Archive for November, 2009

Congo Week 2009 in Japan

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 15 November, 2009 by Virgil


As noted in the previous post, the amount of media coverage and awareness of the conflict in the DRC in Japan remains at levels even lower than the meagre amounts in other Western countries. At Osaka University in Japan, we thought we would try to do something to begin to change this situation.

In April 2009, the Global Collaboration Center (GLOCOL) at Osaka University organised a photo exhibition and talk event on the conflict featuring the work of freelance photojournalist Takeshi Kuno (a regular visitor to the DRC) and my own research on stealth conflicts. This event attracted a relatively large number of participants from universities, NGOs and the general public (and not only from Osaka, but from elsewhere in Japan as well). Building on the interest generated here, a student advocacy group, which would later name itself ‘Eyes on the Congo’, was formed.

Photo exhibition

Photo exhibition, April 2009, Osaka University

This group helped plan and implement activities at Osaka University to coincide with Congo Week 2009 (18-24 October). Congo Week is an annual event organised by the US-based Friends of the Congo, and is a coordinated attempt to raise awareness of the conflict around the globe. It includes a variety of methods, from seminars and documentary screenings to demonstrations and a global ‘cell out’, in which people switch off their mobile phones at a certain time leaving a message for those who happen to call about the link between the minerals related to conflict in the DRC and the electronic devices that we use on a daily basis.

In 2008 groups from 35 countries participated in Congo Week – there was no participation from Japan. This year, Japan joined in. At Osaka University, a seminar was organised featuring a talk by Masako Yonekawa, formerly the head of the UNHCR Goma Office in eastern DRC. This was followed by two days of screening documentaries and holding mini-workshops with students. The student group (Eyes on the Congo) also organised a series of petitions: calling on media corporations to increase coverage of the DRC conflict; calling on politicians to raise the profile of the issue in Japan’s foreign policy; and calling on mobile phone companies to go public with the source of tantalum and other minerals used in their products.

All events attracted more participation than expected – not just more in the sense of the number of participants, but also in terms of the levels of active participation and interest. Some in attendance had some knowledge on the subject and came out with some hard-hitting questions. But the majority came with very little knowledge (many none at all) of the conflict and the problem. On the whole, these participants were genuinely surprised that such a massive conflict existed in unbeknownst to them. Some expressed shame at not knowing (no need for shame when the media on which they rely maintains a news blackout!). See some of the participants’ comments here.


Workshop, Congo Week 2009, Osaka University

Furthermore, through these activities, a valuable relationship with two reporters from the Mainichi Newspaper (Ryuji Tanaka and Takashi Morita) was formed, both of whom attended the DRC-related events held at Osaka University. In spite of the newspaper’s failure to cover the conflict in the international page(s), these reporters were able to take advantage of an annual special the newspaper holds on children suffering in conflict zones to raise the profile of the conflict in the newspaper. This included a full two-page spread on the conflict, complete with a timeline of the conflict and a write-up on the link with conflict minerals. Never before has the conflict in the DRC attracted this much attention in the Japanese press. Unfortunately, this attention has yet to be reflected in changes in editorial policy on the international page(s) of the same newspaper.

Excuses from some of those representing the media on this media blackout are that there is a “lack of interest” in such a “distant” conflict among the people. The response to the events at Osaka University made it clear that the problem is certainly not a lack of interest among the people. It is less a case of lack of interest and more a case of lack of knowledge. If people know what is going on, interest will follow. One cannot be interested in something one knows nothing about. And the media have it backwards – coverage does not depend on interest (particularly in this case), the coverage helps generate the interest. And the media has no problem in pushing an issue incessantly to generate interest when it wants to.

As for the DRC conflict happening in such a “distant” place, it is interesting to note that the distance from Osaka to Goma in eastern DRC (11,609 km) is not all that different from the distance from Osaka to New York (11,113 km), a city that is the subject of heavy daily coverage in Japan (with Wall Street, cultural trends and Hideki Matsui’s every move being among this coverage). “Distance” is obviously a relative thing, and there is a need to be a little bit more honest about what distance means here – perhaps something closer to “difference”, in terms of skin colour, lifestyle and socioeconomic status.

Seminar, Congo Week 2009, Osaka University

Seminar, Congo Week 2009, Osaka University

The events held at Osaka University are, of course, just the beginning, and barely begin to scratch the surface of the wall of ignorance and silence over the world’s deadliest conflict in Japan and elsewhere. But at the same time, the results have been hopeful – both in terms of the interest generated at the event, and in getting a foot in the heavy door of the media. The events serve as an example of what can be done. Let’s hope the movement grows.

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.

Back in business

Posted in general on 10 November, 2009 by Virgil

I have been away from this blog for far too long. My apologies to those who have been wondering what is going on.

Things have certainly been busy. Among many other tasks, I have been involved in organizing and holding a series of events to raise awareness about the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) here in Japan – where awareness is particularly low. I intend to write about these events in my next post. I have also been doing some work on the Japanese version of the Stealth Conflicts blog.

But excuses aside, I seem to have fallen out of the habit of writing this blog. It is something I hope to rectify. There remain so many issues associated with conflict that require far more attention than they are getting – the massacre in Guinea, increasing violence in Somalia, and ongoing problems stemming from Operation Kimia II in the DRC among them.

It would be unrealistic to expect that the scale of a problem be the most important factor in determining the amount of attention that it gets. But in terms of the way conflict in the world is seen today, the scale (particularly the death toll) seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the levels of attention. Doing something about this sad and sorry state of affairs remains a key objective of this blog.

Looking forward to getting back into the swing of things.

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