Archive for the conflict analysis Category

Paris and Baga: What makes an atrocity newsworthy?

Posted in conflict, conflict analysis, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , on 13 January, 2015 by Virgil

The world was ‘shocked’ by the recent attacks in Paris, primarily directed at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, that left 17 people dead. The exceptionally heavy levels of media coverage throughout the world, the spread of the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ message of solidarity, and the attendance of leaders from 40 countries at a rally in Paris make this abundantly clear.

Prominent publications outside France, including the BBC and the New York Times, carried articles claiming that this attack signals a “new era of terrorism”. Media coverage has been concentrated and emotive, offering every last detail of the attack itself, the perpetrators and the victims, the manhunt, and of the outpouring of grief and solidarity, as well as editorials, opinion and extensive analysis on the implications of the attacks in terms of the issue of terrorism and freedom of speech. Newspapers carried headlines portraying the attacks as a “war on freedom”, and “barbaric”. The names, faces and profiles of the victims were shared with readers and viewers of the news throughout the world, from the US, to Japan and New Zealand. An article in the Times of India criticized the city of Kolkata for the low turnout at a rally to express solidarity with the victims.

Where is Baga in the New York Times?

The response to these attacks, however, was in stark contrast to the relative silence that met another set of mass killings in early January – a series of massacres focused around the northeast Nigerian town of Baga perpetrated by the rebel Boko Haram. After having overrun a military outpost in Baga, Boko Haram forces, attacking with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, began killing everyone in sight in and around the town, including children and the elderly. The death toll at this stage is unclear. Initial estimates range from dozens to hundreds to as many as two thousand. But it is highly likely that this is the deadliest massacre ever perpetrated by Boko Haram.

Given the scale of the atrocity, the muted media response is troubling to say the least. The New York Times offered just one article on the matter, titled ‘Dozens said to die in Boko Haram attack‘. The newspaper appears to have made no attempt after this article to follow-up, to confirm whether the death toll was indeed dozens, hundreds or thousands, to discover any further details, or to offer any opinion or analysis. The BBC published an online article in which a Nigerian archbishop criticized “the West” for ignoring the Baga massacre, particularly offering the contrast of attention to the attacks in France, but at the time the BBC itself had published only three online articles on the Baga massacre. Far from attempting to put names, faces and profiles on the victims, the media appeared uninterested in even counting them.

There has been very little in the way of expressions of concern from the public as a whole, or from political leaders outside the country. There have been no major public outpourings of solidarity and no “I am Baga” slogans on signboards or online that have managed to go viral. Given the lack of response by the media, it is highly likely that the events themselves are largely unknown to many beyond the region.

So what makes these two incidents so different? Why is one seen as heralding a “new era of terrorism”, and the other, not even deemed worthy of following up? As in Paris, civilians in Baga were specifically targeted and shot. As in Paris, the killers identified themselves as defenders of Islam against Western actions and influences. Indeed the name Boko Haram roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden”, and the group has expressed its support for the Islamic State. And while great care needs to be taken in using the term ‘terrorism’ (given the subjective political baggage it inevitably carries), the events in Baga, Nigeria, were as much acts of terrorism as were the attacks in Paris, France – both involved the deliberate use of violence against non-combatants to intimidate the general population with a view to achieving a political objective.

One major difference between the atrocities is clearly the fact that while the civilian victims in the Baga massacre were targeted en masse, the civilians targeted in the Paris massacre were primarily media personnel (albeit from a particular media publication). This gave the attention to the Paris massacre the additional angle of the attempted intimidation of journalists. It must also be said, however, that this is a constant and global issue of concern. Threats by Boko Haram against journalists are part of the reason why the conflict has tended to attract little media coverage to begin with. Throughout the world in 2014, a total of 96 media personnel were killed, seventeen of whom were killed in Syria. The fact that the eight media personnel killed in Paris were killed in a single incident does of course make this case significant. But the 2009 killing of 32 media personnel in a single incident in Maguindanao, Philippines, along with a number of politicians (that the journalists were accompanying) and other civilians, did not result in a fraction of the attention, coverage or outrage on a global scale that we see now. Foreign news corporations did not categorize the incident as representing a “new era of terrorism” or a “war on freedom”, and the attacks sparked little debate about the importance of protecting journalism from intimidation and the challenge to freedom of speech.

Hypothetically speaking, had the roles been reversed – had an attack on a satirical newspaper office in Nigeria resulted in 12 deaths, and had an attack on a town in France at the same time left hundreds dead – we could safely predict that the events in France would still have attracted the vast majority of the attention and the indignation, and that the threat of intimidation against journalism would simply not have been a major issue for debate.

The real reasons for the differences in the coverage are less related to what atrocities were perpetrated, and more related to where, and against who, the atrocities were perpetrated. Numerous studies (like this book and this journal article) have shown that the raw number of deaths from conflict, crimes and atrocities is unrelated to the quantity and intensity of media coverage that rises in response. Factors such as the race and socioeconomic status of the victims, among others, have a much greater bearing on the levels of coverage an atrocity can attract. It is a sad reality that, for news corporations in the West (including distant Australia and New Zealand) the perceived newsworthiness of black impoverished Africans is far less than that for white Europeans.

Having said this, access to the scene of the atrocities is undoubtedly also a major issue. Baga is a remote town in Nigeria, and is currently under the control of Boko Haram. For all of the advances in information and communication technology, as a general rule, reporters still have to be able to physically reach the place in question to collect footage, images and interviews, in order to reliably report on the situation. But in the case of Baga, reporters can still reach the survivors who fled, and others displaced by the conflict. That they have not, on the whole, attempted to do so, is a reflection on the lack of perceived newsworthiness of the atrocity for other reasons. And the minimal presence of Western reporters in Nigeria to begin with, is also a reflection of the chronic lack of perceived newsworthiness regarding the region in a historical sense.

The fact that the massacre in Baga was not the first by Boko Haram, and that it took place in a conflict situation, must also be considered as a difference to the massacre in Paris. The newsworthiness of an atrocity tends to quickly decrease if it is a reoccurring one. But reoccurring conflict in Israel-Palestine under similar circumstances has never been a barrier to consistently heavy media coverage. And the fact that the Baga massacre is the deadliest in the history of Boko Haram should give the media pause to reconsider its relative indifference. Further recent atrocities, like the use of a girl as young as ten years old by Boko Haram as a suicide bomber in a marketplace in a different town in northeast Nigeria, should also carry a certain newsworthiness. If the coverage to date is any indication, they have not.

There is no question that the need to protect journalists from intimidation is an important and valid concern. It is crucial that we work towards realizing a world in which the pen is mightier than the sword, and in which the sword is not used in response to the pen. But at the same time, we should also work towards realizing a world in which the pen is not so selective in who it chooses to write about, particularly when so many lives are at stake.

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.


Open letter to Stratfor

Posted in conflict, conflict analysis, Congo, DRC, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , on 5 February, 2009 by Virgil

The following is a letter I have just sent to Stratfor, a US-based intelligence corporation that provides analysis on world affairs. Stratfor calls itself “the world leader in global intelligence”. As a paying (although often dissatisfied) customer, I have felt it important to point out what I feel are the problems in Stratfor’s services. My problem is not so much with the quality of the analysis, but more with their choice of issues for analysis. The most obvious problem is obsessive analysis of some popular issues and the marginalization of others that should carry considerable geopolitical value. It is quite disturbing to see that this corporation seems to produce more analysis on Israel-Palestine than it does on the entire African continent, for example. This raises serious doubts about how ‘global’ it is. My previous two letters on similar subjects have gone unanswered, but I thought I’d give it another go. Here is the letter:

To the Africa Experts at Stratfor,

I would like to firstly welcome you all back from your long vacations. I am assuming that you are all on long vacations because of the level of work that is been produced by Stratfor about the African continent.

Unfortunately, the people filling in for you haven’t done a very good job of keeping on top of things. In January, they have managed to come up with a total of just six area-specific analysis articles covering all of Africa. Your colleagues in the Middle East department are blazing ahead – they have come up with 26 analysis articles in January on the Israel-Palestine conflict alone! That’s four times the number of analysis articles on the entire African continent.

To make matters worse, they have completely ignored the dramatic developments in the Great Lakes region of Africa, the hands-down deadliest region of the world, and the source of vast amounts of mineral wealth. The last time Stratfor took the trouble to do an analysis of the DRC was 24 November 2008. Since that time, Uganda and South Sudan have entered the DRC in a joint operation with the Congolese troops against the LRA. A secret deal between the heads of state of the DRC and Rwanda has seen a dramatic turnaround between these former enemies. The CNDP rebels have split, and their leader has been arrested in Rwanda. Their major joint military operation against FDLR rebels is underway, and they are shutting out the UN peacekeepers and humanitarian organizations in the process. This represents a dramatic change in the state of this conflict, and of the geopolitical dynamics of the region. We are seeing alliances that would have been until recently unthinkable. What is really going on there? We continue to await your wise analysis.

One of the few analysis articles written on Africa is on the better-known (more popular) situation in Zimbabwe. To write on Zimbabwe while ignoring the Great Lakes region (especially at a time when there are so many major developments taking place), suggests a serious lack of understanding of the geopolitical significance of the continent. Zimbabwe’s greatest geopolitical asset (what makes it important to the outside world) is really its nuisance value. It has a leader that likes to speak out in English against the West – someone who won’t play ball. He is a leader that people seem to love to hate. But he has little grip over valuable natural resources, or economic and political clout. There is far more at stake in the Great Lakes region. Zimbabwe is a popular choice, but not a very shrewd geopolitical one.

You really do need to get back to your posts, and get up to speed on these and other important issues, and give your customers some serious analysis on what is going on. I realize that everyone needs a break from the daily grind, but I really wonder how long your employer can turn a blind eye to such neglect of this part of the world, particularly given its rising importance to the rest of the world. Just look at your friends in the Middle East department, who seem to be so industrious and motivated. I hope your jobs are not at stake. Your employer certainly is very understanding.

If things keep up like this, though, it will be hard to shake the appearance that Stratfor is really following the ‘fashionable’ crises, rather like the regular mainstream media does. Such an extremely disproportionate view of the geopolitical scene is hardly befitting a supposedly detached and objective intelligence organization. Israel-Palestine certainly has political significance, but to suggest that this very small part of the world is a few times more important than the entire African continent is really stretching things, and cannot be taken seriously.

There are those who would think (even if they don’t admit it) that Africa is just a poor continent full of black people who really don’t matter much in the scheme of things. We know of their resource riches, but as long as their problems don’t adversely affect those of us in the whiter and richer world drilling or mining for them, or buying them at literally give-away prices, then it doesn’t really matter what else goes on there (their problems often conveniently help us to get hold of those resources).

You and I know better, though. Humanitarian notions aside, the USA imports more oil from Africa than it does from the Persian Gulf, and that’s before we even start talking about diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, cassiterite, coltan and all the other treasures there that the rest of the world relies on. I apologize for taking up your valuable time on reading this letter, time that could be spent getting up to speed. I do wish you all the best and look forward to the reinvigoration of the Africa department at Stratfor.


Virgil Hawkins

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