 times deadlier than that in Israel-Palestine. And I don’t mean that figuratively, it is literally 1,000 times deadlier – the death toll from conflict in the DRC since 1998 is roughly 6 million, while the death toll from conflict in Israel-Palestine since 2000 is roughly 6 thousand. At least 38 conflicts since the end of the Cold War have been deadlier than that in Israel-Palestine. Put simply, while these surveys are limited in their scope, they suggest that collectively, the general public has no idea about the state of conflict in the world. Their perspective on which conflicts are the largest and deadliest is so skewed that the reality is unrecognizable. But who can blame them, considering the horribly unbalanced diet of media they feed on. I invite you to try out simple surveys like this (“Which conflict in the world do you think has been the deadliest since the end of the Cold War?”) with those around you.

 

In some ways, I almost regret writing this post, because I am becoming part of the very bandwagon that I am discussing – by writing about why the issue is important, I am inadvertently boosting the attention it receives… But some discussion of the issue of ‘chosen’ conflicts is also necessary in order for the discussion of ‘stealth’ conflicts to make sense.

 

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