Over the past few months, major political and military developments have been witnessed in the world’s deadliest conflict of our times. Or should I say, barely witnessed. A number of developments that will significantly affect the course of the conflict and the peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been happening, but as usual, they have barely made any ripples in the mainstream news outside the region.
In the closing months of 2008, the Rwandan-backed rebel group in the DRC, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), led by Laurent Nkunda, began a series of offensives in eastern DRC, capturing vast swathes of territory, threatening to take the city of Goma, and began talking about liberating the entire country. Meanwhile, the DRC joined forces with former enemy Uganda and South Sudan, conducting military operations to hunt down Ugandan rebels based in the DRC, who responded with brutal force against civilians as they retreated. Then in late December, a split in the CNDP leadership emerged between leader Nkunda and General Bosco Ntaganda (also known as the ‘Terminator’), who has an arrest warrant against him from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for recruiting child soldiers.
But perhaps the biggest development happened yesterday on 20 January, when Rwandan troops entered the DRC for a joint operation against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – a Hutu militia whose leadership is linked to the Rwanda genocide of 1994. Just a few months ago, another war between Rwanda and the DRC would not have been all that surprising. The realization of a joint military operation between these two countries, with Rwandan troops entering DRC soil with permission, is a major step. Interestingly, the Rwandan forces, together with tanks and trucks full of ammunition, headed for the town of Ruthsuru – CNDP territory. This means a three-way operation by DRC government forces, the CNDP, and Rwandan troops against the FDLR. This represents a major change in the dynamics of the region. (Click here to keep up with what is going on.)
This is likely either a major step towards peace or a major step in a new phase of the conflict. This is the world’s deadliest conflict. Such developments deserve serious attention. They are getting very little.
News of the Rwandan entry into the DRC and peace with the CNDP, for example, has been displaced by conflict in Gaza, the reaction to the inauguration of US President Obama in Kenya, the freeing of a kidnapped Greek shipping magnate, and China trying to stop the sale of artworks that it claims were once looted by Franco-British soldiers, among many others – anything will do. In fact, displaced is hardly the right word to use here. News of the DRC is generally not displaced, because its news value is treated as being so low in the first place that getting it on the news agenda is never easy, regardless of what else is happening in the world (and what is not).
A check of the World page of the New York Times website on 21 January 2009 reveals these headlines (from the top): ‘Debating the blame for reducing much of a village to rubble’ (Gaza), ‘Few Israelis near Gaza feel war achieved much Gaza’, ‘Israel completes withdrawal from Gaza’, and ‘Tensions in the Mideast reverberate in France’. That’s four articles straight on Gaza dominating the top, followed by ‘Obama promises the world a renewed America’, ‘U.S. secures new supply routes to Afghanistan’, ‘Thousands in Chechnya protest after lawyer is killed’, ‘Obama seeks halt to Guantanamo trials’, ‘China sees separatist threats’, and ‘Families file suit in Chinese tainted milk scandal’. One world briefing (103 words) on Rwandan troops crossing the border into the DRC can be found in the 16th article from the top.
A check of the World News page of the website of the Times (the UK newspaper) on 21 January reveals not a single article containing news on the developments in the DRC on the page at all. In fact, of the 32 articles on the page, 18 are related to the election of US President Obama, including a number of articles on the details of the inauguration ceremony and how the day went for the Obama children. There is not even a trace of the DRC on the Africa News page – word of Mrs. Mugabe hitting a reporter gets two articles here, and one article is given to hunting parties culling elephants in Zimbabwe.
A check of the main homepage of the CNN International website at the same time failed to turn up any articles on the DRC either. This page was instead thoroughly dominated by the US President’s inauguration (including an article on the waltzes the Obamas danced, followed by other news including the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a blow-up doll sex suspect arrested in Australia, and Manchester United losing its shirt sponsor. In the regional news towards the bottom of the page, the two items for Africa are: ‘A joke over breakfast with Desmond Tutu’ and ‘Zimbabwe power-sharing talks collapse’.
Of course these are only snapshots of the news presented by these media corporations. News does pop up every once in a while on developments in the world’s deadliest conflict, even if it is buried on page 12 as a news brief. But the way media corporations are showing such disregard for proportion, and attributing such low news value to such important events, choosing so many other stories (many trivial in the extreme) as news in their place, says something about the sad and sorry state of the media industry today.