Archive for July, 2012

The death of Dag Hammarskjold

Posted in Africa, Congo, Zambia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 23 July, 2012 by Virgil

The Dag Hammarskjold crash site memorial. Photo by Rui Saraiva Faro

A few kilometres off the main road connecting the northern Zambian cities of Ndola and Kitwe, is a well-kept memorial marking the site where the plane carrying the then UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold crashed in 1961. His visit was a peace mission, aimed at brokering a ceasefire in the neighbouring Congo. Among the plaques marking the visits by various dignitaries who came to pay their respects, is one inscribed with the words “On the occasion of the visit of the UN Secretary General H.E. Mr. Kofi Annan, 7 July, 2001”.

But Kofi Annan was never there. The inscription neglects to mention the fact that the actual visit was made by a representative of the former UN Secretary General. In fact, no UN Secretary General has visited the crash site. The current Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, had his chance in February 2012 when he visited Zambia, but after addressing that country’s parliament in the capital, Lusaka, chose to go south to Zambia’s prime tourist destination, Victoria Falls, instead of going north to visit the crash site.

Clearly, UN Secretary Generals are exceptionally busy, and such a pilgrimage may well be considered unnecessary. But might there also lie somewhere a desire to avoid drawing attention to the uncomfortable possibility that the crash was not an accident, but an assassination? A British-run commission of inquiry concluded that the crash was caused by pilot error, but a UN inquiry did not rule out the possibility of foul play.

Suspicions that the plane was deliberately downed have certainly not gone away. A book released in 2011 (Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjold?), included fresh evidence suggesting it highly likely that this was the case. And now, more than fifty years after the incident, it has been announced that a new inquiry is being established to attempt to determine the cause of the crash.

A host of evidence revealed to date casts serious doubts on the official account that the crash was an accident. Multiple witnesses saw a second plane in the sky at the time of the crash, and some claim to have seen one plane open fire on the other, but their testimony was ignored. A former US naval intelligence officer who was stationed at a radio listening post even recalled hearing a cockpit recording of what he concluded to be a running commentary of the attack.

Even the simple statement that Hammarskjold “died in a plane crash” cannot be used with certainty, because suspicions remain that he was in fact killed after the plane crashed. The head of UN military information in the Congo at the time, who saw Hammarskjold’s body (which oddly showed no signs of burns), noticed a round hole in his forehead that could have been a bullet hole. Official photographs of the body do not show such a hole, but a forensic expert determined that these photos had been doctored. Eyewitness accounts also tell of two Land Rovers speeding to, and later from, the crash site hours before it was officially ‘discovered’.

So if it was an assassination, who might have been responsible? Fingers tend to point in the direction of European industrialists in mineral-rich Katanga, with the deed being carried out by mercenaries under their employ. The conflict in the Congo was essentially about an attempt by the mineral-rich Katanga province to break away from the Congo, with the support of former colonial master, Belgium, other colonial powers and Western corporations, among others.

They were clearly willing to go to considerable lengths to minimize the impact that the independence of African countries would have on their economic and political control over Africa. Many also saw de facto white control over the economic powerhouse of Katanga as a bulwark against the rising tide of opposition to white rule in southern Africa. Hence the large contingent of mercenaries from Europe and white southern Africa in Katanga’s pro-secession army.

UN forces intervened (in an unusually aggressive manner) to prevent Katanga from breaking away, and needless to say, for the European industrialists in particular, this made Hammarskjold an enemy hated with a passion. While the UK and US officially supported the UN operation, it was believed that they were, behind the scenes, on the side of the industrialists.

Nor can the Cold War context be ignored. Indeed the conflict in the Congo was in many ways seen as a proxy war between the superpowers. Eight months prior to Dag Hammarskjold’s death, Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, in an operation directed by Belgium and assisted by the CIA. In his handling of the Congo crisis, Hammarskjold had managed to threaten the interests of both the US and the Soviets.

The new inquiry into the crash is not an official one. But the committee charged with its implementation does include a number of high-profile jurists. It will be up to one year before the committee makes its conclusions and submits them to the UN. The world (at least part of it) has waited fifty years for a definitive conclusion on the matter of the death of the former UN Secretary General. With the hope that this time, such a conclusion will be reached, it can wait one more.

NHK and the missing continent

Posted in Africa, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , on 12 July, 2012 by Virgil

Photo by Hiromitsu Morimoto (Hetgallery) under a CC Licence

It would appear that the Japanese news media has nothing to say about sub-Saharan Africa. And I mean that in the most literal sense. A study by the author of coverage by the national broadcaster’s (Nippon Hoso Kyokai – NHK) flagship news program, News Watch 9, for the first six months of 2012, revealed not a single news item about the various events that occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, Egypt was the only country on the entire continent to have been the object of coverage over this period.

Media corporations outside Africa have a long and inglorious history of paying scant attention to the continent, but the news media based in Japan seem to particularly ‘excel’ at it. Previous studies by the author have found, for example, that coverage of Africa by Western media corporations (such as BBC, the New York Times and Le Monde) tends to make up between six and nine percent of the time/space devoted to world news. Meanwhile, for Japanese media corporations like the Yomiuri Newspaper (Japan’s largest in terms of circulation), Africa is worth no more than three percent of the little space it allocates to world news.

One might, however, have expected more from NHK. Its budget is the largest of all the broadcasters in Japan, sustaining 29 bureaus throughout the world. Its News Watch 9 program is one full hour worth of news, with no commercial interruptions. And the news it presents is of the serious variety. Celebrity marriages and breakups, and the intriguing goings on in the world of boy/girl bands are generally not covered – something that sets it apart from the ‘infotainment’ often presented by commercial broadcasters.

But the news in Japan on the whole tends to be highly insular and inward looking, meaning that not only Africa, but also most of the rest of the world is largely left out. And NHK is no exception. Only nine percent of the News Watch 9 program was devoted to news about the world beyond Japan’s borders (compared, for example, to twenty percent devoted to sports news), and a quarter of that was concerned with issues associated with North Korea alone (its attempt to launch a ‘satellite’ in particular).

Japan does have one 24-hour news channel (NHK World) that broadcasts news about Japan and the world (or at least certain parts of it – primarily Asia), but it is broadcast in English to the rest of the world. Thus, it would appear that the national broadcaster expends more resources to disseminate Japanese perspectives about Japan and the world to the world, than it does to inform people in Japan about what is happening in the world.

Within Japan, if one has access to a broadcast satellite dish, one can watch a lengthy world news program presented by NHK that borrows news from foreign broadcasters, which is dubbed over in Japanese. This is arguably as ‘global’ as the news in Japan gets. News streams in from 23 news broadcasters around the globe – every continent and region of the world is represented, with the exception of Antarctica and Africa.

When questioned by the author as to why no African broadcasters were being utilized, a representative of NHK replied that unfortunately they could not cover all of the world, and that news about Africa was at times presented by broadcasters from other regions that do feature on the program – such as BBC and Al Jazeera.

Indeed, covering all of the world may not be feasible, but the reasoning behind the choice to entirely ignore news from just one of the world’s inhabited continents, one that happens to make up of one-quarter of the world’s countries and accounts for as much as 88 percent of conflict-related deaths in the post-Cold War world, remains extremely difficult to fathom.

NHK’s own newsgathering structure, of course, reflects similar priorities. Of its 29 overseas bureaus, only one is situated on the African continent – in Cairo, Egypt. But Cairo looks more to the Middle East than it does to Africa, and, considering that NHK has three other bureaus in the Middle East, Cairo seems an odd choice for a bureau supposedly responsible for covering Africa. Then again, if the coverage of Africa (or rather the lack thereof) by NHK news is any indication, it would appear that the Cairo bureau is not expected to cover Africa.

NHK, globalization is happening, and, for better or for worse, Africa is included. Please adjust accordingly.

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