Archive for the academia and conflict Category

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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Whose world history?

Posted in academia and conflict, Africa, conflict analysis, Congo, dictators, DRC, history with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 1 March, 2009 by Virgil

The world’s deadliest conflict of our times – that in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – is not only being marginalized by the policymakers, the media and the public today, but it is also in danger of being marginalized by the history books of tomorrow. Keep in mind that the conflict in the DRC has involved nine countries over a battlefield the size of Western Europe, and has cost more than 5.4 million lives. Also keep in mind that an estimated 88 percent of the entire world’s conflict-related deaths since the end of the Cold War have occurred in Africa. Then pick up a ‘world’ history book (any will do) and see how much recent history of the DRC or Africa you find in its pages.

Here’s an example: Martin Gilbert’s History of the Twentieth Century. The chapter covering 1990 to 1999 (70 pages) contains 27 paragraphs on conflict and politics in Israel-Palestine, 15 on Kosovo and 11 on Northern Ireland, but only 1 paragraph each on Zaire and the DRC. Incredibly, the book mentions Angola (a conflict that cost as many as 800,000 lives in that period) only with a reference to the visit by Princess Diana of the UK to that country to support de-mining! The conflict itself apparently does not have any historical significance.

Another example is the Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (revised and updated), edited by Geoffrey Parker. Looking inside the book reveals a subtitle for the book – The Triumph of the West – and this book indeed represents that very triumph. In the chronology provided in the book, the only African conflicts that have occurred since the end of World War II that can be found are the Algerian War of independence and Somalia’s conflict in the early 1990s. While the world’s deadliest conflicts (most notably those in the DRC, Sudan and Angola) are nowhere to be seen, there are entries instead for much smaller conflicts in Bosnia, Israel-Palestine, Kosovo, Chechnya and Iraq – conflicts involving or of interest to the West. The sudden large-scale invasion of the DRC in 1998 by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, and the counterattack by forces from the DRC, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Sudan and Chad is apparently not worthy of mention, yet the relocation of Osama Bin Laden in 1996 from Sudan to Afghanistan gets its own entry, as does Israel disabling the Syrian early warning defence system in 2007.

Similar Western-centric views of history can also be found in the highly subjective ‘selection’ of dictators. Diane Law’s The World’s Most Evil Dictators is a case in point. The two ‘most evil dictators’ selected for the period after the Cold War are Saddam Hussein (Iraq) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe). The selection of Robert Mugabe as a key dictator of the world is an odd one indeed – especially as of 2006, when the book was published. While Mugabe has certainly put a considerable amount of effort into manipulating election results, he at least holds elections – even in the 2008 elections, Mugabe ‘allowed’ himself to lose the first round of the elections. The label ‘dictator’ in this case is stretching the interpretation of the word. There are many world leaders that are far ahead of him in the running for the title of worst dictator. Mugabe’s first major ‘crime’ – the one that set him on the path to high-priority Western target – was his eviction of white farmers. A far milder and low-key place in history is reserved for absolute ‘dictators’ that are Western friendly – in places like Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan, and in African countries with much more questionable democratic credentials than Zimbabwe, and who have sparked so much more violence (see this post).

In many cases it seems that the writers of world history use the term ‘world’ in the same way as Western policymakers use the term ‘international community’ – selectively referring to limited parts of the world in a way that best suits their purposes and subjective perspectives of what, where and who in the world are to be deemed ‘important’.

I invite you to go through other ‘world’ history books that you have (or have access to), count the pages, paragraphs and references devoted to certain world events and certain world leaders to see if the world’s deadliest conflicts are getting the attention they deserve, or if they are in danger of being left out of our accounts of history. Write ups of your findings are welcome at Stealth Conflicts Forum. See the Stealth Conflicts book for a more detailed handling of this subject.

World conflicts and complete idiots

Posted in academia and conflict, Africa, conflict analysis, Congo, DRC, history with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 21 February, 2009 by Virgil

I recently had the misfortune to flip through the pages of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Conflicts, by Steven D. Strauss (2nd edition, Penguin, 2006). I realize that the purpose of such a book is to keep things very simple and interesting so that those with little prior knowledge on the subject can understand and remain interested, but things really got out of hand in this book.

 

With a view to not getting out of hand myself, I will limit myself here to raising two major bones that I have pick with this book. (1) The content is so US/Western-centric that no semblance of proportionality in terms of conflict scale can be found – the ‘fashionable’ conflicts involving and affecting the white and affluent world are given much more space than infinitely larger and deadlier conflicts in the not-so-white and affluent world. And (2), in an effort to keep things interesting, the book goes overboard with references to conflicts as ‘crazy’ incomprehensible things, which seriously hinders understanding of the political and economic factors that are really at the root of these problems.

 

In terms of the first problem, the first lines of the book quickly lay out the focus of the book. “The world is a crazy place, and it seems to get crazier by the moment. If Islamic extremists aren’t attacking the United States, then the Serbs are attacking Kosovo, the Palestinians and Israelis are killing each other, or Protestants are blowing up Catholics…”. Note the strictly northern hemisphere/white/affluent focus, and note that, relatively speaking, these are all very small conflicts.

 

The structure of the book is also quite revealing. The opening three chapters set the tone for what is to come: ‘The World at War’, ‘East is East and West is West’, and ‘The War on Terror’. In the pages that follow, individual conflicts that are given their own whole chapter include: Iraq, Kurdistan, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, Russia, Indonesia, India-Pakistan, North-South Korea, China, Colombia, Haiti – anywhere but Africa. Never mind that African conflicts are responsible for almost 90 percent of the world’s conflict-related deaths; these conflicts have to share chapters – Angola (the world’s third deadliest conflict since the end of the Cold War), Rwanda (equal third), Burundi (eighth) and the DRC (the world’s deadliest) are lumped together in the chapter ‘Struggles in Central Africa’, for example.

 

How about numbers of pages? The Israel-Palestine conflict essentially is given two chapters – ‘The Middle East Mess’ and ‘Israel and Palestine Struggle for Peace’, totalling 26 pages. The chapter on Northern Ireland gets 11.5 pages. That’s roughly equal to the 12 pages that the whole of Central Africa gets (the DRC is given 4.5 pages). Let’s keep things in perspective here; conflict in Northern Ireland has killed fewer than 400 people since the end of the Cold War. Conflicts in central Africa since the end of the Cold war have killed almost 7 million people.

 

Interestingly, in the section on the DRC, the author mistakenly tells us that “…neither World War I nor II has anything on this war: An estimated four million people died during this five-year conflict. (Yes, you read that right.)” Now in fact, the World Wars were each far deadlier than is the conflict in the DRC (although conflict in the DRC has been called Africa’s First World War). But if the author knows that 4 million people have died in this conflict, and thinks that this makes it deadlier than the World Wars, why would he give 4.5 pages (part of a chapter) to this one and 11.5 (a whole chapter) to a relatively tiny conflict in Northern Ireland?

 

 

The frightening thing is, while this book serves as an extreme example, this kind of Western-centric focus (with no regard at all for conflict scale) is by and large representative of what is written in books on the world and its history. Flick through the table of contents of any ‘world’ history book and you’ll get the picture…

 

   

In terms of the second problem (references to ‘craziness’), the book appears to be peppered with words and phrases reinforcing the notion that conflict is simply about insanity. The opening line of the book about the world being ‘crazy’ and getting ‘crazier’ is a case in point. It can also be seen in the title of a chapter – ‘Insanity in West Africa’. There are numerous other such references throughout the book. At the end of each chapter, there is a list containing “the least you need to know” about that conflict or set of conflicts. The section for Central Africa gives us such insightful points as: “The Rwandan genocide is unfathomable” (far from telling us something we should know, it seems to be telling us not to even bother trying); “Burundi Hutus and Tutsis also kill each other”; and “The DRC continues to be embroiled in turmoil”.

 

 

For a book that one can assume is intended to promote understanding (even in a simple way), it seems to be doing a lot of getting in the way of understanding.

 

Bookstore browsing

Posted in academia and conflict, Africa, conflict with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 14 February, 2009 by Virgil

 

I recently spent a considerable amount of time in a number of large bookstores in and around Sydney, Australia. I knew I was expecting too much, but I hoped I might be able to find a few books that would help me learn more about the state of conflict in the world and foreign affairs in general. Instead the exercise turned into another opportunity to learn just how far detached from reality our perspective of the world is.

 

The political sections of the bookstores I visited reflected an obsession with the issue of terrorism (but only the variety of terrorism that is seen as affecting the West, of course), and with US politics. In terms of the quantity of books, the history sections reflected a similar rather extreme Western-centric perspective. Accounts and analysis of the world’s deadliest conflicts of our time were virtually nowhere to be found, and the African continent was consistently marginalized. Furthermore, considering that in the African history section, so many of the books were either the personal memoirs of white people in Africa (The White Masai, Back from Africa and I dreamed of Africa, for example), the accounts of Western journalists, or the exploits of the Western explorers who ‘discovered’ Africa), there was precious little at all about the modern history of the African continent in any of the bookstores visited.

 

Here is just a taste of what I found in these bookstores:

 

In one Borders store, I found 3.5 shelves of books on African history. In the same store, I found 12 shelves on Middle Eastern history, 10 shelves on US history, and 9 shelves on UK history. Western military history was also a major section, with 4 shelves devoted to World War I, 11 shelves to World War II, and 3 shelves to the Vietnam War. That is, there is more information available in this bookstore on World War I alone than there is on the entire history of the African continent. It is also interesting to note that in addition to the large section on World War II, there was a section specifically set aside for the Holocaust – 2 shelves were devoted to books on this subject.

 

In one Dymocks store, 1.5 shelves were devoted to African history. In comparison, a section devoted specifically to Nazi Germany was given 4 shelves. The subject of Western military history was treated with particular importance in this store, with 4 shelves for World War I, 8 shelves for World War II, 8 shelves for Australian military, 8 more for military affairs in general, 4 shelves on weaponry, and 4 more shelves on the SAS. That is, this bookstore stocks twice as many books on the issue of Special Forces in the military than it does on the entire history of the African continent. The same store stocked more books on the Napoleonic Wars (14) than it did on all of Africa’s conflicts combined (12, including 3 books on Darfur and 3 on Rwanda). In another Dymocks store, there were more books in the Jewish history section than there were on the African history section (that’s before even looking at the Middle East history section).

 

Among Sydney’s bookstores, Abbey’s bookstore has probably the largest collection of history books, but the trends here were equally disturbing. I found less than 3 shelves on African history. A number of single Western countries each easily outclassed the number of books on Africa here, with 10 shelves on modern Britain alone (that’s apart from the 2 shelves on modern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), and 4 shelves each on modern France, modern Germany and modern Russia. Modern North America was given 12 shelves and the Middle East was given 6 shelves. Interestingly, in the rather limited Africa section, there was more than double the number of books (7) on the crisis in Darfur than those on Zaire/DRC (3, one of which was largely the account of a single person, rather than a history). This is despite the fact that the conflict in Darfur is far smaller in scale and broke out much later than conflict in Zaire/DRC.

 

Is this all the fault of the academics and writers who, heavily influenced by their Western-centric environment, are simply not writing on subjects that are seen from that perspective as being unimportant, however large in scale or geopolitically significant? Or is it the fault of the publishers and the bookstores which, in chasing sales, are not willing to venture outside the ‘established’ Western-centric perspectives of the world? Whatever the case, with the world’s deadliest conflicts marginalized in the media, in the education system and in the bookstores, the general public really stand little chance of seeing any semblance of balance in the world around them.

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