Archive for July, 2010

What can I do?

Posted in activism, Africa, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 July, 2010 by Virgil

In this blog I continue to write about the problem of the world’s largest conflicts being consistently ignored, by the media, the policymakers, the public/civil society, and academia. I was recently asked what the ‘little people’ can do to help change this situation. I guess the short answer would be that the ‘little people’ have to come together so that they can become ‘big people’.

When I talk to people about the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for instance, about how it is hands-down the deadliest conflict of our times and how the conflict is connected to minerals used in our electronic devices, people tend to react with lines like: ‘I had no idea about this problem, I’ll read and find out more’, ‘I’m going to donate to an aid organization working there’, ‘I think I should recycle my old mobile phone’, ‘I’m going to make sure I buy fair trade goods from now on’, and ‘I’ll make sure I vote for someone responsible at the next elections’.

These are all important and valuable reactions. By the same token, we are not getting to the bottom of the core problem – the power structures that keep all this disproportion in place and allow such horrible suffering to go on. To make an impact at this macro level, we need to make a message that is bigger and more visible than the separate actions of lone individuals. If I tell you as an individual about a problem, you may do something, but if I can get a newspaper to print something about a problem, then I have surely made a much bigger impact. Getting something in the news can mean getting the attention of the public at large, but also that of policymakers, aid organizations and academia.

Now getting through to the media and trying to change the shocking levels of disproportion is no easy task, but I think it is worth a try. And the media are not necessarily unresponsive. As I recently noted, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) put up on their website a special report on Africa to coincide with the World Cup being held in South Africa. The title was ‘Africa 2010: A continent’s moment on the world stage’. I wrote a comment on the page lamenting how it was such a fitting title, because ‘a moment’ was all the continent was going to get – as soon as the World Cup ended, it would back to business as usual – a continent ignored by the media. Within a few days, the subtitle ‘mysteriously’ disappeared from the website, leaving just the main title: ‘Africa 2010’. Had I made a difference and shamed the subtitle off the site?

So I begin by suggesting that people put up comments on news websites demanding more coverage on conflicts that are consistently ignored. But such work is likely to be much more effective if it is coordinated. At this point I always recall the stories of supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine who organize large-scale ‘flak’ campaigns against news corporations that they feel have written unfair articles. An article that is critical of Israel, for example, can come out in a newspaper and the following day the journalist will find 3,000 protest emails in his/her inbox. Newspapers cannot ignore this kind of pressure, and I think those of us with other causes can learn from such movements.

It is in this light that I have recently started a campaign in Japan (through my Japanese blog) to try to get more coverage for the African continent in the news media. Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, for example, devoted just 3 percent of its tiny international news section to African news. It is a mailing list campaign called ‘Africa is part of the world too’. I take up one major piece of news from the continent that has been unreported, write an article about it and send it out to all the members on the mailing list. Having read the article, the members are invited to follow the link to the readers’ comment section in a particular newspaper and demand coverage of the issue. It remains to be seen how successful it will be, but I intend to keep chipping away.

The internet can be an incredibly effective tool in this sense, because it is so easy to get messages to a large number of people, and because it bypasses the traditional media systems/gatekeepers.

Due to time constraints, I don’t have any plans at the moment to start up a similar campaign targeting English media, but it may be in the cards, and anyone out there reading this is most welcome to try to get something like this going. In the meantime, I can perhaps suggest taking any issue that I put up on this blog, or anywhere else you see that major conflicts are being ignored by the media, and letting the media know that you are unhappy and expect better. Most media corporations provide spaces on their websites for comments by the readers/viewers, so why not give it a try? A few strokes of the keyboard and a few clicks of the mouse are all that are required!

Here’s something else that can be done. Do something for Congo Week in October this year. It can be anything big or small (just switching off your mobile phone for an hour, for example) that contributes to raising awareness about the dire situation in the DRC. Click on the poster for more details.

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Peace journalism

Posted in academia and conflict, activism, media coverage, peace with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 18 July, 2010 by Virgil

Thanks to the likes of peace scholars/practitioners Johan Galtung and Jake Lynch, peace journalism has been increasingly growing into a strong movement (see their recently released book, Reporting Conflict: New Directions in Peace Journalism for more detail).

 While peace journalism may sound like a form of activism on the part of the journalists, this is really not the case. It is more a case of putting a measure of balance into how journalists portray conflict, working towards a more comprehensive picture of how things are. As things stand now, the media tends to report on conflict with an ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality. That is, focusing simply on the violence – the bombs, explosions, the people fleeing.

 At the same time that violence is being played out, however, there are people and organizations that are working to bring a stop to the hostilities and solve the underlying causes of the violence. Peace processes are underway. But it is not only the peace processes that are being given scant attention, so too are the issues, context and underlying causes themselves. Lynch and Galtung liken this state of affairs to looking at the smoke and ignoring the fire, or simply viewing the result of a disease without examining the diagnosis, prognosis or therapy. War journalism could be seen as parallel to disease journalism whereas peace journalism would be similar in nature to health journalism.

 If journalism is supposed to be facilitating our understanding of the conflicts that are going on in the world, then simply portraying the violence is really not going to help. It is in fact going to inhibit our understanding, not only because it provides but one superficial part of the picture, but also because it encourages gross oversimplification of the situation and the reinforcement of inaccurate stereotypes.

It is in this light that a demonstration for peace journalism was held outside the offices of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in Sydney on 9 July 2010, primarily targeting workers at the ABC as they came in for work. It seems that this was the world’s first protest for peace journalism. It was a modest gathering with most of the participants being those attending the conference on the theme ‘communicating peace’ organized by the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) and held at Sydney University, but the movement will surely continue to grow.

 The notion of stealth conflicts is about the majority of conflicts remaining off-the-radar of the media, with the bulk of media attention being lavished on a select few chosen conflicts. Peace journalism draws attention to the ‘stealth’ within the coverage of individual conflicts. As long as the violence is the primary target of coverage of conflict, many important aspects of the conflict will remain in the shadows.

With corporate media seemingly addicted to action and sensationalism in attempting to sell their product – which is increasingly infotainment, rather than news – the movement for peace journalism will certainly be an uphill struggle, but it is one that is very necessary.

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Debt, dirt and blood

Posted in Congo, DRC, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 2 July, 2010 by Virgil

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has just ‘celebrated’ 50 years of independence from brutal Belgian rule. One of the birthday presents it received was a debt write-off of around 10 billion USD from the IMF/World Bank, which essentially frees up 15 percent of the national budget, hopefully for things like health, education, reconstruction and security sector reform.

Now before we start patting anyone on the back, let us not forget that most of this debt was incurred by Mobutu (the kleptocratic President who was propped up by the USA and these international financial institutions for the duration of the Cold War) under dubious circumstances. Let us not also forget that the DRC has continued to be charged interest on those loans through the nose (the DRC has been forking out at least 300 million USD every year just to pay off the interest!), or that realistically speaking, the DRC was never going to be able to pay the debt off anyway.

But there was one rather sinister detail hiding behind the whole deal. The Canadian government had been trying to delay/block the debt write-off. Why? Because of a mining deal between the DRC government and a Canada-based mining company (First Quantum) that had gone bad. The DRC’s Supreme Court had annulled mining rights (for copper/cobalt in Kolwezi) on a number of mining titles, and the company was seeking arbitration on the matter. The mining rights were allegedly being taken over by a company registered in that haven for secrecy and tax evasion – the British Virgin Islands.

While the debt relief did go through, the attempt to block/delay it was really a nasty move on the part of the Canadian government, particularly given the current state of the DRC – the conflict, the poverty, the suffering. Just last month the UN warned that there is a “catastrophic” shortfall in aid for the DRC that threatens to leave hundreds of thousands of people there with vital health and food assistance cut off. Not that this made headlines, though – the media blackout goes on.

This affair is hot on the heels of another natural resource exploitation dispute in the DRC – over oil drilling rights in Lake Albert. London-based Tullow Oil had its concessions taken over by another company registered in the British Virgin Islands – reportedly one without any expertise in oil drilling. This company is apparently owned by the nephew of South African President, Jacob Zuma. But it has been alleged that Israeli diamond tycoon Dan Gertler (who is close to DRC President Kabila) is behind both the takeovers – the oil in Lake Albert and the copper/cobalt in Kolwezi.

This kind of dealing would look bad in any impoverished country, but let us also remind ourselves of the blood that has been shed over these riches. This conflict has been by far the deadliest of our times, with violence and conflict-related illness and starvation having killed millions. And while the objectives of the many and varied parties to the conflict (and their backers) are also many and varied, the battle over control of minerals such as tantalum, tin and gold has always loomed large as a factor fuelling the conflict. Minerals extracted through violence and virtual slave labour (made possible by the conflict) are always going to be cheaper than those for which a decent wage is paid, which of course helps not only the corporations going after them, but also us consumers when we want to buy electronic goods.

The mix of public and private, of public figures and profit, of governments and corporations in this mess is all so obvious. Ever since the UN came out with its first report in 2002 on the exploitation of natural resources (linked to the conflict) in the DRC, national governments all over the world have been falling over themselves to protect their ‘home’ corporations that had been named and shamed. And countries like the USA and France have hardly been cooperative with further attempts by UN investigations to get to the bottom of the link between natural resources and the conflict, as this example shows.

Here’s an interesting comment by the spokesperson for Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on the whole mining contract vs. debt relief issue: “We will continue to work with our international partners to ensure Canadian investment in the DRC is protected, while empowering those within the country as they work towards peace and sustainable economic development”. It’s a wonder the spokesperson could put two such contradictory objectives together in the same sentence and keep a straight face.

It all seems to be just another sad, sorry and sordid page in a tale of conflict, plunder and profit, with everyone (governments, corporations and individuals) trying to get their fingers in the pot and come away with the riches. This is another case of, both figuratively and literally, riches covered in dirt and in blood.

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