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.
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.
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.
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.