The media, technology and Cote d’Ivoire
In early March, security forces in Cote d’Ivoire opened fire on a group of women protestors at a demonstration in Abidjan, the commercial capital, killing seven of them and wounding many more. The events (including footage of military vehicles at the scene) were captured on a mobile phone camera and the footage was uploaded onto the internet.
There was some coverage in the English-language media of these events (there has been much more in the French media – Cote d’Ivoire was a French colony) and some expressions of outrage, but, relatively speaking, for a massacre of unarmed (no guns, stones or anything other than symbolic leaves) women by the security forces of an illegitimate government caught on camera, this did not get much attention.
There is, of course, much more to the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire than this particular massacre – more than 400 people have been killed and as many as one million displaced since the crisis started in November 2010 over the results of disputed elections. The incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, thought to have lost the elections, refuses to bow out, while the apparent winner, Alassane Ouattara, remains largely confined to a hotel. But the massacre of unarmed women caught on camera could have been a turning point of some kind in terms of the level of attention the conflict was able to attract and in terms of efforts aimed at it resolution. It wasn’t. The situation in Libya (the massacre happened before disaster struck in Japan) was dominating the news at the time and there was little room for anything else. Partly as a result, UN aid agencies are suffering from a dire shortage of funds for Cote d’Ivoire.
This leads us to the question of how far technology can really go in drawing attention to stealth conflicts and crises. Advances in information and communication technology carry with them untold potential for changes in the flow of information in the world. Potentially, information can be gathered from and delivered to anywhere in the world, and all with little more than a single mobile phone. And massive amounts of information are indeed moving in this way. These developments could conceivably have brought about major changes in terms of variety in the content of the news we consume. But the reality has been far less spectacular. The availability of images/evidence of large-scale human rights abuse alone does not necessarily translate into attention and indignation.
Oddly, the mainstream media, internet sources included, still huddles obsessively around the same one or two crises (pack journalism) and virtually ignores whatever may be happening in the rest of the world. Variety and diversity in terms of what crises are chosen for concentrated media coverage is in very short supply. Furthermore, the scale of the crisis (death toll or humanitarian suffering) usually has nothing to do with the choice the media collectively make – the priorities of the ‘home’ government are almost invariably a far greater consideration.
For audiences in the English-speaking West, one important ingredient necessary for media attention that was missing from the Cote d’Ivoire story was familiarity. This is not simply a matter of racial, linguistic or socioeconomic affinity – although this is certainly a major part of it. Cote d’Ivoire has rarely been covered in the past, so the public lacks the background knowledge and context to make sense of events there. Had exactly the same events happened in Zimbabwe, the reaction would have undoubtedly been very different. For more than ten years, Zimbabwe has been heavily covered (and Robert Mugabe thoroughly demonized) by the Western media.
Also, importantly, Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t quite fit into the ‘big frame’ of the times – the tool that helps us all put a particular news story into its appropriate ‘box’ and quickly make sense of it – like ‘communism’, ‘terrorism’, and now, ‘revolution in the Middle East’. Cote d’Ivoire could certainly be framed as a story of people rising up against an illegitimate government and fighting for democracy – it’s just that it is not happening in the Middle East (it in fact predated the initial Tunisian uprising). And if levels of media coverage to date serve as any indication, events in the Middle East are far more ‘important’ than those in sub-Saharan Africa.
Advances in technology have revolutionized our access to information about the world. If we actively search online, we can very quickly find out what is going on almost anywhere in the world. But for the vast majority of us who continue to rely on the news media (on or offline) to help us make decisions about what information about the world is important; it appears that very little has changed.