Archive for the conflict Category

Clickbait and Stereotypes: Media Coverage of the DR Congo

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 7 November, 2014 by Virgil

by Virgil Hawkins

On 31 October, Reuters released an article headlined “Congo crowd kills man, eats him after militant massacres: witnesses”. The killing was reported as being motivated by revenge for a series of attacks and massacres perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) – the victim was apparently suspected of belonging to this rebel group. The incident was described in just one-fifth (roughly 100 words) of the article, with a single reference stating that the victim’s corpse had allegedly been eaten, according to “witnesses”. The vast majority of the article, however (roughly 400 words) is not about this apparent killing. It instead details the recent movements (primarily political and military) related to the conflict between the ADF-NALU and the DRC government.

The article in question

The article in question

The term clickbait – the misleading use of a provocative or sensationalist title aimed at enticing readers to click on a link – comes to mind, although the article does, in part, cover the actual event the headline mentions. But given the brevity of the description, and the fact that the incident is substantiated only by unnamed and unspecified “witnesses”, one is tempted to question not only the dubious use of the headline, but also how well the facts were actually checked in this case. It is certainly clear that the article was rushed through the editing process – at one point, for example, the rebels are referred to as ADF-NAUL, rather than ADF-NALU.

The Reuters story was picked up by Yahoo!, and the response (at least on the US edition of the site) was overwhelming. In just 12 hours, the article had attracted 6,448 comments. Glancing through these, one struggles to find a single comment that is even vaguely thoughtful, that attempts to seriously discuss the issues raised in the article, questions its validity, or addresses anything in the article apart from the alleged incident of cannibalism. The vast majority of the comments would fit neatly into one (or more) of the following themes: pure racism (Africans/black people have not evolved, and cannibalism is something that they generally do); genocide (sealing off the entire continent and destroying it, or leaving it to its ‘fate’); colonial apologism (this is what happens when you take away white European leadership and give them independence); patronizing charity fatigue/resignation (you try to help these people, but this is what they go and do); and obscene attempts at humour (primarily related to cannibalism).

Other recent articles describing the same conflict that were written by news agencies and had been picked up by Yahoo! (US edition), were, perhaps quite predictably, incomparable in terms of the readers’ response. One article by AFP, for example, published two weeks earlier describing a massacre of women and children in eastern DRC by the same rebel group attracted just 10 comments in total – those comments were similarly themed to those mentioned above. The responses of Yahoo! readers to the mention of violence in Africa on the whole seem to be primarily based on knee-jerk racism and stereotyping at a grand continental level, and almost invariably include a degree of genocidal thoughts and apparent colonial nostalgia. Add a brief mention of a single incident of cannibalism that may or may not have actually happened, and all this is confirmed and amplified with great vigour. While the article in question did go on to explain some of the issues associated with the conflict, in opening it played to the lowest common denominator, and this denominator turned out to be disturbingly low.

Racism is a product of ignorance, among other factors, and, given the chronic lack of information offered by the news media about Africa in general, the fact that ignorance prevails on such a large scale should not seem surprising. The little information provided about the conflict in the DRC in particular, combined with its unparalleled scale, makes it the greatest stealth conflict in the world today. But it is more than just the lack of information – it is also about the lack of balance in the little information that is provided. And this is not only an issue of balance between ‘bad news’ and ‘good news’ (something that is indeed lacking). Consideration must also be given to the balance between brief throwaway journalism (that tends to play to already entrenched stereotypes), and detailed, comprehensive and thoughtful journalism.

Horrible atrocities are a part of any armed conflict – indeed armed conflicts are by definition horrible atrocities. But as those in the journalism industry and academia calling for ‘conflict sensitive journalism’ and ‘peace journalism’ teach us, there is so much more to conflict than expressions of violence that needs to be told by the news media. Armed conflict is a complex social phenomenon, and understanding it involves getting to know the root causes (including social, economic and political inequalities), the belligerents (including their motives and objectives), the suffering of its victims, and efforts aimed at reaching a peaceful settlement, among many other aspects. The news media rarely get this balance right, but they certainly tend to do a better job for conflicts that are not occurring in Africa than those that are.

Reuters (and Yahoo!) can do better than this, and, judging by the disturbing array of comments posted in response to this article, so can the casual observer of armed conflict and atrocities.


* This article was originally posted on the Southern African Peace and Security Blog.

* Follow up: I made 3 attempts to add a comment to the original Reuters article in question, raising the same concerns as those above, and including a link to this blog entry. None were posted. I found the censorship somewhat surprising coming from such a major news organization, particularly considering that the only comment that was allowed through and that remains on the Reuters page is an offensive attempt at humour on the issue of cannibalism.

* Follow up 2 (8 Nov): Reuters has now decided to entirely eliminate the comment function from its entire site. An interesting development to say the least – certainly not a positive one.

The other conflict: Covering eastern DRC

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, DRC, Israel-Palestine with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 November, 2012 by Virgil

Never mind that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hosts the world’s deadliest conflict today, or that the current levels of violence are the worst seen there in the past five years. Whatever its status or state of affairs, the conflict, the country, and the region are going to struggle to attract any substantive levels of media coverage from the outside world.

This sad reality reflects entrenched patterns in terms of the various factors that editors and producers use to help them decide what they think is newsworthy and what is not. These include race, socioeconomic status and perceived national/political interests. Being poor, black and outside the range of vital national interests of the world’s powerful countries certainly does not help. Central Africa’s chances of getting attention are not good at the ‘best’ of times.

So it doesn’t require much imagination to predict what will happen to media coverage when a major outbreak of violence in the DRC happens to coincide with a major outbreak of violence in a part of the world that is deemed as being exceptionally ‘important’.

Since mid-November, this is precisely what has happened. Unfortunately for the people of eastern DRC (though perhaps fortunately for those leading the offensive and their backers), the rebel (M23) assault on, and capture of, the major city of Goma, has coincided almost perfectly with the conflict over Gaza. This has effectively ruled out the possibility of any substantive media-led concern, indignation or interest regarding the fate of eastern DRC and its people.

Let us first let the figures speak for themselves. The following graph shows the levels of coverage in the New York Times (including both online and print) in the one week leading up to the fall of Goma to the rebels.

In this one-week period, the New York Times produced, in response to the escalating conflict in the DRC, 2,947 words in 5 articles (none of which were front-page stories or editorials). For Israel-Palestine, it produced 48,711 words in 60 articles, including 12 front-page stories and 3 editorials. In terms of word count, the conflict in Israel-Palestine attracted 17 times more coverage than did the conflict in the DRC.

And this yawning gap in coverage, this terribly disproportionate level of interest, certainly does not just apply to the New York Times. It is a trend that applies to the news media globally, both online and off.

Any incidence of conflict in Israel-Palestine is automatically newsworthy, for a number of reasons, most importantly elite political interest in powerful Western countries. It is clear that factors such as the death toll or level of humanitarian suffering are unlikely to feature in a major way in the decisions in response to foreign conflict made by policymakers in these countries. But it is shameful that these factors do not feature either in decisions made by media gatekeepers regarding newsworthiness.

Is it too much to ask that the decision-makers in media corporations tone down their deference to elite interests a little, shake off some of the urge to ignore the plight of those whose skin and/or passports are of a different colour from their own, and take a new and fresh look at the state of the world?

Just the bad news

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, DRC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 November, 2012 by Virgil

Reporting on Peace Operations in the DRC

No news is good news” – so goes an old adage. But it does not necessarily apply to the reporting of conflict in Africa by media corporations from beyond the continent, for no news does not necessarily mean an absence of bad news. It often simply means that the media corporations have decided that the events on the continent (both good and bad) are not worthy of reporting.

By the same token, if a recent study by the author is any indication, on the not-so-common occasions that issues related to conflict and peace in Africa are reported, it is indeed the ‘bad’ news that gets the coverage. The study in question involved measuring the coverage by the New York Times of peace operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the course of the thirteen years since it was established. The coverage was measured by a word count. The results can be seen in the figure below.

New York Times’ coverage of peace operations in the DRC (1999-2012) (click on graph to enlarge)

There was some coverage of the UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) when it was established by the UN Security Council in 1999, and more in 2000, particularly as it encountered difficulties in deploying because of obstacles on the ground. But as conditions changed, allowing their deployment in full, and as the peacekeepers began fanning out across the country in early 2001, coverage virtually disappeared – good news simply wasn’t news.

It would be two years before the New York Times would show any interest in covering the peace operations in the DRC again. This time, massacres in the Ituri district led to the possibility (and realization) of intervention by a small French-led European Union force. A combination of the massacres and the deployment of Western troops in response got the attention of the newspaper, but not for long. The EU force would only stay for three months (MONUC would remain), but coverage lasted for little more than one month – the situation had calmed in the town in which the forces were deployed. This was as concentrated as coverage of peace operations in the DRC would ever get.

More bad news – a scandal involving sexual abuse perpetrated by some peacekeepers – attracted a reasonable degree of attention more than a year later. Between 2008 and 2010, peacekeepers’ failures to stop rebel advances, and their dubious collaboration with government troops accused of human rights abuses also was the object of some coverage, but not that much. Coverage has since flatlined.

Since peace operations began in the DRC, there is no question that there have been numerous negative occurrences worthy of reporting, but there have also been positive achievements made in helping keep a very fragile region from falling apart altogether. This also equally deserves our attention.

At the time of writing, rebels have taken the city of Goma, and MONUC’s successor, the UN Stabilization Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) has, for a number of reasons, not resisted their final push into the city. We hope that the New York Times will not simply continue its tradition of reporting the bad news and little else. More importantly, we hope that further violence can be averted, leaving the newspaper with no more bad news to write about.

Southern Africa in the New York Times

Posted in Africa, conflict, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 24 May, 2012 by Virgil

Photo by Francis Wu under a CC Licence

Africa – the continent that always seems to have to go that extra mile or so in a bid to convince the editors of media corporations that its news is worth printing, airing and/or uploading (more often than not, the editors remain unconvinced). This post is a brief overview of the quantity of coverage by the New York Times of the sixteen countries that make up southern Africa for the first quarter of 2012 (January to March).

The following is the number of words (and the percentage of the whole) devoted to news primarily focused on each of the countries of the region, in descending order.

South Africa:__9,247 words (56%)
D.R. Congo:___3,683 words (22%)
Mozambique:__1,219 words (7%)
Zimbabwe:____1,023 words (6%)
Madagascar:___963 words (6%)
Seychelles:____273 words (2%)
Malawi:______88 words (1%)
Angola:______0 words (0%)
Botswana:____0 words (0%)
Comoros_____ 0 words (0%)
Lesotho:_____0 words (0%)
Mauritius:____0 words (0%)
Namibia:_____0 words (0%)
Swaziland:____0 words (0%)
Tanzania:_____0 words (0%)
Zambia:______0 words (0%)
TOTAL:______16,496 words

News about the region’s major power, South Africa, accounts for more than half of the total quantity of coverage. Twelve articles cover a variety of topics, from the expulsion of the controversial ANC Youth Leader from the party, to the hospitalization of Nelson Mandela, to social issues associated with the informal economy. The five articles devoted to the D.R. Congo cover the armed conflict and instability in that country, and questions over the dubious election results from the previous year. Perhaps most worthy of note here though, is that not a single drop of ink was shed over the events in more than half (nine) of the countries in the region, including relatively large and powerful Angola and Tanzania.

From another perspective, how does the total of 16,496 words devoted to the region compare to the New York Times’ coverage other parts of world? Over the same period, Israel alone (one of the most consistently popular objects of media coverage) garnered 36,604 words – more than double the coverage for the entire region of southern Africa. That sounds fair, you might say. Israel is, after all, considering the possibility of bombing Iran, and violent armed conflict goes on in neighbouring Syria. On the other hand, the situation in the D.R. Congo, which attracted but a tenth of the coverage of Israel, is no small matter either. The country is the size of western Europe, and the simmering pockets of conflict, which are remnants of the deadliest conflict the world has seen in the past half-century, continue to serve as major security concerns to its many neighbours.

Let’s try another comparison. In January 2012, a cruise ship called the Costa Concordia ran aground off Italy killing some 32 people. Coverage of this single accident and its aftermath garnered 14,960 words in the New York Times, which is just slightly less than the total amount of coverage devoted to southern Africa. The incident was certainly a tragedy, but in terms of newsworthiness, did it deserve to rival the sum total of three-months worth of events in the entire southern African region, including the ongoing tragedy in the D.R. Congo? Certainly is worth a thought.

Resources, conflict and Japan

Posted in Africa, conflict, media coverage, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 November, 2010 by Virgil

Mining in the DRC. Photo by FairPhone under a CC Licence

It is easy to forget how closely connected the world is. After all, the media have very little time/space for events happening beyond the borders of the country in which they are based, unless people from the home country are directly involved. Nationalism is a powerful force in most countries in the world and patriotism helps sell the news.

But the world is irreversibly and closely connected at all levels. Talking about how events in the outside world do not affect ‘us’ is a reflection of how unaware we are about this reality. No stones have been left unturned in modern history in our search for the cheapest possible goods and services. Goods that can be produced locally will be shipped in from the other side of the globe if government subsidies or getting away with impossibly cheap labour make those goods just that little bit cheaper. If those the acquisition of such goods contributes to a conflict, political instability, or the illegal occupation of another country, then so be it.

The key for those selling the cheaper goods from distant lands is ensuring that the consumer is unaware of what had happened for the goods to reach them, or the effect that this business is having on a conflict or on the environment. This is usually not that hard – the news media serve as a powerful barrier to understanding what is happening in the outside world. In any case, the world is an extremely complex place (which is a major inhibitor in itself), and consumers have a strong interest in what is happening closer to home, not to mention in low prices.

The nationalist slant of the media, while rampant throughout the world, is perhaps particularly pronounced in Japan. Just 1 or 2 pages of a 30-page newspaper are devoted to events in the outside world, and coverage levels of the world on television news are arguably even lower. This makes the Japanese public highly insulated from awareness about the economic connections between Japan and many conflict-prone countries.

But the connections are undeniable. Consider some of these facts:

It has been estimated that some 90 percent of the world’s supply of tantalum (used in capacitors in electronic goods) for 2009 came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where conflict continues, and where armed groups (the national army included) still control many of the mines. The powerful Japanese electronics industry cannot do without this mineral.

More than 40 percent of the world’s cobalt is also coming from the DRC. Much of Japan’s supply comes via Finland. Demand for cobalt is skyrocketing because of a massive increase in lithium ion battery production necessary for making ‘environmentally friendly’ electric cars in Japan. The mining of cobalt in the DRC is far from being environmentally friendly.

More than 40 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in Cote d’Ivoire (but you will not find a single bar of chocolate made in that country). Few chocolate eaters in Japan know this or have any idea that there was a conflict in that country – one fuelled by the illicit trade in this commodity (known in this case as ‘hot chocolate’).

Roughly 70 percent of the frozen octopus imported by Japan is from Morocco. At least that is what the labels on the packs say. But a sizable portion of this ‘Moroccan’ octopus is actually coming from the waters of Western Sahara. The bulk of this ‘country’ remains under Moroccan occupation (incidentally, Western Sahara is a member of the African Union, Morocco is not). The occupied zone is protected by a great wall of sand (2,500 km long) and the world’s longest continuous minefield. The EU is coming under fire because of a fisheries agreement with Morocco that enables it access to Western Saharan waters, although the outcry is limited because media coverage of the situation is so low. With media coverage of this situation virtually non-existent in Japan, Japanese imports of octopus from Western Sahara have sparked no outcries at all.

These are just some of the connections (and I haven’t even mentioned oil). The world is certainly globalizing at a rapid pace. Perhaps it’s time the media started to think about catching on and catching up.

The peace dove

Posted in Africa, conflict, Israel-Palestine, Middle East, peace with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 28 May, 2010 by Virgil

When you think of the peace dove, what do you associate it with? Chances are it makes you think of the peace process in the Middle East. Why? Because the majority of appearances of the peace dove in political cartoons are in connection with the conflict in Israel-Palestine. 

I did a tally of the number of political cartoons associated with a particular conflict that came up in a search of the word “dove” on the site Politicalcartoons.com for the last ten years (Politicalcartoons.com has a pretty impressive collection from artists around the world).  Some 64 percent of the appearances of the dove were in cartoons on the subject of conflicts involving Israel. The dove doesn’t seem to venture all that much outside the Middle East, but he/she has been seen in cartoons on the Olympic Games, on US President Obama’s peace prize, in Northern Ireland, Spain, Colombia, Georgia and India-Pakistan. While the symbolism of the peace dove has its origins in Christianity and Judaism, as these examples show, its significance is clearly not limited to conflicts involving these religions. 

Funnily enough, the dove is rarely seen in Africa at all. But this is not because all of the countries on the continent are constantly at war (most are not), or because those that do experience conflict never find peace. A number of historic peace agreements were concluded for some of the world’s deadliest conflicts happening there over the last ten years – in Angola, Sierra Leone and the DRC (officially at least) in 2002, in Liberia in 2003, and in Sudan in 2005. Yet the peace dove was nowhere to be seen. 

© Copyright 2006 Olle Johansson (reproduced with permission)

But the peace dove is not necessarily found where newly found peace is blossoming or is expected to arrive on the scene. In fact, the dove that does appear in cartoons on the Middle East is usually being eaten, battered, decapitated, shot, blown up, or otherwise maimed or threatened – reflecting the state of ‘peace’ in the areas in question. 

Sadly, it would seem that the peace dove (at least the one in political cartoons) is not really concerned with the state or scale of conflicts, or with successful peace processes. It appears that he/she is just eager to jump on the bandwagon and be associated with the popular conflicts of the day – the handful of ‘important’ ones that the rest of the news media are so intently fixated on. Just like almost everyone else, the peace dove has no time for stealth conflicts (however large in scale they may be) or stealth peace processes…

Nothing but piracy

Posted in conflict, media coverage, piracy, Somalia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 10 May, 2010 by Virgil

What would we see or hear about Somalia if it weren’t for the pirates hijacking ships off its coast? Very very little. 

This graph shows what the stories covered by US television news networks on Somalia were primarily about for the year 2009 (sourced from the Vanderbilt archives). Little additional explanation is required. Almost all (84) of the 91 stories were about the issue of piracy, while 5 stories covered US citizens of Somali descent going to Somalia to fight; 1 story covered a suicide bombing and 1 more mentioned an attempted terror attack.

 It just so happens that Somalia is currently host to one of the world’s deadliest conflicts. If one were to focus on the issues associated with Somalia according to their scale, the conflict and related issues (such as food security) would be front and centre. The media would report on the state of the conflict itself, and attempt to grasp and communicate the underlying causes and issues. Piracy would be a side issue – certainly not the main (sole?) event.

 Alas, this is not the world we live in. The conflict itself is almost completely ignored. Somalia is a forgotten conflict (a type of stealth conflict: see here for the difference). It was once remembered – when US troops were there in the early 1990s – but was quickly forgotten when US troops left. The conflict, of course, went on, but it was no longer deemed worthy of attention.

 Part of the media’s formula for choosing which events and issues to cover is the ‘home’ connection – are there any of ‘our’ people involved? Does it affect ‘us’? (The ‘home’, ‘our’ and ‘us’ here are primarily national and/or racial identities). Piracy directly affects Western shipping (and is sensational) and therefore is of interest. But even if we surrender to the obsession with a home connection, the link between the conflict and potential terrorist attacks that threaten Western countries/interests could (should?) make the case for serious coverage of the conflict. It seems even this connection is not enough to overcome the apathy. Of course the dangers of reporting could be considered a factor in the lack of coverage, but when has danger ever stopped coverage of Iraq or Afghanistan?

 Piracy is in a way related to the conflict – the damage to livelihoods drives people to piracy, and authorities are not there to put a stop to it. Other key factors are thought to be the damage caused to the fishing industry by foreign corporations and criminal organizations taking advantage of the lack of protection of Somalia’s territorial waters to illegally overfish and dump toxic waste (see here and here). But the news is most likely to provide us just with the shallow blow-by-blow account of the attacks themselves.

 We can get a better idea of media priorities if we look at the breakdown of the coverage of piracy by the same media corporations. 

The vast majority of coverage for 2009 was of the attack on a single ship – the US Maersk Alabama. It had so many of the elements of a ‘good’ story and the media went all out. Critically, the ship and the captain were from the USA. This gave it what it needed to put the story on the agenda to begin with. That the captain gave himself up to let the crew get away, and that US Navy SEALs rescued the captain and the ship gave it the elements of sensationalism and critically, heroism. Coverage of the story continued until the homecoming (hero’s welcome) of the captain and the appearance in court of a captured pirate.

 It is worth noting that in 2009 there were a total of 214 attacks on ships and their crews (from a wide range of countries) in the region resulting in 47 hijackings. The US television networks covered 10 of these attacks. Of these, 9 were attacks on either US or European boats, including a French yacht and a British yacht. The only other attack covered was the capture of a Saudi oil tanker (noteworthy because of the unprecedented size of the vessel captured).

 This state of affairs really brings home the sad and sorry state of media coverage of the world – an obsession with the ‘home’ connection and the sensational, and an almost complete disregard for anything that is not directly connected to ‘home’ (including much larger issues, the bigger picture and the context).

 No wonder so many people know so little about what’s going on in the world.

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