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An assassination attempt

Posted in Africa, conflict death tolls, Guinea with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 25 July, 2011 by Virgil

President Alpha Conde. Photo by World Economic Forum under a CC Licence.

Last week, explosives were used in an attempt on the life of a head of state. No, I am not talking about Norway. I am talking about the west African state of Guinea.

On the night of 19 July, attackers fired rockets into President Conde’s bedroom at the presidential residence. He escaped harm only because he had been sleeping in another room at the time of the attack. A second attack ensued, with the assailants finally being subdued after a two-hour gun battle.It is still unclear as to whether it was an assassination attempt or a coup d’etat attempt, but several hours later, the former army chief was arrested.

Chances are, you don’t know about this assassination attempt and the ensuing gun battle in Guinea. Why? Because few media corporations have deemed the incident newsworthy. The New York Times printed a 91-word briefing from Reuters on page six. The Times of London devoted 39 words to the incident on page 33. There were no follow-up articles in either case – this was the first and last time Guinea was mentioned. The Australian newspaper and Japanese newspapers (the Yomiuri and Asahi) ignored the events altogether. Thankfully, there were some rare examples of substantive articles provided by AFP, Reuters and Christian Science Monitor.

Chances are, you do know about the attempt on the life of the Prime Minister of Norway and the massacre that followed. On the first day of coverage following the incident, the New York Times placed it on page one in a 1,336-word article – a collaborative effort written by seven contributors, based in Oslo, New York, London, Paris and Washington. It was also page-one coverage for the Times of London – on the first day of coverage, it devoted 1,915 words to the incident. Needless to say, there has been major internet and television coverage as well.

The reasons for the heavy coverage of the incidents in Norway are obvious. There was a blast targeting the Prime Minister, and as the article in the Times of London made sure to mention, the massacre was the worst violence seen in Norway since World War II. It was unexpected, violent and sensational. There was a terrible loss of human life.

But why have the events in Guinea been deemed so unworthy of attention, so ignorable? At a national level, the events in Guinea are arguably more politically significant than those in Norway. The violence in Norway appears to have been an isolated event perpetrated by a single individual. The events in Guinea were a coordinated strike that most likely involved part of the armed forces of that country.

This is all the more important considering that this is a critical stage in Guinea’s nascent and fragile democracy. In late 2010, Guinea held its first democratic elections since independence in 1958. This followed decades of dictatorship under Lansana Conte, followed by a military regime that took power in a coup d’etat immediately following Conte’s death. The historic elections were a close contest and were followed by some violence, but the period since has been Guinea’s best chance at a stable democracy so far. This makes last week’s events particularly significant. Let us also not forget that Guinea is the world’s leading producer of bauxite, which is used to make aluminium.

As for the issue of the loss of human life, while it is true that on this particular occasion, there have been more deaths in Norway (93) than in Guinea, in general, the scale of a humanitarian tragedy has little (if anything) to do with the levels of media coverage it attracts. The military junta in Guinea was responsible for a massacre that killed at least 159 unarmed civilians in 2009. It also failed to generate any substantive levels of media coverage. And the media has routinely paid relatively little attention to conflict in the DRC that has cost more than 5.4 millions lives since 1998. Clearly, the level of loss of human life in itself does not explain the high level of coverage of the events in Norway.

In this case, it is the loss of life in a predominantly white and wealthy European country (the victims are of the type that Western audiences can relate to and sympathise with), combined with the unexpected nature of the tragedy (in an otherwise stable and peaceful place) that has provided the impetus for the coverage.

The skin colour and socioeconomic status of the victims in Guinea leave them at an immediate disadvantage with Western media corporations and their audience. Furthermore, because there is a chronic and widespread shortage of coverage of Guinea, and of Africa in general, audiences in the West have little background knowledge or context to which to relate or attach significance. Guinea is not seen as a separate country with unique circumstances. It is simply lumped together with the other 54 countries that make up Africa. And Africa carries with it an image of violence and political instability (although most of Africa is at peace most of the time). The events in Guinea fit this broad, extremely oversimplified and misleading ‘pattern’.

As such, the events in Guinea are not seen as unexpected – and are therefore not newsworthy, regardless of the political implications. Attacks on democracy, and the loss of human life, are, to a large degree,tolerated, because these things seem to happen there (on the continent as a whole) more often, and because, from a Western perspective, people there are not ‘like us’.

The media coverage on this occasion, of course, does nothing to change this – it perpetuates it. A 39-word briefing on page 33 of a newspaper cannot hope to convey to the audience any political significance of the events unfolding, or offer any opportunity to generate interest, concern or sympathy.

The vicious cycle, the spiral of silence that helps keep that distance between Africa and the rest of us, continues.


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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Which gets more coverage?

Posted in Africa, conflict, conflict death tolls, Israel-Palestine, media coverage, world maps with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 4 May, 2010 by Virgil


Why Israel-Palestine?

Israel-Palestine is used here because of the sheer levels of disproportion (conflict death tolls versus media coverage). Each time there is conflagration of any kind in Israel-Palestine – huge quantities of media coverage inevitably follow. With the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq (and recently, perhaps Pakistan), no other conflict in the world even comes close in terms of coverage levels (and certainly in terms of disproportion).

In 2009, Afghanistan stood far above all other conflicts in levels of media coverage in the USA and coverage of Iraq, while still very high, had begun to decline – all very much in line with US policy interest. Afghanistan and Iraq are not used here because their death tolls are much larger than Israel-Palestine (in the hundreds of thousands, rather than thousands), and because coverage is more easily explained away considering the direct involvement of the USA as a belligerent in these conflicts.

That said, the problem is not necessarily that there is too much coverage on Israel-Palestine (please do not use this graphic as evidence of Israel being unjustly picked on by the media). Organized violence that results in thousands of deaths is not something that should be downplayed or justified anywhere and for any reason. The problem is that there is not enough coverage of the rest of the world’s cases of organized violence. And when this violence is resulting in millions of deaths, its marginalization by the media should result in red flags, flashing lights, alarms and all manner of questioning on the performance of the media in fulfilling its social responsibilities.


The bold statement in the graphic is based on a number of studies. In this study on media coverage of conflict for the year 2000, the media coverage of the conflict in Israel-Palestine was greater than that for all of Africa’s conflicts combined for all sources studies – BBC, CNN, Le Monde, the New York Times and the Yomiuri newspaper.

A study of the Australian newspaper for the year 2007 yielded similar results. In this case, not only was coverage of conflict greater, but coverage of all subjects/topics associated with Israel-Palestine was greater than that for all of Africa’s 53 countries combined.

Another study on coverage of conflict in US media sources for the year 2009 (the New York Times, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC – the results have yet to be published) again shows (surprise, surprise) that conflict in Israel-Palestine gets far greater coverage than all of Africa’s conflicts combined.

A few pre-emptive strikes on answers:

The graphic asks if there is any valid reason that can justify this state of affairs. Based on past experience (particularly in such havens for anonymous comment), I suspect the following three justifications may come up, so here are a few brief pre-emptive strikes.

“Violence in Africa is barbaric”

How is firing a missile from an Apache helicopter into a house that shreds the flesh and bone of any man, woman or child within any less barbaric than shooting someone with an AK47 or cutting someone with a machete?

“Violence in Africa is chaotic”

It is not. Nor is it irrational. Just like any other conflict in the rest of the world, it is complex. Calling a conflict chaotic simply indicates a lack of understanding (or worse, a failure to even attempt to understand) – see this post for more. In fact, lumping all of the various conflicts on the African continent together and trying to somehow do a mass group analysis is over simplification in the highest degree and cannot be taken seriously.

“Violence in Africa never seems to end”

Lumping all of African conflicts together will of course produce the effect of continual conflict, so before getting into this, why not use individual examples of conflict? And by the way, couldn’t we just as easily say “violence in the Middle East never seems to end”?

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The Australian newspaper and conflict

Posted in Congo, Darfur, DRC, Israel-Palestine, media coverage, Zimbabwe with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 4 February, 2010 by Virgil

The following graph is a comparison of the levels of media coverage of certain conflicts and crises in The Australian newspaper – Israel-Palestine, Zimbabwe, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The numbers are the total word counts for all relevant articles on each conflict/crisis. On first glance, the coverage appears to be virtually the same for each.

Now, take a closer look at the periods of coverage measured. What these figures tell us is that 9 years of coverage by The Australian of the conflict in the DRC is roughly equivalent to 6 months of coverage of conflict in Darfur (as it began to attract attention in 2004), and to 1.5 months of coverage of the charged 2008 elections in Zimbabwe, and to 1 month of coverage of Israel-Palestine, when fighting broke out there in 2000. And let us not forget that the conflict in the DRC over this period was hundreds (at times thousands) of times deadlier than any of the other conflicts/crises at the time of the periods covered. Interestingly, we can see that Africa is not simply ignored across the board. Even within Africa, there is a huge gap between stealth conflicts and chosen conflicts – some conflicts are more ignored than others.

This should by no means be seen as a rare example of media choices skewed beyond any semblance of balance. I would say that this kind of media coverage is quite representative of other newspapers in the USA or UK, for example.

(This data was taken from research I conducted for an article in the journal Media, War & Conflict entitled ‘National interest or business interest: coverage of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in The Australian newspaper’. The article contains more juicy comparisons and analysis. You need a subscription to read the article (sorry), but if you have access to a university library online, you should be able to read it in full).

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