Archive for the conflict Category

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.

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.

The DRC conflict and Japan

Posted in conflict, Congo, DRC, Japan, media coverage, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 12 November, 2009 by Virgil

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is arguably the greatest stealth conflict of all time. It is a tragic irony that in spite of the fact that the availability of information about the world is at a level unprecedented in human history, the deadliest conflict since World War II can remain largely unknown to the world at large. This doesn’t say much for the real-world value (in terms of awareness about conflict) of the internet, jet airplanes, satellite videophones and other forms of technology that have supposedly made our world so much smaller.

The media have to take a large portion of the blame for this. The amount of reporting devoted to international news has dropped considerably since the end of the Cold War and regional biases (heavy on the ‘home’ region and almost always very light on Africa) are as pronounced as ever. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Japan. International news in Japanese newspapers accounts for just 1 (sometimes 2) of the roughly 30 pages printed, and Africa is even more neglected in Japan than it is in Western media. The Yomiuri Newspaper devoted just 1.9 percent of its international news to the African continent in 2000 (compared to 6.9 percent in the New York Times – see here for more).

The results are evident in the levels of public awareness of the conflict. In a simple survey conducted by the author in 2008, a class of 151 first year university students were asked a single question “Which armed conflict in the world since the end of the Cold War do you think has been the deadliest?” The top three answers were Iraq (death toll: >500,000?), Kosovo (death toll: 10,000) and Israel-Palestine (death toll: 5,000). Of the 151 students, not a single one could come up with the DRC (death toll: 5,400,000). The results are also evident in government policy. Over the past ten years, the Japanese government has given 47 times more aid to Iraq than it has to the DRC. It is also worth noting that the amount of research produced at Japanese universities about the world’s deadliest conflict is negligible.

All of this is rather odd, given the heavy reliance of the Japanese electronics industry on rare metals – many of which are found in abundance in the DRC (not least tantalum, of which Japan is a major consumer). The issue of rare metals was recently a front-page story on the Japanese edition of the Economist, and campaigns to recycle mobile phones and other electronic devices in Japan for the rare metals inside are taking place around the country. Economically, concern over access to rare metals seems to be of growing importance for Japan.

Some have even referred to the DRC conflict as the ‘PlayStation War’. The peak of tantalum prices in 2000 coincided with the release of Sony’s PlayStation 2. Global shortages in tantalum contributed to the failure of Sony to produce enough consoles to keep up with demand, and at the same time, the boosted demand for tantalum contributed to the violent scramble for the mineral in the DRC. Similarly, when environmental concerns over the use of lead in solder brought about a change in policy in Japan, tin (cassiterite) became the alternative component – contributing to a scramble for cassiterite in the DRC (see this video).

But few in Japan seem to be making the connection between these minerals and the situation in the DRC. Admittedly, the fact that the severely underpaid worker with the shovel digging for coltan (possibly under the barrel of a gun) is removed by some four or five stages (transporting, trading, refining and manufacturing) from the insertion of the tantalum capacitors into the Japanese mobile phones has something to do with this. Coltan changes hands many times before reaching the final consumer, and changes into an unrecognizable form hidden deep within the circuit boards of our electronic devices.

What all this means is that Japan makes for a very challenging environment to make traction in getting the issue of the DRC conflict on the agenda. With so little attention and awareness to begin with, there is not much of a base to build on. But at the same time, the rare metal connection should come in handy in some way in bridging the ‘it doesn’t affect me’ gap.

I have recently been involved in a number of events at Osaka University aimed at raising awareness that have left me with some optimism regarding what can be achieved in breaking the cycle of silence on this and other conflicts. My next post will cover some of these events.

We don’t want to know

Posted in conflict, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , on 12 March, 2009 by Virgil

One reason frequently given for the marginalization of certain conflicts by the media is that the people simply don’t want to know about them. Having settled down in front of their TV screens to eat their dinner in the evening, the last thing people want to see are distressing and depressing images of death and suffering from conflict in distant lands that can’t be easily comprehended and judged in the 90 seconds allocated for the broadcast.

From the perspective of the media, although evoking a little outrage at injustices in the world from time to time can work (in terms of ratings), ‘the people’ generally want to be entertained and assured that everything in the world around them is alright. Too much complexity and difficulty in distinguishing the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’ are seen as turn-offs, and too great a dosage of stories that once generated interest apparently leads to so-called ‘compassion fatigue’.

All of this seems to absolve the media from the responsibility of reporting on the issues in question. If the people are not interested in a particular issue, who are they to force it on them? After all, is it not their job to chase consumer interest – to give the people what they want? Having just spent a little time in Rwanda, and with next month marking the 15th anniversary of the genocide in that country, it seemed time to revisit the issue. The lessons (of the response) are by no means out of date.

The genocide and its aftermath saw two very different responses by the media. The Western media tended to shy away from reporting on the genocide itself. These were black Africans killing black Africans. The conflict was portrayed as inexplicable and ‘chaotic’ – it was primitive ‘tribal’ bloodletting (killing people with bullets and cruise missiles is much more civilized than killing with machetes). People with whiter complexions were dying in Bosnia, and O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder in California. Perhaps the only reason Rwanda received any significant coverage was that Western reporters could stop by on their way back from covering the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa – similar massacres resulting in at least 200,000 deaths in neighbouring Burundi the year before had generated almost no coverage at all. Admittedly, conditions for reporters on the ground were highly dangerous (not that that has ever stopped coverage of Iraq), and developments in the situation were rapid and difficult to quickly grasp, but this is not enough to explain the relatively low levels of coverage.

Two to three months after the genocide began, on the other hand, when a mix of Hutu civilians fearing revenge attacks and the perpetrators of the genocide fled together into neighbouring Zaire in massive numbers and cholera began to rapidly spread in the refugee camps established there, media interest was suddenly sparked and emotive something-must-be-done type of coverage came thick and fast. Why did sudden humanitarian interest rise in response to this particular tragedy when it had been lacking just two months earlier?

Lindsey Hilsum (one of the few Western journalists on the ground at the time) tells us that the decision to cover the cholera crisis was “much, much easier” than that for the genocide:

“It was safe – neither the journalists nor the expensive satellite equipment were at risk. It was accessible – the Red Cross would fly you direct from Nairobi. The story made sense – refugees fleeing war, being looked after by aid workers. And, for TV, the visual images were very strong but not so offensive that you could not show them”
(Lindsey Hilsum, ‘Reporting Rwanda: the Media and the Aid Agencies’, in Allan Thompson ed., The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, London: Pluto Press, 2007, p.173)

One might add that a certain level of guilt at not having responded to the genocide itself had built up and reporting on the aftermath was one way of atoning for this.

At first glance, this would seem to partially confirm the media trying to give the people what they want – easy to understand stories, and something to spark compassion without showing too much gruesome content. But consideration of the risk to the reporters and equipment, and issues of accessibility tell us that other factors are at work. Practicalities and cost, for example, seem to have at least partially held sway in this case over the gravity of the issue itself.

Furthermore, the crisis in Somalia in the early 1990s serves to seriously undermine the notion that the media is simply aiming to give the public what it wants, and cannot move an apparently disinterested public. If this were the case, a complex and seemingly inexplicable conflict involving numerous warlords fighting along clan lines in a barely known country in black Africa would never have risen to the headlines – but that is exactly what happened. In this case, the media was taking their cues from interested policymakers, not the public interest, but importantly, the public did become interested once they knew about it. Of course, once the decision to send in US troops was made, saturated media coverage was a foregone conclusion.

In short, the interest of the people in world events is not something that the media passively respond to – they actively work to shape, nurture and guide it. While complexity, the ability to sympathize (perceptions of innocence) and ability to identify (along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines, for example) still carry a lot of weight, it would be wrong to dismiss the media as being powerless servants to the interests of the people. The media may try to predict the interests of the people and market their products accordingly, but they also actively work to create interest where little exists to begin with, coming up with new ‘products’ to ‘sell’.

While noting the commercialization of the media (at the expense of independent editorial power to determine content) and while appreciating the need of media corporations to make money to continue operating, is it too idealistic to expect at least some measure of social responsibility from the media industry? Is it too much to expect that media corporations will give some consideration to the scale and gravity of events when making coverage decisions, and will at least make an honest attempt to tell us about what is happening in the world (and I mean the world, not just the ‘whiter’ portion of it)?

If the media do indeed see themselves as servants to the people, why don’t we the people – those of us who do want to know what is going on in the world – let them know what it is that we want to know and hold them accountable?

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