Archive for the activism Category

Arab Spring in slow motion?

Posted in activism, Africa, dictators with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 12 May, 2012 by Virgil

Vote counting in Chipata, Zambia. Photo by afromusing under a CC Licence

One night in February 2011, I happened to be walking past a bar in Lusaka, Zambia, when out staggered an inebriated man who I quickly recognized as a prominent politician belonging to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Zambia’s ruling party at the time. For some reason, he felt compelled to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger (me), and for some other reason, the conversation turned to international politics. Egypt’s iron-fisted ruler had just followed the example of his Tunisian counterpart and had reluctantly relinquished power. It was looking as though Bahrain (among other countries) would go the same way, although this popular uprising was soon to be crushed with the assistance of Saudi tanks.

The US government, after weeks of dithering, had recently switched sides in Egypt, coming out in support of the protesters, and against the dictatorship it had propped up for decades with generous military and political support. History (at least the Western version of it) now seemed to be on the side of the revolutionaries. But the Zambian politician was having none of it. The revolutionaries were “promoting chaos” and should all have been “locked up”. Now the Muslim Brotherhood was going to “unleash terror” on Egypt and on the region. “Responsible governments” around the world should not tolerate “such anarchy”.

It was clear that his anti-revolutionary zeal (as alcoholically enhanced as it was) was closely linked to an underlying fear of the implications of the so-called Arab Spring for his own administration’s grip on power in distant Zambia. The administration in Zambia, however, could hardly be considered a repressive dictatorship. It regularly held elections in a manner that allowed the opposition a respectable chunk of the votes, and it tolerated a private press that seemed to pride itself on going for the jugular of the government (with the editor only occasionally being arrested).

But nor was it a shining beacon of democratic practice. The ruling party had held power for twenty straight years. It had taken advantage of its position in power to mobilize state resources for the political benefit of the party; opposition parties were, for all intents and purposes, excluded from the state-owned media; and a variety of fraudulent tactics were allegedly employed to give them the boost they neededeach time at the polls. Despite economic growth fuelled by the rising price of copper (Zambia’s main export), frustration was clearly growing with the government’s prolonged rule. For a short period in the aftermath of elections in 2006, for example, protests became violent as opposition supporters claimed that opposition leader Michael Sata had been robbed of victory.

As it turns out, the fears of the Zambian politician that I had happened to meet were well-founded. To the surprise of some, the MMD was eventually unseated by Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) at elections held in September 2011. There were a few tense days as delays in announcing the results saw increasingly agitated groups of youth, suspecting that the electoral books were being cooked, come out onto the streets. But in the end the ruling party gracefully admitted defeat and the president packed his bags and left.

This was an election, not a revolution. Votes were held, votes were counted, a winner was declared, and the reigns of power were handed over – standard procedure in a democracy. But such a democratic relinquishing of power to the opposition remains something of a rarity in Africa. And if the unprecedented levels of celebration in the streets of Lusaka were any indication, it certainly seemed to feel like a revolution to many Zambians. One cannot help but wonder if the events in north Africa earlier that year contributed in some way to the movement that swept the ruling party from office.

The Arab Spring seems to have provided inspiration to many who oppose governments with dubious democratic credentials in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And at the same time, rulers have been quick to recognize the dangers and take countermeasures. Demonstrations have been organized (and suppressed) in countries throughout the continent, including in places (such as Angola) where such demonstrations have, until recently, been largely unthinkable. But the democratic changes in sub-Saharan Africa were, of course, under way in many forms long before the Arab Spring erupted. Although often in little more than name, many sub-Saharan countries made the move from one-party states to multi-party ‘democracies’ in the 1990s. And despite numerous obstacles, in many cases, organized opposition to ruling parties have for years been gradually building up and chipping away at undemocratic institutions and practices.

Although the circumstances in sub-Saharan Africa are certainly very different from the those that led to the revolutions in north Africa, there are elements of what can perhaps be likened to a kind of Arab Spring in slow motion in much of sub-Saharan Africa, marked by small victories for democratic practice. The elections in Zambia in 2011 were perhaps one, just as the transfer of power following elections in Senegal in March this year could be considered another. In a slightly different sense, the eventual transfer of power in April this year (following some tense and unsure moments) to the vice-president of Malawi following the sudden death of the president, in accordance with the constitution, is perhaps another reassuring sign.

The road ahead is long. Many rulers and/or ruling parties in sub-Saharan Africa are still in the same place they have been for decades. And democracy involves far more than simply holding elections, even if those elections do result in the peaceful transfer of power. It is about developing and consolidating institutions and practices that are able to consistently hold politicians accountable to the people. And this requires something of both the politicians and the people that is much more long-term and much less glamorous than a revolution.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off but is well worth a visit).

Clicktivism, slacktivism and the alternatives

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 April, 2012 by Virgil

Kony 2012 poster in Australia. Photo by David Ward

The recent Kony 2012 campaign led by US-based advocacy group Invisible Children to draw attention to Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony, was supposed to have culminated in an event held on 20 April to ‘cover the night’ – an event that aimed to “blanket every street in every city” with Kony 2012 posters and messages.

On the whole, it appears the event fizzled. A handful of news outlets noted the failure of the Cover the Night campaign to bring people in any numbers to the streets or to leave much of a mark, but perhaps more significantly, most major news outlets did not report the events at all. Invisible Children’s own website reported the participation of “thousands of people”. It was a far cry from the more than one hundred million people who watched the initial Kony 2012 video designed to promote the event, and the more than three million people who pledged to “stop at nothing” to get Kony.

In all fairness, this was largely inevitable. The act of watching a video (assuming those who began watching it actually finished it) or clicking on a pledge, however powerful, was never going to translate into a comparable level of real-world action. And the fact that the campaign did manage to attract such levels of attention and the participation of thousands of people in response to a conflict in central Africa was certainly an impressive feat. But the drop was quite pronounced nonetheless. This cannot simply be attributed to the barrage of criticism the video attracted, or the public meltdown of the group’s founder and video’s ‘star’, Jason Russell, although these certainly played a large part.

More importantly, it was inevitable because the very factors that made the campaign work so well as a piece of propaganda, were also its undoing. Invisible Children was well aware of the limited breadth (in global terms) and length of the attention span of the youth it was targeting, as well as the need for grandiose spectacle to attract that attention, and they developed their campaign accordingly. The campaign broke everything down into a simple and urgent ‘get the bad guy Kony this year’ message, called for what looked like a clandestine and rebellious (read cool) poster campaign, and in a very self-aggrandising manner, spoke of a ‘Facebook world’ changing ‘everything’, of revolution, of changing history. It was designed to be cool and give youth a sense of empowerment. Although it claimed to be “turning the system upside-down”, the campaign essentially worked within the ‘system’ of fleeting interest in grand spectacle and cool clicktivism. It was a fad of sorts, and fads inevitably fade away.

It is also important to note that the arrest of Joseph Kony, when/if it happens, will not in itself be something revolutionary. While the video claimed, presumably for dramatic effect, that “arresting Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules”, examples of this clearly already exist. Thomas Lubanga, another warlord formerly active in the DRC also responsible for mass atrocities and forcibly recruiting child soldiers, for example, had already been arrested in 2006 under a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and interestingly, was convicted of war crimes (after a lengthy trial) less than ten days after the release of the Kony 2012 video.

The Thomas Lubanga case was an important moment, not just because it marked the first time someone was convicted by the ICC, but because, for all the shortcomings of the process, it happened without massive and passionate pressure from the masses (and largely without their knowledge). The ICC itself, which is becoming an increasingly important tool in deterring war crimes and crimes against humanity, was developed and brought to life not only in the absence of large-scale public outcry, but also in the face of vehement opposition from the powerful US government. It is a systemic attempt to reduce and prevent conflict and conflict-related suffering, and it was made possible not by uninformed (or suddenly informed) passions, but by years of hard work by large numbers of people who were very well informed and were measured and realistic in their approach.

Newborn emotive pressure from the masses tends to be an unwieldy instrument, and unfortunately does not form the basis for a system capable of addressing the world’s many injustices and problems. It can, in the short term, serve as a form of pressure for policymakers to ‘do something’ (primarily to relieve the political pressure) – but not necessarily ‘the right thing’ or ‘the most effective thing’. If it ‘works’, the Kony 2012 campaign, for example, will boost the level of military action against the LRA, but will this do more harm than good? If the answer is yes (and there certainly are precedents), then are we not confronted with the uncomfortable possibility that doing nothing may have been better than doing ‘something’? Does not the existence of such a possibility then suggest the need for great care when generating and wielding this type of emotive pressure, particularly when there will be large-scale life and death consequences in a complex and volatile environment such as that in the DRC?

Some form of engagement from the rich and powerful actors/sectors of the world is certainly one of the necessary components in bringing peace and stability to this region. But this engagement needs to be very carefully planned and implemented. Would it not be better to have thousands of well-informed and dedicated people able to contribute to focused debate and serve as a political force in effectively promoting the necessary long-term comprehensive policies, than millions of people with loud voices calling for simplistic and instantaneous solutions? I would say yes. Will the rousing of millions of voices eventually boil down to these thousands of well-informed voices? Possibly. But at what cost? Will the millions of voices already have contributed to hasty decisions that may make things worse? And will the disillusionment felt by many of the millions when confronted with the complex and harsh realities on the ground serve to damage future activist efforts? Only time will tell. Is there a better way to build up these thousands of well-informed voices? This may be a good time to seriously start considering how.

I would suggest that, while working to dazzle and emotively rouse people into immediate action has its place, much more effort needs to be put into reforming the systems of day-to-day newsgathering and transmission as well as education, to provide a more solid basis for informing and educating larger numbers of people and getting them involved in some form in the development and implementation of effective measures to bring conflict and conflict-related suffering to a lasting halt.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off but is well worth a visit).

Kony 2012: The simple solution?

Posted in activism, Africa, Uganda with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 9 March, 2012 by Virgil

Dungu, DRC. Photo by Oxfam International under a CC Licence

Kony 2012‘ – the viral video/campaign by the non-profit group Invisible Children targeting Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony – has rapidly attracted a great deal of attention in the Western world. It appears to be an example of how resources and attention can be successfully mobilized for an issue on a continent that suffers from chronic marginalization. In this sense, this campaign is an issue of interest for this blog.

But the campaign has also very rapidly attracted a great deal of criticism (see, for example, here): that it was dumbing down the conflict, exaggerating the crimes of the LRA, supporting military intervention (and claiming credit for the US decision to send 100 military advisers), perpetuating the misleading and naïve notion that Africa needs the West to save it, making the campaigners themselves the ‘heroic’ centrepiece of a ‘historic’ story, and finally, that the organisation was somewhat shady with its use of funds.

I think it is the first point – the simplification, the dumbing down – that worries me the most. The LRA operates in a complex and murky environment in which good governance, stability and the rule of law are in short supply. These rebels without borders, having long left Uganda behind, have been active in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and (South) Sudan. Apart from the LRA, the populations in each of these countries are faced with threats from a variety of other armed groups that are often able to act in a culture of impunity: rebels with causes, rebels without causes, predatory elements of national armed forces, and opportunistic bandits.

The LRA is a part of this environment. Solving problems is not simply a matter of taking one armed group out of the equation, and certainly not simply focusing on taking the leader of one armed group out of the equation. It is never about just one person. It is about power structures, resources, group survival, cultures of violence and impunity, and politics, politics, politics. Nor can the regional context be separated from the global. Powerful corporations and governments also have their own interests in the region, and act accordingly.

The eventual capture (or killing) of Joseph Kony would most certainly be greeted with great fanfare and celebration, not unlike George W. Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ ceremony on an aircraft carrier after the occupation of Iraq. As was the case in Iraq, bringing down Kony would not be a solution to a much broader set of problems in the region, but unlike Iraq, the other problems (that would be ‘inconvenient’ to a happy ending) would undoubtedly remain off the radar.

Invisible Children has responded to some of the criticism mentioned above on its website (see here), where its aims and methods appear at least to be somewhat more thoughtful than the video campaign. But it doesn’t really address the crucial ‘dumbing down’ problem, and it is clear that the video campaign is intended to be simple, and to keep people focused on a simple ‘solution’.

Other defenders have employed ‘at least they’re doing something’ and ‘attracting attention is better than having none’ type of arguments. While such perspectives are certainly worth considering, there is obviously a major problem when what is painted so vividly as a clear-cut ‘solution’, is, in itself, hardly a solution. Such moves may, in isolation, simply change the dynamics on the ground and bring about a host of unintended consequences. In this sense, it is important that we not forget the relevance of the ‘first, do no harm’ principle used by medical practitioners, when considering measures to counter violence and armed conflict.

I am certainly not advocating a ‘do nothing’ policy, but in this complex world, and in this complex case in particular, in which one armed group is operating in the presence of several other armed groups, across several armed conflicts across at least four countries, isolating and vigorously targeting the individual leader of one of these groups, with little regard for the broader context, the environment and the underlying issues on the ground, is not a viable strategy. A more nuanced and comprehensive strategy, while less heroic and less romantic, needs to be given greater attention.

Successfully grabbing the media/public spotlight inevitably means bringing the issue down to the lowest common denominator. It is a sad reality that simplistic solutions attract attention where comprehensive and more nuanced solutions that would likely be more effective are unable to do so. Maybe the short-term simplistic campaigns eventually lead to more long-term levels of attention (though I am not particularly optimistic). Perhaps it is necessary to strike a balance between the two.

I do believe that much more effort is needed to get more people interested in more of the world in a general sense. The internet is a big place, and so much information about the world is out there. It is not so much the sudden grabbing of people’s interest that is needed here, but more a matter of getting people into the habit of being more informed about certain issues, particularly where the human needs are the greatest. A greater awareness of the broader issues among a greater portion of the population means a larger base of people that are able to watch issues for the long haul and develop a deeper understanding. It means more people in a position to influence policy in a way that leads to more effective and long-term solutions.

It is certainly not as glamorous as the ‘act now, get the bad guy, and make history’ message, and the scale would be much smaller, but we shouldn’t underestimate the long-term value of a smaller number of highly informed and committed people in contributing to the realization of solutions that are better suited to the conditions on the ground, and thereby more viable and effective.

Congo Week in Osaka 2010

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 31 October, 2010 by Virgil

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is not over. Insecurity still plagues parts of the east, and horrifying stories of rape and other forms of human rights abuse still emerge. And in case we needed reminding, in October, the UN released its controversial Mapping Report, which chronicles the numerous human rights abuses that took place in Zaire/DRC from 1993 to 2003.

Attempts to raise concern in the news and in online forums about such issues invariably raise comments along the lines of “it’s not our concern” or “it’s up to them to sort out their own problems”. Accepting this means accepting the idea that the rape and killing of innocent civilians should not concern us as long as it is happening beyond our national borders (or as long as the skin of the victims is not white). It also means failing to notice the role in the conflict of corporations and governments in the ‘developed’ world, and the benefits that we consumers enjoy in the form of electronic products made with exceptionally cheap raw materials that originate in the DRC.

For those of us who choose not to accept these notions, it helps to raise our voices (preferably in unison) and spread the word from time to time. Congo Week offers an opportunity to do this. This year, from 17-23 October, under the coordination of the Friends of the Congo, groups from 50 countries around the world held a variety of activities to raise awareness about the issues in the DRC and encourage action. This year Osaka was named as one of the ten key cities (along with London, Paris, Washington, New York, Toronto, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Kinshasa and Goma) to anchor the movement. We tried not to disappoint.

SESCO, a Japanese group that assists schools in the DRC kicked off the week with a lecture and panel discussion on the issue. Osaka University took up the torch with a lecture followed by an informal forum (over cups of coffee from the Kivus in the DRC) via Skype with Goma in the DRC and Washington D.C. A representative of World Vision in Goma was kind enough to speak to the students in Osaka about the situation there, and Maurice Carney (Executive Director of Friends of the Congo) was kind enough to be up and talking about the issues at 6am. These events were coordinated by the Kansai chapter of the Japan-Rwanda Youth Conference. The week was capped off by a very successful theatrical event run by Peace Village. A play written specifically for Congo Week brought home the connections between the DRC’s minerals, the conflict, and Japan in a way that no lecture could – suffice it to say that tears were shed.

We hope to repeat some of these events in the near future. There is an open offer for more dailogue between the students at Osaka University and the Friends of the Congo, and the play was too good to be shelved after just one night. The struggle to raise awareness and get a serious dialogue going about this global problem must go on.

It is not an easy struggle. The media in Japan continues to stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the gravity of this conflict and its global implications. The Yomiuri Newspaper (Japan’s leading newspaper), which (like the rest of Japan’s media) generally tends to ignore most of what goes on beyond Japan’s borders, devoted more coverage in one day to the rescue of 33 miners in Chile than it did to five years of conflict in the DRC.

Japan cannot keep its head in the sand forever. Sanyo has just announced that it will increase its production of lithium ion batteries tenfold over the next five years to meet demands for supposedly environmentally friendly hybrid/electric cars. Cobalt is a key ingredient in lithium ion batteries, and some 41 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC. The connection between the controversial mining industry in the DRC and key industries in Japan continues to strengthen.

In Maurice Carney’s message to the students in Osaka, the reminder that what we do here in Japan to raise awareness about the DRC serves also as a source of encouragement for the people in the DRC was inspiring. So to the people of the Congo, from those of us here in Japan who know and who care, know that you are not alone.

The home connection

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 August, 2010 by Virgil

Yesterday, CNN ran a story about a US citizen (Lisa Shannon) who, inspired by a story on Oprah about the abuse of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), started a movement that does charity runs to assist Congolese women. The news item featured some facts and figures on the humanitarian tragedy of the conflict and some images, but Shannon is the only person we hear from. The DRC is the setting (or the backdrop), but the story is about her.

It seems the story has been doing the rounds in the USA and in basically the same formats. ABC News also aired a story on the same subject, with an online article also appearing entitled “Run for Congo: American helps Congo’s women escape violence, one step at a time”. The story is about Shannon’s awakening to the issue and her efforts to get the movement going.

In this particular case, this format for the presentation of the story, or ‘lens’, was already largely in place before it reached the media. The subtitle of the book written by Shannon (“A thousand sisters”) is “My journey into the worst place on Earth to be a woman”, and, according to the blurb, the story is indeed about her journey. Photos of the story, both on the website and on the cover of the book are of Shannon embracing (comforting?) Congolese women.

These observations are in no way meant to take away from the value of these efforts to draw attention to this the world’s deadliest conflict, and to ameliorate the suffering it has caused. The movement and the news stories it generates means more people become aware in some way of the issue. But by the same token, one can’t help but wonder why this home connection is seen as being so essential to whether foreign events and issues are deemed as being newsworthy or not. While I grudgingly acknowledge the sad reality that some people find it easier to identify with a distant story when there is a connection with a person/people with the same skin colour and/or passport colour, the media has taken this way too far. The same can be said for books. A large proportion of books about Africa that one can find on the shelves of a bookstore in the West are about the adventures or travails of white people in Africa, rather than about Africa itself.

Probably one of the worst cases of this syndrome I have ever seen was in the Australian Newspaper’s atrocious reporting of the findings of a mortality survey that 3.8 million people had died as a result of conflict in the DRC in 2004. Far from focusing on the unparalleled scale of the conflict or even on the conflict itself, the article focused on the fact that a number of members of the survey team happened to be Australian citizens. The article (9 December 2004) was entitled “Aussie counts 3.8 million dead in Congo”, and words informing the readers of the Australian-ness of the team appeared a further five times in the article. It was as though what had just become known as the world’s deadliest conflict simply didn’t matter, and that the newspaper was just proud that some Australian citizens were facing hardships to do something noble somewhere.

Clearly there is a problem when the presence of a home connection makes the difference between whether an issue is reported on or is almost completely ignored. It contributes to a terribly distorted picture of what is happening in the world, and perpetuates nationalistic perspectives of world affairs. And the ever-present stereotype of generous Westerners making great efforts and going through hardships to help those less fortunate (who often remain undeveloped characters and the largely passive recipients of charity) has been considerably overdone.

From another perspective, though, this Run for Congo example does show what the power of a single news story about a distant crisis that apparently does not affect us (those with different skin and/or passport colour) can be. From among the millions of viewers that see such a crisis story, even if the majority may remain unaffected/uninterested, for perhaps tens of thousands of people or more, interest at some level is pricked, and for a select few, the end result may even be direct and committed action. This says something about the media’s marginalization of issues on the grounds that people at home are not interested.

On a related side note, there are reports that Hollywood is changing, that business concerns related to growing foreign markets for movies are starting to make some movies less US-centric. This interesting article from the Wall Street Journal talks about how some movie production companies in Hollywood, with a view to making movies more “global” and thereby attractive to foreign viewers, are rewriting/rejecting some movie scripts on the grounds that they are “too American”.

There may still be hope yet.

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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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Congo Week 2009 in Japan

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 15 November, 2009 by Virgil

(日本語でのコンゴウィーク情報はこちら

As noted in the previous post, the amount of media coverage and awareness of the conflict in the DRC in Japan remains at levels even lower than the meagre amounts in other Western countries. At Osaka University in Japan, we thought we would try to do something to begin to change this situation.

In April 2009, the Global Collaboration Center (GLOCOL) at Osaka University organised a photo exhibition and talk event on the conflict featuring the work of freelance photojournalist Takeshi Kuno (a regular visitor to the DRC) and my own research on stealth conflicts. This event attracted a relatively large number of participants from universities, NGOs and the general public (and not only from Osaka, but from elsewhere in Japan as well). Building on the interest generated here, a student advocacy group, which would later name itself ‘Eyes on the Congo’, was formed.

Photo exhibition

Photo exhibition, April 2009, Osaka University

This group helped plan and implement activities at Osaka University to coincide with Congo Week 2009 (18-24 October). Congo Week is an annual event organised by the US-based Friends of the Congo, and is a coordinated attempt to raise awareness of the conflict around the globe. It includes a variety of methods, from seminars and documentary screenings to demonstrations and a global ‘cell out’, in which people switch off their mobile phones at a certain time leaving a message for those who happen to call about the link between the minerals related to conflict in the DRC and the electronic devices that we use on a daily basis.

In 2008 groups from 35 countries participated in Congo Week – there was no participation from Japan. This year, Japan joined in. At Osaka University, a seminar was organised featuring a talk by Masako Yonekawa, formerly the head of the UNHCR Goma Office in eastern DRC. This was followed by two days of screening documentaries and holding mini-workshops with students. The student group (Eyes on the Congo) also organised a series of petitions: calling on media corporations to increase coverage of the DRC conflict; calling on politicians to raise the profile of the issue in Japan’s foreign policy; and calling on mobile phone companies to go public with the source of tantalum and other minerals used in their products.

All events attracted more participation than expected – not just more in the sense of the number of participants, but also in terms of the levels of active participation and interest. Some in attendance had some knowledge on the subject and came out with some hard-hitting questions. But the majority came with very little knowledge (many none at all) of the conflict and the problem. On the whole, these participants were genuinely surprised that such a massive conflict existed in unbeknownst to them. Some expressed shame at not knowing (no need for shame when the media on which they rely maintains a news blackout!). See some of the participants’ comments here.

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Workshop, Congo Week 2009, Osaka University

Furthermore, through these activities, a valuable relationship with two reporters from the Mainichi Newspaper (Ryuji Tanaka and Takashi Morita) was formed, both of whom attended the DRC-related events held at Osaka University. In spite of the newspaper’s failure to cover the conflict in the international page(s), these reporters were able to take advantage of an annual special the newspaper holds on children suffering in conflict zones to raise the profile of the conflict in the newspaper. This included a full two-page spread on the conflict, complete with a timeline of the conflict and a write-up on the link with conflict minerals. Never before has the conflict in the DRC attracted this much attention in the Japanese press. Unfortunately, this attention has yet to be reflected in changes in editorial policy on the international page(s) of the same newspaper.

Excuses from some of those representing the media on this media blackout are that there is a “lack of interest” in such a “distant” conflict among the people. The response to the events at Osaka University made it clear that the problem is certainly not a lack of interest among the people. It is less a case of lack of interest and more a case of lack of knowledge. If people know what is going on, interest will follow. One cannot be interested in something one knows nothing about. And the media have it backwards – coverage does not depend on interest (particularly in this case), the coverage helps generate the interest. And the media has no problem in pushing an issue incessantly to generate interest when it wants to.

As for the DRC conflict happening in such a “distant” place, it is interesting to note that the distance from Osaka to Goma in eastern DRC (11,609 km) is not all that different from the distance from Osaka to New York (11,113 km), a city that is the subject of heavy daily coverage in Japan (with Wall Street, cultural trends and Hideki Matsui’s every move being among this coverage). “Distance” is obviously a relative thing, and there is a need to be a little bit more honest about what distance means here – perhaps something closer to “difference”, in terms of skin colour, lifestyle and socioeconomic status.

Seminar, Congo Week 2009, Osaka University

Seminar, Congo Week 2009, Osaka University

The events held at Osaka University are, of course, just the beginning, and barely begin to scratch the surface of the wall of ignorance and silence over the world’s deadliest conflict in Japan and elsewhere. But at the same time, the results have been hopeful – both in terms of the interest generated at the event, and in getting a foot in the heavy door of the media. The events serve as an example of what can be done. Let’s hope the movement grows.

Gorillas and guerillas

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy, conflict, Congo, DRC, media coverage, natural resource exploitation, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 21 January, 2009 by Virgil

In a previous post, I discussed how the apparent simplicity of a conflict can make the difference in whether it can attract and maintain attention or not – portraying a conflict as ‘chaos’ (instead of actually explaining its complexity) seems to be one sure way of telling people that they don’t need to direct their indignation towards the perpetrators or their sympathies towards the victims. A look at how outside observers see the animal victims of conflict (as opposed to the human victims) also helps us to see how important the ability to sympathize is in getting attention to a conflict.

 

In 2001 a lion in the Kabul zoo was left blinded and scarred by a hand grenade attack. The attacker’s cousin had been killed by the lion when he ventured into the lion’s den on a dare, and the grenade attack was an act of vengeance. The incident was covered in much of the Western press and sparked sympathy and donations to assist in the treatment for the lion. This was more than could be said for most of the human victims of the much broader conflict in Afghanistan. Conflict in that country up until the NATO attacks following September 11 was very much ‘off the radar’, with heavy fighting between the Taliban and Western-backed warlords routinely ignored by the media and other actors in much of the outside world.

 

But we can see the animal effect on sympathies perhaps most clearly in the case of the gorillas of the Great Lakes region, in the areas around the borders of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda. With their numbers in decline, the continued existence of these mammals is in jeopardy, particularly because of conflict in the Great Lakes region. The extinction of a species of animals is clearly an issue of concern, but if we were to compare attention per capita, it is highly likely that we will find that the gorillas have managed to attract more attention (and almost certainly more sympathy) than the 6 million human victims of the conflict in the region.

 

Media corporations are quick to report the murder of gorillas (particularly babies) when it happens, and the victims will often be reported by name. But the same media corporations will more likely than not ignore massacres of humans in the DRC, babies or adult. How many of their names will ever be found in a newspaper?

 

While there has been a number of large-scale civil society campaigns organized in response to the more popular conflict in Darfur, there have very few in response to the much larger conflict in the DRC. But one campaign that was organized in response to this conflict, with some support from a number of Hollywood actors (including Leonardo di Caprio), was a campaign for “gorilla-friendly mobile phones”, referring to phones made without using the coltan mined in the DRC, which fuelled the conflict that threatened the gorillas. Admittedly, one campaign that was focused primarily on Belgium and Europe was a “no blood on my cell phone” campaign that aimed to draw attention to the link between coltan and the human victims of the conflict.

 

Often the message seems to be something along the lines of: ‘we will not be particularly concerned about the humans killed in Africa (especially while the details are not put in front of us – and we would rather they are not), but we care deeply about the lives of the gorillas, and will stand up to protect them’.

 

Here are perhaps some of the thoughts that run through people’s minds in the Western world (whether consciously or not), thoughts that make a situation like this possible:

 

The people:

Are part of a ‘chaotic’ conflict (it is messy and there is nothing that can be done)

Are part of a ‘tribal’ conflict (which sounds primitive, violent and nasty: people are killing each other, and therefore they are not innocent)

Are different from me (black and poor)

Are far away from my home (hordes of refugees will not be arriving on my doorstep)

Are messing up the freedom and independence that we gave them

Are blowing all the aid that we, in our benevolence, always give them

 

On the other hand,

 

The animals:

Are cute

Are intelligent (this is also one factor that seems to give whales so much more sympathy than cows)

Are helpless

Are innocent and are just caught up in the cruel violence of humans

 

Among the many factors behind the sympathy for gorillas (but not for humans), it is perhaps their perceived innocence that is the most significant. As long as the conflict between the humans is seen being ‘chaotic’ and ‘tribal’, innocent victims are difficult to be identified, and thus sympathy will be difficult to come by. Sympathy is usually generated when victims are able to be seen as belonging to an easily identifiable ‘ethnic’ group, not as individual humans belonging to different ‘sides’.

 

Perhaps the final irony is that there is a large shadow hanging over the conservation industry that ostensibly works to protect the gorillas. In a toxic mix of politics and profit, there appear to be links between policymakers, media corporations and the for-profit ‘conservation’ industry, in which the parties appear to be taking advantage of sympathy for the gorillas to achieve political goals and make money. Details can be found here.

 

Ben Affleck and Gimme Shelter

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy with tags , , , , , , on 21 December, 2008 by Virgil

Ben Affleck has recently directed a short film on behalf of the UNHCR called “Gimme Shelter” (using the Rolling Stones song of the same title). The film is part of a campaign by the UNHCR to generate 23 million US dollars to support their activities in response to the renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

 

The conflict in the DRC is hands down the deadliest conflict of our times, and it almost defies imagination that a conflict of this magnitude has managed to attract so little attention and response over the past ten years – it is truly a stealth conflict of epic proportions. With violence rising again in the DRC, and the beleaguered city of Goma again on the verge of being overrun, now is as good a time as any for an attempt to raise some attention to its plight. While the mechanisms of humanitarian aid gathering and delivery often give rise to ‘carnivals of charity’ that seem to come and go depending on the whims of goodwill (based on what is the ‘fashionable’ crisis at the time, rather than what the actual humanitarian needs are), and although celebrity interventions can be controversial, this campaign should be applauded.

 

Roughly 95 percent of the 5.4 million people who have died because of conflict in the DRC have died not because of the bullets and the bombs, but because of preventable disease and starvation. Even if we cannot stop the fighting itself, we can at least do something to help the victims of the fighting. The figures above tell us that we have failed miserably in this regard – people died for lack of food, clean water, medicine and/or shelter that could have been made available. This is often the critical difference between stealth conflicts and chosen conflicts – the proportion of such nonviolent deaths never reaches such a high level in the case of chosen or fashionable conflicts. There cannot be a starker example than that in the DRC of the results of apathy.

 

UNHCR)

People fleeing fighting in Eastern DRC (Photo: UNHCR)

 

Celebrities have the potential to use their fame to draw attention (and donations) to humanitarian crises and thereby boost the response. The jury is still out, however, on whether celebrities can go beyond boosting attention to crises (that are already on the radar), and can actually succeed in drawing attention to crises that are not yet on the radar. Celebrities such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, for example, have chosen to focus much of their efforts on the conflict in Darfur, despite the fact that both have been to the DRC, and are aware that the scale of the problem in the DRC is far worse than that in Darfur. The website for the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict (co-founded by Angelina Jolie), for example, tells us that there 5,290,000 out-of-school children in the DRC, but the organization has chosen to focus its attention on Darfur (2,405,000 out-of-school children in Sudan), Iraq (540,000 out-of-school children), Haiti (572,000 out-of-school children) and New Orleans (victims of Hurricane Katrina).

 

This is not to take away from the work that these celebrities are doing or the positive effects of this work, and working to boost attention where attention already exists may well help the chances of success of this kind of advocacy (perhaps thereby making it the shrewd choice). But the real challenge lies in a case such as the crisis in the DRC, where, despite its unparalleled scale, attention is sorely lacking from every direction. Ben Affleck has chosen to focus his attention on this conflict, and has conducted a number of exploratory visits (before the latest round of renewed violence). Mr. Affleck’s choice should be applauded – it is a brave one, and there will surely be major challenges ahead in generating attention. Complexity has a way of quickly putting a damper on enthusiasm, however large the problem, and facing this obstacle will be a key challenge (Darfur’s rise to prominence has a lot to do with it being framed with an ostensibly simple storyline of genocide by ‘Arabs’ against ‘blacks’). The DRC is far from being an ‘easy sell’. 

 

The film Gimme Shelter focuses not on the politics, but on the humanitarian issues. This is a fair choice. It is not the job of the UNHCR to stop the conflict and remove the underlying root causes. They are there to help relieve the suffering caused. In any case, it is the complexity of the political background to the conflict (no the conflict is not ‘chaotic’, it is complex) that has been responsible for generating so much apathy to date.

 

The campaign hopes to raise 23 million US dollars. Let’s hope they raise ten times that amount.

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