Archive for May, 2010

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…

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Death toll debate (with Andrew Mack)

Posted in conflict death tolls, Congo, DRC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 May, 2010 by Virgil

I recently had the pleasure of receiving correspondence from Professor Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The Project produces the Human Security Report, the most recent one being the “Shrinking Costs of War”. This report has generated quite a debate over its claim that the death toll in the DRC is not nearly as high as the 5.4 million estimated by the International Rescue Committee.

 I had commented elsewhere on the issue, and Professor Mack invited me to take a look at the Overview of the Debate that the Project had put up on their website. The following exchange followed. The main text is what I wrote, and the sections in CAPS are the responses from Professor Mack.

VH: “Although not able to comment on the methodology of either the IRC methodology or that of the Human Security Report, I see the points you are making, and can understand the huge difference that a small change in baseline assumptions can make in the final tally.

 From my perspective, I had a problem with the “paradox of mortality rates that decline in wartime”. I can certainly understand that advances in child health are being made despite the presence of conflict in a part of a country, and that the means of waging war are less destructive than they have been in the past, but I don’t think that this situation is a paradox, and found the notion a bit misleading.

AM: PRESENTED WITH THE STATS MANY PEOPLE DO THINK ITS A PARADOX — LARGELY BECAUSE THEY DON’T REALISE WHAT A HUGE DECLINE THERE HAS BEEN IN CHILD MORTALITY IN PEACETIME AND THAT TODAY YOU NEED A VERY BIG WAR TO REVERSE THE TREND..WE ACTUALLY SAY IT ISN’T REALLY A PARADOX.

VH: I think it’s somewhat unfair to compare national statistics on mortality and then use those results to say that “mortality rates decline in wartime”. The units of analysis are quite different. As noted in the report itself, the area of conflict and the national borders are not the same thing and can be quite different – the DRC, with a total square area the size of Western Europe, but with a conflict zone largely limited to the Kivus and Ituri, is a case in point.

AM:  THIS IS ONE OF THE POINTS WE MAKE — WARS ARE NOT ONLY SMALLER BUT ALSO MORE LOCALIZED…  BUT OUR POINT––THAT NATIONWIDE WAR TOLLS HAVE DECLINED DRAMATICALLY IS AN IMPORTANT AND LITTLE RECOGNISED ONE.

 IT IS OF COURSE TRUE THAT MORTALITY RATES IN  WAR ZONES ARE INVARIABLY MANY TIMES HIGHER THAN THE NATIONWIDE RATES — AS WE POINT OUT.  WE THINK THAT THESE RATES ARE THE ONES THAT SHOULD BE USED BY NGOS FOR ADVOCACY — INDEED NGOS HAVE TRADITIONALLY DONE THIS — WITH REFERENCE TO MORTALITY IN PARTICULAR AREAS BEING — SAY ‘FOUR TIMES THE EMERGENCY THRESHOLD”.

VH: And even the wording, “mortality rates decline in wartime” almost sounds (if one doesn’t read on) as though mortality rates decline ‘because of’ wartime, rather than the intended ‘in spite of’ wartime. A careful reading of the report resolves most of these issues, but I still find the notion and the comparison of national statistics and conflict zones misleading. 

 I see that the final section of your overview deals with the importance of getting the tolls right, partly because of the risk that aid (and other forms of attention I assume) will not be allocated according to need. A valid point, but in reality, aid is very rarely (if ever?) allocated according to need to begin with

AM: WE AGREE — AND SAY SO.  POLITICS AND THE CNN EFFECT ARE THE CRITICAL FACTORS A LOT OF THE TIME…

VH: – which is probably why NGOs tend to inflate need assessments and arbitrary death toll estimations, to try to get allocations more in line with needs. Conflict scale (death toll) has next to no recognizable relationship with aid, media, and other forms attention to conflict.

 This is what really disturbs me, and where my research is directed. The results of your report notwithstanding, the point is that people who knew (policymakers, media, NGOs, a very small part of the public, academia), believed/thought that each death toll the IRC produced was the best estimate, up to the 5.4 million mark. It was, after all, unchallenged until your report, and the numbers were reported each time fleetingly in the newspapers. The general public did not know (the media hardly touched the conflict), but those in a position to do something certainly did, and yet nothing happened. People/institutions were told 5.4 million people had died, had no reason to disbelieve, and yet serious responses (or even indignation) did not arise. 

AM: ACTUALLY US AID INCREASED DRAMATICALLY AFTER THE FIRST REPORT’S RESULT WAS PUBLISHED, AND THE PEACEKEEPING OPERATION IS NOW THE BIGGEST IN THE WORLD

VH: I go through what I think are the reasons for this in my book, but I continue to scratch my head regarding what can be done to try to change this situation. 

AM: AGREE THAT THIS A HUGELY DIFFICULT PROBLEM — BEYOND THE SCOPE OF OUR REPORT.”

I followed up with this response:

VH: “Thank you for the responses to each of my points.

The points of US aid increasing after the IRC death toll figures were released and the peacekeeping operation now being the largest in the world are duly noted.

By the same token, whether the death toll figures announced were 500,000 or 2,000,000, I think they probably would have resulted in a similar response. Much was made, for example, of the death toll figures on Darfur in 2004 (30,000, 50,000 and so on), and then in 2006 (400,000). The figures were met with great concern and mobilized resources, but few seemed to realize that the ‘known’ death toll for the DRC at the time was some 80 times greater. The DRC figures may have prompted an increase in aid from the USA, but I am skeptical as to whether there would have been much of a difference had the figures been considerably lower. Whether a conflict is a stealth or chosen one is a much greater factor, and the death toll figures are used to add weight to the attention that a conflict already gets.

This is not to take away from your point (with which I agree) that death tolls should be as accurate as possible – the 400,000 figure for Darfur damaged the credibility of the attempt to raise attention when they were found to be inflated.

In terms of the size of the peacekeeping operation, MONUC, I am skeptical on how much this had to do with the announced death toll figures. When the DRC conflict officially ended, there were still only about 4,000 troops there, and yet the ‘known’ death toll was already 2.5 million. The increase to its current levels was a very gradual process over a number of years (perhaps more to do with the sheer size of territory to be covered combined with mission creep?). Furthermore, although it may be the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, at some 20,000 or so, it is roughly one-third of the size of the NATO force that was deployed to tiny Kosovo, which in square area is about 200 times smaller than the DRC.

While I agree that much care needs to be taken in producing accurate death toll figures, and that death toll figures should not be inflated to attract attention where there is apathy, whether the death toll for the DRC is found to be 500,000 or 5.4 million, I think it can be safely said that neither aid nor peacekeeping levels are commensurate with the levels of need.”

This is Professor Mack’s response:

AM: “Agreed that Darfur got far more coverage — and celebrities — than the DRC…

On Monuc remember — I worked for nearly three years in Annan’s office — that the UN moves at a glacial pace …  This was also true of PKO in Darfur.

Kosovo demonstrates the inconsistency of major power responses better than any other case.”

 

So that was the discussion. I’m sure the debate will go on…

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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