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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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Congo Week 2009 in Japan

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


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.


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.

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