Archive for December, 2008

New world maps

Posted in Africa, conflict, conflict death tolls, media coverage, world maps with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 30 December, 2008 by Virgil

Here are some new versions of the world map that we are used to seeing that might help us to get a fresh perspective on the way things are, and the way they are shown to us. In these maps, the square area of continents/regions corresponds to their proportion of conflict death tolls and of media coverage. Let’s start with some maps representing conflict death tolls, and follow with some maps representing media coverage. The media coverage maps are for the year 2000 for CNN, BBC, the New York Times, Le Monde and the Yomiuri newspapers.

 

Map of conflict-related deaths (1990-1999)

(What’s the big continent in the middle? Africa? That’s odd, we so rarely seem to hear about it…)

conflict-death-map-1990s 

Map of conflict-related deaths (1990-2007)

(Note the relative growth in conflict deaths in the Middle East since 2000 – that’s the war in Iraq. The Middle East is still totally dwarfed by Africa, though, as is the rest of the world’s conflict).

 

conflict-death-map-to-20072

 

The world according to CNN (2000)

(Coverage of the Middle East is more than double that of Africa)

cnn-map2 

The world according to BBC (2000)

(A little more on Africa than CNN, but that continent still looks pretty small)

 bbc-map1

 

 

 

The world according to the New York Times (2000)

(This does not include domestic news – news about the USA) 

ny-times-map

The world according to Le Monde (2000)

(This does not include domestic news – news about France)

 le-monde-map

 

 

 

The world according to Yomiuri (2000)

(This does not include domestic news – news about Japan)

yomiuri-map 

 

Notes and disclaimers

 

Data is organized according to five continents/regions of the world: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In the conflict maps, the square area of each continent/region is proportionate to that continent/region’s percentage of the world’s total conflict-related death toll. There is no detail beyond that, so although Madagascar appears on the death toll maps, it is only there because it geographically represents a part of Africa (there were no conflict-related deaths recorded for Madagascar).

 

In the media maps, the square area of each continent/region is proportionate to that continent/region’s percentage of the coverage by each media corporation. As with the conflict maps, there is no detail beyond the continent/region as whole, so the shape of the Americas (no distinction is made between north, south or central), for example, was made roughly according to geographic scale and does not represent any internal proportion in news coverage. In the case of the maps for newspapers, the coverage is limited only to the international news on the front page and international pages – home/local news is not included. It should also be noted that the percentages for the media maps do not add up to 100 percent because a certain percentage of media coverage could not be categorized according to geographical location – coverage of global issues or United Nations conferences, for example.

 

Displaying these maps together here is not to suggest that levels of media coverage should be proportionate to the numbers of conflict deaths. Conflict-related events are not the only issues that become the source of international news stories. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect that the sheer scale of a conflict (death toll) will be the only factor considered in determining news coverage – although it should certainly be one of the major factors (alas, it is not).

 

It should also be noted that the timeframe of analysis is quite different. The death toll maps are based on cumulative data of death tolls since the end of the Cold War, while media maps are one-year snapshots of coverage – in this case, the year 2000. A number of the conflicts that make up the cumulative death tolls in the maps were not ongoing in the year 2000. By the same token, it should also come as no surprise that the deadliest conflicts of the year 2000 were occurring in Africa – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Angola, Ethiopia-Eritrea and Sierra Leone. It is also critical to note that it was in the year 2000 when it became known (through a survey conducted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC)) that conflict in the DRC had claimed 1.7 million lives, making it by far the deadliest conflict in the post-Cold War world. This revelation didn’t seem to have any impact on media coverage.

 

Sources

 

Death toll data is generally very unreliable, as has been mentioned in a previous post. That shouldn’t stop us from trying. The sources for the death tolls in this map are from my book, but before they arrived there came from a multitude of sources, including projects and institutions that try to record, measure and compare death toll figures, epidemiological surveys, and sometimes the media. Where there are conflicting studies/records for death tolls, compromises have been made in some cases. None is more controversial than in that in the case of Iraq. The death toll for Iraq used here is a very conservative 400,000. Some death toll figures now are reaching the 1 million mark.

 

The sources for the media coverage maps are from a study I conducted some years ago of news coverage in the year 2000. I measured the square area of each international news article (including photos) for three newspapers (the New York Times (USA), Le Monde (France) and the Yomiuri (Japan)) each day for one year. I also measured the length (in seconds) of each news story for one 30-minute news program each day for CNN International and BBC. I wish I could provide more recent data, but this kind of study takes a huge amount of time to conduct and I have yet to find that kind of time to do a similar study. More results from the study (and analysis) can be found in an article I later published: Hawkins, Virgil ‘The Other Side of the CNN Factor: the media and conflict’, Journalism Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2002, pp. 225-240.

 

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Not so fast (Guinea revisited)

Posted in dictators, Guinea, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , on 28 December, 2008 by Virgil

In my previous post, I wrote:

 

“In the interests of an uninterrupted flow of natural resources from Guinea to the industrialized world (under terms favourable to the latter) and business as usual, expect more silence from Western policymakers and the media on what becomes of the government of this poor West African country and its people.”

 

Things might not be so silent after all. Captain Camara, who took power in a bloodless coup hours after the death of President Conté, has claimed to have blocked the mining sector and pledged to review mining contracts and stamp out corruption. He announced that gold extraction had been suspended for a start (see this article). This could shake things up.

  

Alexandre Foulon)

Bauxite extraction in Guinea (Photo: Alexandre Foulon)

 

As things stand today, too much of the mining and exploitation of other valuable resources in much of Africa happens under dubious contracts, by which foreign multinationals pay off local officials to sign deals that give the bulk of the country’s wealth to the multinationals at giveaway prices. Valuable minerals and other resources are hauled off leaving very little, if anything for the people in the country (except perhaps a small boost in employment, a token payment for the government coffers, a wad of cash in the pockets of the government officials negotiating the deal, and a dose of environmental degradation as a souvenir). This kind of scramble for resources is at its worst in situations of conflict – the conflict itself inevitably becomes linked to this scramble. See this article, this article and this report for an idea of how bad things can get – the DRC is a prime example.

 

The silence of powerful policymakers and the media on the situation in Guinea to date is, to an extent, a sign that foreign multinationals and their backers (policymakers in their home countries) have been happy about the way things are – mining contracts are lucrative for them. The question is: how far will the new military administration go in changing this? Of course it is entirely conceivable that Captain Camara is playing to the gallery, making noise as a strategy to ensure that the current ‘arrangements’ for distributing the spoils of mineral wealth are reconfigured in his favour. He may also be making announcements like this in an effort to boost his popularity and shore up local support, but is not serious about following through with reforms. But if he is in any way genuine and determined to bring about reform, then things could get interesting.

 

Having taken power by force, Captain Camara is, of course, subject to obligatory condemnation by other countries for his disregard for the democratic process. But whether this condemnation ends up as a kind of formality for the gallery, or develops into something more serious (with pressure that will hurt), will probably depend on how willing he is to ‘play ball’ with the foreign multinationals and their backers in maintaining the status quo.

 

If it is to be a continuation of the same game with a new player, then the players (with the exception, of course, of the people of Guinea) will be happy, and talk of the situation in Guinea will fade away. The same applies if the new military rulers can be quietly convinced (behind the scenes) to play ball. But if Guinea keeps popping up in the news, complete with indignation about the flagrant abuse of democracy and human rights, then it just may be that some changes in how valuable resources in Guinea are handled are on the way. Let’s not hold our breath just yet…

Pan-African News Wire)

The coup leader (Photo: Pan-African News Wire)

Lansana who? The death of a ‘dictator’

Posted in dictators, Guinea with tags , , , , , , on 26 December, 2008 by Virgil

Diabetes did to the leader of Guinea (that country in Western Africa bordering better-known Liberia and Sierra Leone) what numerous opposition leaders and civil society movements had failed to do – remove him from power. President Lansana Conté of Guinea died on 23 December due to complications from the disease that he had battled for many years. He had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1984, and the iron fist continued until the end – the editor of a local newspaper was arrested just last week for publishing a photo of Conté struggling to stand up.

 

 

But to what extent is this president (and his actions) known outside Africa? Interestingly, at around the same time as Western policymakers and media corporations were speaking out in furious indignation against the suppression of an opposition movement by Robert Mugabe’s security forces in Zimbabwe, resulting in one death, the beating of the opposition leader and numerous arrests (in early 2007), they seemed to be by and large pretending not to notice the suppression of an opposition movement in Guinea, in which Conté’s security forces gunned down and arrested civil society representatives and students, resulting in the deaths of more than 130 people (see this report and this video).

 

One could assume that a large proportion of people in Western countries know who Robert Mugabe is and would not hesitate to label him a ‘dictator’. One wonders how many in the West even know who Lansana Conté was, let alone label him a ‘dictator’ – I would venture to suggest very few. Newspapers and news corporations have devoted copious amounts of attention to the democratic credentials of the Zimbabwean leader – long before the country’s economic woes became so glaringly obvious. They have maintained a virtual silence on the actions and democratic credentials of the Guinean leader. The New York Times, in an article it devoted to the death of Conté and the apparent coup by the military that followed, refrained from using the term ‘dictator’, opting instead for ‘strongman’. The same newspaper frequently associates the term ‘dictator’ with Mugabe in its numerous opinion pieces and editorials on the subject of Zimbabwe.

 

Pan-African News Wire)

After the coup (Photo: Pan-African News Wire)

Being called a dictator is sometimes a little like being called a terrorist. It is a politically charged label that depends not as much on what you do, but rather on who you do it to (just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, one man’s dictator is another man’s loyal ally and friend). For observers (outside policymakers or the media, for example), there is very little in the way of an objective evaluation of governance and admittedly, there is an awful lot of grey area – rigging elections happens in many countries at various levels, and the rule of law and checks and balances to power can be shaky in varying degrees.

 

The word ‘dictator’ is at times thrown around quite liberally – the key is whether or not the nasty label sticks. This often seems to depend largely on whether or not you are a friend or enemy of powerful Western leaders. Interestingly, some leaders who actually follow through with some of the elements of democratic process, holding elections, allowing opposition parties and parliaments (although rules are clearly bent, or the democratic process is, to varying degrees, abused, or at times rendered powerless), for example, can be labelled as ‘dictators’ by Western leaders and the media, with all of the indignation about the lack of democratic freedoms and the colourful descriptive language that goes with it (‘murderous regime’, ‘evil despot’, and/or ‘brutal tyrant’ just to name a few). Just ask Robert Mugabe or the late Slobodan Milosevic.

 

Being friends with powerful Western governments, on the other hand, is often like a free pass to exist as a full-blown dictatorship, with precious little in the way of scrutiny, criticism or censorship. Indignation (or colourful and emotive phrases like ‘brutal dictatorship’) is rarely heard in response to many ‘governments’ that don’t even bother with the appearance of something that resembles democratic process or the maintenance of basic human rights, in places like Saudi Arabia or Turkmenistan, for example. The former leader of Turkmenistan (Saparmurat Niyazov), apart from arresting and torturing anyone resembling a political opponent, closed down all hospitals outside of the capital and built a powerful personality cult (building grand monuments to himself and renaming the months of the year after his parents). But his friendship with Western countries – largely based on natural gas reserves and his willingness to allow military bases for NATO during their attacks on Afghanistan – seemed to exempt him from any kind of meaningful censure.

 

In fact, being friends with powerful Western leaders often seems to pretty much guarantee a very convenient silence on the state of governance and democracy in one’s country – not only by the Western leaders themselves, but oddly enough also by the majority of Western media corporations, whose positions on foreign affairs issues seem to so frequently resemble those of the leaders in their countries. So what is it that made Conté and his actions so ignorable? What is the basis for the friendship between Guinea and powerful Western counties?

 

One clear answer is that Guinea happens to have the world’s largest reserves of bauxite – an ore that is processed into aluminium. It also has significant deposits of high-grade iron ore, gold, diamonds and some uranium. The mining of these resources is conducted under joint ventures by the government of Guinea and foreign multinational companies based in USA, Russia, Canada, UK, Australia and Switzerland, among others. Another answer is that Conté has maintained a relatively low profile on the international scene (apart from military involvement in conflicts in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone), supporting powerful Western leaders and their policies. This puts him in stark contrast to Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who makes regular use of vocal railings in English against Western governments to help keep internal dissent at bay.

 

Conté lived and ruled Guinea behind a veil of silence that largely insulated him from unwanted outside attention and indignation. His death and its aftermath have made the news to a degree, but it remains to be seen if this will become any more than a brief blip on the radar. In the interests of an uninterrupted flow of natural resources from Guinea to the industrialized world (under terms favourable to the latter) and business as usual, expect more silence from Western policymakers and the media on what becomes of the government of this poor West African country and its people.

Ben Affleck and Gimme Shelter

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy with tags , , , , , , on 21 December, 2008 by Virgil

Ben Affleck has recently directed a short film on behalf of the UNHCR called “Gimme Shelter” (using the Rolling Stones song of the same title). The film is part of a campaign by the UNHCR to generate 23 million US dollars to support their activities in response to the renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

 

The conflict in the DRC is hands down the deadliest conflict of our times, and it almost defies imagination that a conflict of this magnitude has managed to attract so little attention and response over the past ten years – it is truly a stealth conflict of epic proportions. With violence rising again in the DRC, and the beleaguered city of Goma again on the verge of being overrun, now is as good a time as any for an attempt to raise some attention to its plight. While the mechanisms of humanitarian aid gathering and delivery often give rise to ‘carnivals of charity’ that seem to come and go depending on the whims of goodwill (based on what is the ‘fashionable’ crisis at the time, rather than what the actual humanitarian needs are), and although celebrity interventions can be controversial, this campaign should be applauded.

 

Roughly 95 percent of the 5.4 million people who have died because of conflict in the DRC have died not because of the bullets and the bombs, but because of preventable disease and starvation. Even if we cannot stop the fighting itself, we can at least do something to help the victims of the fighting. The figures above tell us that we have failed miserably in this regard – people died for lack of food, clean water, medicine and/or shelter that could have been made available. This is often the critical difference between stealth conflicts and chosen conflicts – the proportion of such nonviolent deaths never reaches such a high level in the case of chosen or fashionable conflicts. There cannot be a starker example than that in the DRC of the results of apathy.

 

UNHCR)

People fleeing fighting in Eastern DRC (Photo: UNHCR)

 

Celebrities have the potential to use their fame to draw attention (and donations) to humanitarian crises and thereby boost the response. The jury is still out, however, on whether celebrities can go beyond boosting attention to crises (that are already on the radar), and can actually succeed in drawing attention to crises that are not yet on the radar. Celebrities such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, for example, have chosen to focus much of their efforts on the conflict in Darfur, despite the fact that both have been to the DRC, and are aware that the scale of the problem in the DRC is far worse than that in Darfur. The website for the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict (co-founded by Angelina Jolie), for example, tells us that there 5,290,000 out-of-school children in the DRC, but the organization has chosen to focus its attention on Darfur (2,405,000 out-of-school children in Sudan), Iraq (540,000 out-of-school children), Haiti (572,000 out-of-school children) and New Orleans (victims of Hurricane Katrina).

 

This is not to take away from the work that these celebrities are doing or the positive effects of this work, and working to boost attention where attention already exists may well help the chances of success of this kind of advocacy (perhaps thereby making it the shrewd choice). But the real challenge lies in a case such as the crisis in the DRC, where, despite its unparalleled scale, attention is sorely lacking from every direction. Ben Affleck has chosen to focus his attention on this conflict, and has conducted a number of exploratory visits (before the latest round of renewed violence). Mr. Affleck’s choice should be applauded – it is a brave one, and there will surely be major challenges ahead in generating attention. Complexity has a way of quickly putting a damper on enthusiasm, however large the problem, and facing this obstacle will be a key challenge (Darfur’s rise to prominence has a lot to do with it being framed with an ostensibly simple storyline of genocide by ‘Arabs’ against ‘blacks’). The DRC is far from being an ‘easy sell’. 

 

The film Gimme Shelter focuses not on the politics, but on the humanitarian issues. This is a fair choice. It is not the job of the UNHCR to stop the conflict and remove the underlying root causes. They are there to help relieve the suffering caused. In any case, it is the complexity of the political background to the conflict (no the conflict is not ‘chaotic’, it is complex) that has been responsible for generating so much apathy to date.

 

The campaign hopes to raise 23 million US dollars. Let’s hope they raise ten times that amount.

Death and Terrorism

Posted in conflict death tolls with tags , , , , , , , on 17 December, 2008 by Virgil

As a follow-on subject, this post takes a look at the relation between the scale of so-called ‘terrorism’ and the amount of attention such violence attracts.

 

The mass media has pretty much swallowed without question the notion that there is no security issue in the world greater than terrorism, and that there is a ‘war on terror’ in progress. This is not only in spite of the strained logic of the entire notion (how does one conduct a war on a method of violence, rather than on a particular opponent?), but also in spite of the extreme selectiveness with which this ‘war’ is being applied.

 

In looking at the way the issue of terrorism has been handled by policymakers and the media, one can be almost be forgiven for thinking that the term ‘terrorism’ applies only to attacks (usually involving explosives) by people of Arab origin (and/or of the Muslim faith) directed primarily against Westerners. One has only to look at the abundance of attention and outrage expressed in response to terrorist attacks on trains and buses in Spain (191 deaths) and in the UK (56 deaths). On the other hand a terrorist attack by a rebel group on a train in Angola in 2001 (more than 250 deaths) was barely noticed and has certainly not been remembered. If this is how we see the definition of terrorism, then the issue has been blown way out of proportion. Death tolls from almost any single major conflict outstrip the total death toll from this particular brand of ‘terrorism’.

 

It is also worth noting the response to the indiscriminate attacks on civilians by 10 gunmen in Mumbai, India in late November resulting in 195 deaths – some of them Westerners (who appeared to be targeted to a degree). The media responded with saturation coverage – blow by blow accounts of the violence, heart wrenching accounts of the fate of the victims and the survivors, and all means of analysis on the causes and implications of the attacks. At almost exactly the same time, sectarian clashes in the city of Jos in Nigeria resulted in some 400 deaths over a period of two days. From the perspective of the Western media, these attacks were hardly even worthy of a mention. The New York Times devoted a total of 3 articles to violence in Nigeria. As of 15 December, the attacks in India had sparked more than 50 related articles in the same newspaper.

 

This is not to take away from the political implications of the attack in India – not least the issue of rising tensions between nuclear-capable India and Pakistan. But at the same time, instability in Nigeria in any form should not be seen as being devoid of political and strategic implications, even from Western-centric standards. Nigeria’s oil accounts for one in ten of the barrels that the USA imports, and violence elsewhere in Nigeria (in the Niger Delta) has directly targeted the oil industry in that country, forcing major cuts in production and increases in global oil prices.

 

Political and strategic implications aside, what the difference in the response to these incidents helps demonstrate is the point that the scale of a conflict or individual attack (namely the death toll) has very little to do with the amount of attention it attracts – which makes many of the displays of indignation and ‘humanitarianism’ appear somewhat hollow.

 

In any case, terrorism is a highly loaded word, full of all kinds of political implications, making definitions highly controversial. But taking the word in its simplest sense – the use of fear/terror to achieve political objectives, there should be no logical reason to distinguish an attack by a suicide bomber on a civilian train in a Western city from an attack by a militia group on civilians in a village in the Democratic Republic of Congo aimed at frightening people into leaving or complying with the militia’s demands. Both clearly constitute terrorism, and if there is indeed a ‘war on terror’ in progress, then the latter (which has in fact proven infinitely deadlier than the former) cannot be ignored.

What’s death got to do with it?

Posted in Africa, conflict death tolls with tags , , , , , , , , , on 13 December, 2008 by Virgil

There is a newsroom truism in the USA that “one dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans”. Sounds pretty bad. But the reality is much much worse. For a start, from the perspective of the news media in the West, 500 Africans have nowhere near that kind of value. The death toll from conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is literally one thousand times greater than that in Israel-Palestine, yet it is the latter that is the object of far greater media coverage, if that is any indication of the news value of the two conflicts. The numbers of victims from conflict in Israel-Palestine are counted down to the last digit, and the intricacies and nuances of the conflict, political situation and peace process are almost obsessively analysed and presented. Death tolls from most African conflicts (if anyone bothers to count) are usually rounded off to the nearest one hundred thousand (at times the nearest million), and the conflicts are frequently brushed off and dismissed as being chaotic, or worthy of some vague pity or humanitarian concern, but rarely of any in-depth political analysis.

 

But news editors do not line up conflict death tolls and do division and multiplication to adjust the figures according to the region and skin colour of the victims when deciding which conflicts to cover and which to ignore. The reality is that the scale of a conflict has very little at all to do with whether a conflict gets the attention of the media or not. Other factors (like the political interest of key policymakers at home, skin colour, simplicity and sensationalism) appear to be the key determinants. Once a conflict is ‘chosen’, it becomes the centre of attention, at the expense of all other conflicts – however destructive they may be.

 

A conflict that had caused 2,000 deaths by late 1998 in Kosovo, for example, became seen as a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportions that simply could not be ignored. Doing something about it was widely accepted as a moral responsibility – a pure case of ‘humanitarianism’. And yet at the same time, millions of human lives were being lost in Africa – the multinational invasion of the DRC was in full swing, brutal rebellions were wreaking havoc in Angola and Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia and Eritrea were engaged in heavy fighting over their border. Each of these conflicts alone was far worse than that in Kosovo. But humanitarian principles simply did not appear to apply to these humans.

 

This does not mean that conflict in Africa is ignored across the board. But even within Africa, the death toll has little to do with the levels of coverage. Darfur made a rare appearance on the radar of Western concern in 2004, rising to a relatively high position on the media agenda. This happened at a time when the known death toll from conflict there was still 80 times smaller than that in the DRC. Similarly, political violence in early 2007 in Zimbabwe resulting in one death and a number of arrests and beatings of political leaders became the object of relatively high levels of attention and indignation in the Western media. At almost exactly the same time, political protest in Guinea was put down by government forces that fired indiscriminately into crowds of protesters resulting in a total of 130 deaths and numerous arrests. Also at the same time, street battles between government and opposition forces in the capital of the DRC resulted in between 400 and 600 deaths, and resulted in the exile of the opposition leader. Yet this violence in Guinea and the DRC was virtually ignored by the Western media.

 

Could Zimbabwe’s ‘popularity’ (as the representative African bad guy) have something to do with Mugabe being a thorn in the side of powerful Western governments because of his railings (in fluent English mind you) against them? And could Guinea’s absence from the media radar have something to do with the fact that the government there is Western-friendly, and that Guinea is the world’s largest producer of bauxite (much of which is mined by Western multinational corporations)?

 

But why should supposedly ‘free’ media in powerful Western countries align themselves and their news values so closely with the governments of the countries in which they are based? Were they not supposed to be the watchdogs of the policymakers? Stay tuned…

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