Archive for Darfur

Libya and moral imperative

Posted in Africa, conflict death tolls, dictators, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 14 May, 2011 by Virgil

Photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo under a CC Licence

Since it began earlier this year, the conflict in Libya was marked as a chosen one, attracting a powerful media spotlight. This should have come as no surprise. The events in Tunisia and Egypt set in motion a broad movement for reform in many democratically challenged countries and Libya was next in line.

As demonstrations transformed into armed rebellion, media coverage quickly took on a Hollywood action movie format – with Gaddafi as the ‘bad guy’, the rebellion as the true representative of the oppressed people that could do no wrong, and the Western powers (who became the air force of the rebellion) as the heroes who were going to save the day. Nor should this simplification have come as a surprise. In covering foreign conflicts, the media tend to rely on simplicity and good-guy/bad-guy formats to sell their products. And although relations between Libya and Western countries had been thawing in recent years (as witnessed by state visits and the conclusion of major oil and arms deals), Gadaffi had a long history of being a ‘bad guy’ that could easily be revived.

With this good-guy/bad-guy format, comes the implication that there is a moral imperative to ‘do something’. To stop the bad guy and the humanitarian suffering he is causing. This humanitarian focus or sense of moral imperative, while of course being very pronounced and emotive in lighter, tabloid type media, creeps into even the most serious of media publications. Libya has been the subject of a number of cover stories in the Economist, for example, and the sense of moral imperative is clearly a part of that coverage. In an article entitled ‘Don’t let him linger‘, the Economist asks us, “If the death toll suddenly rises into the thousands, can the rest of the world stand idly by?” It answers, “Surely not. But dislodging Libya’s tyrant is proving hard”. It goes on, “if the Libyan regime starts killing people in their thousands—and especially if it uses helicopter gunships or aircraft—diplomatic reluctance should melt away. Too often the world has dithered open-mouthed as evil men have slaughtered Darfuris or Rwandans with impunity”.

One of the problems of such expression of moral imperative lies, of course, in the selectivity with which it is applied. Why is Libya currently the prime focus of our humanitarian concern? Why not Somalia? Can the rest of the world stand idly by as thousands of people are killed? It most certainly can and does in far too many cases. In this world, ignoring or failing to respond in a substantive manner to conflict and its humanitarian consequences is more the rule than it is the exception. Policymakers and the media routinely brush over news of large scale massacres or even the deaths of millions of people from conflict-related causes in cases where attention does not serve their interests or where the story is simply too complex to sell. The very fact that Rwanda and Darfur are mentioned as examples of past shame, but the Democratic Republic of Congo (with a conflict-related death toll measured in millions) is not, speaks volumes in this regard.

This criticism of the world ‘standing idly by’ should not be taken as a call for military intervention. Far too often is military intervention impractical and/or counterproductive, and its deadly results (intended and unintended) equally morally unacceptable. There are so many other (potentially more productive) ways in which ‘the world’ can do something other than standing idly by. For the media, couldn’t choosing to give substantive coverage to the world’s deadliest conflicts be a good place to start? Is it really that hard?

Also behind this problem of moral imperative is the simplistic notion that there is one ‘evil’ leader who, single-handedly terrorizing his/her country, serves as a floodgate holding back an overwhelming dedication to and respect for democratic practice, separation of powers, the rule of law and human rights. The notion that if this one person could be removed from power or ‘taken out’, all would be well. These ‘dictators’, while sometimes mentioned as having ‘cronies’, are seen primarily as lone actors and become recognizable ‘faces of evil’. Where it suits Western strategic, economic and political interests, we remember their names and faces – Saddam, Milosevic, Mugabe, Gaddafi. Where friendly relations with such dictators serves these interests, names and faces tend to disappear from view – Niyazov, Abdullah, Saleh, Dos Santos.

But in international politics, the ‘face of evil’ or ‘school yard bully’ frame really doesn’t hold all that much water. Dictators are able to keep their grip on power through a massive network of strongmen and economic interests that trickle down to even the lowest levels of power holders – groups and individuals that benefit from the current configuration of power. Cutting off the head does not suddenly mean that this network will be dissolved, or that the entire population will rejoice at the removal of a dictator. Demonstrations continue today in Tunisia and Egypt, for example (although admittedly to a lesser degree). In both these countries, many observers (locally and foreign) have pointed out that ‘the dictator is gone but the dictatorship remains’. What is often worse, is that when a power vacuum occurs, those with political and/or economic ambitions rush to fill it, resulting in violent clashes as power structures are reconfigured.

Unfortunately, when looking at conflict and crisis in this world of ours, keeping things simple doesn’t really work. Whether it be in how we go about choosing a particular humanitarian crisis to champion, or how we go about attempting to solve them, a broad view and a healthy appreciation for complexity is clearly in order.

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Conflict coverage 2009

Posted in media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 August, 2010 by Virgil

Here is a graph that brings home the difference between chosen conflicts and stealth conflicts. It is based on a search for news items related to armed conflicts throughout the world covered by the evening news of the major US television networks. The search was conducted using the Vanderbilt University database of evening news (covering ABC, CBS, NBC, one hour per day of CNN, and Fox) for the year 2009.

The graph requires little explanation. Conflicts in which the USA was involved as a belligerent (Afghanistan, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan), and the eternal chosen conflict, Israel-Palestine, in which the USA is indirectly involved, received large amounts of attention. Afghanistan in particular attracted concentrated coverage, reflecting a renewed interest in, and active debate over, US military involvement in that country. Viewers of US television news had the opportunity to watch as much as 18 hours of coverage of Afghanistan over the course of the year.

Beyond these chosen conflicts, coverage abruptly drops off into near insignificance. In fact, these four conflicts account for an incredible 97 percent of the total amount of conflict coverage for the year. The fifth most covered conflict, Darfur, managed roughly 27 minutes of coverage for all of the networks combined over the course of the year. For the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the total coverage was just 7 minutes, and this was mostly focused on the threat to animals from the conflict, and on the visit to the DRC by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This marginalization should by no means be viewed as a reflection of the lack of conflict – fighting and insecurity displaced as many as one million people over the course of the year in the DRC.

Also noteworthy is the marginalization of the conflict in Sri Lanka. 2009 marked the final offensive of the government forces against the Tamil Tiger rebels (LTTE), ending a long and bloody war. These developments should have made for a major news story. But the government was quite successful in shutting down and intimidating local media, and in shutting out foreign media during this time. Without images of the conflict and its humanitarian consequences, and critically, without the involvement of the USA, for the US television media, the story simply failed to become newsworthy, and it was ignored.

This introverted and myopic media perspective is all a sad reflection of the failures of the media – the failure to recognize conflict scale even as one of the factors determining levels of coverage, and the failure to look at the world in its entirety. Coverage of conflicts by US media corporations (and of the world in general, for that matter) is dependent on strong US involvement or interest, and all those that are not the recipient of such involvement or interest remain under a virtual news blackout, however large in scale they may be. From the perspective of the media, a conflict is either a chosen one or a stealth one, with virtually no middle ground between the two.

It is quite ironic that in this day and age of rapid globalization, in which survival and prosperity are dependent on knowledge and understanding of the world, and in which there is potentially access to any amount of information about anywhere, the media persists with such a narrow and highly selective view of the world. And with so few observers calling for change or even pointing out this obvious imbalance in coverage, it can hardly be expected that the situation will be any different for 2010 and beyond.

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Lindsay Lohan in prison

Posted in Africa, celebrities and advocacy, comedy, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 August, 2010 by Virgil

As we all well know, US celebrity Lindsay Lohan is behind bars, locked up for a violation of the terms of her release in a charge in connection with driving under the influence of alcohol. It is important for us as members of the public endowed with a ‘right to know’ to keep abreast of the critical developments of this important story, and to engage in dialogue with our fellow citizens about the finer points of the story and its implications for the international community as a whole.

I am well aware that both the mainstream and tabloid media, along with the blogosphere and other informal arenas of information exchange are already well on top of the situation – all are overflowing with valuable information and analysis from a variety of viewpoints. Unable, however, to contain my own volatile emotional mix of human concern, curious fascination, voyeuristic urges and slight satisfaction at the downfall of an individual enjoying excess fame and fortune, I have decided to join the masses and devote this blog post to the plight of Lindsay Lohan.

And let’s face it, with such an eventless past week or so, journalistically speaking, where would we be without Lindsay Lohan? Nothing much else worthy of reporting has been happening in the world.

Oh yes, there was the 15th Summit of the African Union (AU) in Kampala Uganda, coming just two weeks after the terrorist bombings that claimed 76 lives in the same city and that marked the first foreign attack by Al Shabaab (based in Somalia). And yes, numerous heads of state, including the leaders South Africa (Zuma), Nigeria (Jonathan), Senegal (Wade), Kenya (Kibaki), Ethiopia (Meles) and Libya (Gaddafi), were in attendance at the three-day Summit. 

OK, so they did do a bit of talking about measures to bring the conflict in Somalia under control, and may have made some decisions about boosting the size of the AU force in that country. Anti-terror measures were also high on the agenda. And there was a lot of talk about how to deal with the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for Sudanese President Al Bashir (who did not attend the Summit) on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and recently, genocide. The AU is against the indictment and warrant for his arrest, thinking that these will have a negative impact on the achievement of peace in Darfur.

On other political issues, there was concern about delays in holding elections in places like Cote D’Ivoire and the Central African Republic, political instability in Madagascar, and the problems with the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace process.

The many leaders of Africa did also talk about the challenges and achievements associated with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the poverty that is affecting millions of people on the continent. The theme of the Summit was, after all, maternal and infant health.

But in the scheme of things, this is all really inconsequential. The important questions facing the world that need to be asked include: just how preferential is Lindsay Lohan’s treatment in prison? Has she really been making demands for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream? Is she crying herself to sleep each night and keeping the other prisoners awake? How soon will she be released? As the publication L.A. Now points out, “There’s been much speculation about how Lindsay Lohan is being treated behind bars”.

And this is how the mass media have arranged their priorities. This trend is by no means limited to the media in Los Angeles or even the USA, or to the tabloid media, either. The UK’s Times and Japan’s Yomiuri are among the many major (supposedly non-tabloid) newspapers based outside the USA that have devoted more coverage to Lindsay Lohan’s plight than to the AU Summit.

Having said all this, we really shouldn’t get too carried away with the Lindsay Lohan situation and let it overshadow other important issues happening in the world. The wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky has just taken place, and with the nuptials so shrouded in secrecy, we need to be even more diligent in acquiring information regarding this event. This wedding is indeed also quite deserving of the critical scrutiny of citizens aware of their civic duties. Thankfully, the media is doing its job here – as People magazine reports “The months of speculation on whom Chelsea Clinton would choose to design her wedding dress are finally over — and it’s Vera Wang!”

Praise is certainly due to the mass media, for fulfilling their responsibilities in addressing our right to know, and for their ever-vigilant stance on the important issues affecting the lives of humankind and the world as a whole.

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Light relief

Posted in Africa, comedy, general with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 26 June, 2010 by Virgil

With all the seriousness going on in this blog, it is important to step back and have some light relief every once in a while – still keeping on topic, of course.

So here are some parody videos courtesy of the Onion News Network, poking fun at nationalism, ignorance of the rest of the world, and celebrity activism (actorvism).

First up, this video is a news item about a hurricane bound for Texas that is slowed by a big and unknown/unnamed/unimportant “land mass” in the south…a “blessing”!

Next, in this video the US government donates billions of dollars in aid money to Andorra, apparently mistaking it for Angola. Andorra is enjoying using the money for hot-air balloons for all its citizens! Great map of Africa being used by the US State Department.

On a similar note, here is a panel discussion by commentators who have no idea about Nigeria (or is it Niger?) but are forced to comment anyway.

Now onto Darfur – another panel discussion, this time about how Darfurians can be made aware of what celebrities are doing for them – Darfurians “don’t understand the significance of the fact that Matt Damon is worried about them”…

Finally, in this video, did Don Cheadle orchestrate the Darfur genocide to create a film role based on the tragedy (to top Hotel Rwanda)? And why in Darfur? Because of the panoramic vistas that would provide a striking backdrop for the movie!

Plenty of laughs there…

Death toll debate (with Andrew Mack)

Posted in conflict death tolls, Congo, DRC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 May, 2010 by Virgil

I recently had the pleasure of receiving correspondence from Professor Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The Project produces the Human Security Report, the most recent one being the “Shrinking Costs of War”. This report has generated quite a debate over its claim that the death toll in the DRC is not nearly as high as the 5.4 million estimated by the International Rescue Committee.

 I had commented elsewhere on the issue, and Professor Mack invited me to take a look at the Overview of the Debate that the Project had put up on their website. The following exchange followed. The main text is what I wrote, and the sections in CAPS are the responses from Professor Mack.

VH: “Although not able to comment on the methodology of either the IRC methodology or that of the Human Security Report, I see the points you are making, and can understand the huge difference that a small change in baseline assumptions can make in the final tally.

 From my perspective, I had a problem with the “paradox of mortality rates that decline in wartime”. I can certainly understand that advances in child health are being made despite the presence of conflict in a part of a country, and that the means of waging war are less destructive than they have been in the past, but I don’t think that this situation is a paradox, and found the notion a bit misleading.

AM: PRESENTED WITH THE STATS MANY PEOPLE DO THINK ITS A PARADOX — LARGELY BECAUSE THEY DON’T REALISE WHAT A HUGE DECLINE THERE HAS BEEN IN CHILD MORTALITY IN PEACETIME AND THAT TODAY YOU NEED A VERY BIG WAR TO REVERSE THE TREND..WE ACTUALLY SAY IT ISN’T REALLY A PARADOX.

VH: I think it’s somewhat unfair to compare national statistics on mortality and then use those results to say that “mortality rates decline in wartime”. The units of analysis are quite different. As noted in the report itself, the area of conflict and the national borders are not the same thing and can be quite different – the DRC, with a total square area the size of Western Europe, but with a conflict zone largely limited to the Kivus and Ituri, is a case in point.

AM:  THIS IS ONE OF THE POINTS WE MAKE — WARS ARE NOT ONLY SMALLER BUT ALSO MORE LOCALIZED…  BUT OUR POINT––THAT NATIONWIDE WAR TOLLS HAVE DECLINED DRAMATICALLY IS AN IMPORTANT AND LITTLE RECOGNISED ONE.

 IT IS OF COURSE TRUE THAT MORTALITY RATES IN  WAR ZONES ARE INVARIABLY MANY TIMES HIGHER THAN THE NATIONWIDE RATES — AS WE POINT OUT.  WE THINK THAT THESE RATES ARE THE ONES THAT SHOULD BE USED BY NGOS FOR ADVOCACY — INDEED NGOS HAVE TRADITIONALLY DONE THIS — WITH REFERENCE TO MORTALITY IN PARTICULAR AREAS BEING — SAY ‘FOUR TIMES THE EMERGENCY THRESHOLD”.

VH: And even the wording, “mortality rates decline in wartime” almost sounds (if one doesn’t read on) as though mortality rates decline ‘because of’ wartime, rather than the intended ‘in spite of’ wartime. A careful reading of the report resolves most of these issues, but I still find the notion and the comparison of national statistics and conflict zones misleading. 

 I see that the final section of your overview deals with the importance of getting the tolls right, partly because of the risk that aid (and other forms of attention I assume) will not be allocated according to need. A valid point, but in reality, aid is very rarely (if ever?) allocated according to need to begin with

AM: WE AGREE — AND SAY SO.  POLITICS AND THE CNN EFFECT ARE THE CRITICAL FACTORS A LOT OF THE TIME…

VH: – which is probably why NGOs tend to inflate need assessments and arbitrary death toll estimations, to try to get allocations more in line with needs. Conflict scale (death toll) has next to no recognizable relationship with aid, media, and other forms attention to conflict.

 This is what really disturbs me, and where my research is directed. The results of your report notwithstanding, the point is that people who knew (policymakers, media, NGOs, a very small part of the public, academia), believed/thought that each death toll the IRC produced was the best estimate, up to the 5.4 million mark. It was, after all, unchallenged until your report, and the numbers were reported each time fleetingly in the newspapers. The general public did not know (the media hardly touched the conflict), but those in a position to do something certainly did, and yet nothing happened. People/institutions were told 5.4 million people had died, had no reason to disbelieve, and yet serious responses (or even indignation) did not arise. 

AM: ACTUALLY US AID INCREASED DRAMATICALLY AFTER THE FIRST REPORT’S RESULT WAS PUBLISHED, AND THE PEACEKEEPING OPERATION IS NOW THE BIGGEST IN THE WORLD

VH: I go through what I think are the reasons for this in my book, but I continue to scratch my head regarding what can be done to try to change this situation. 

AM: AGREE THAT THIS A HUGELY DIFFICULT PROBLEM — BEYOND THE SCOPE OF OUR REPORT.”

I followed up with this response:

VH: “Thank you for the responses to each of my points.

The points of US aid increasing after the IRC death toll figures were released and the peacekeeping operation now being the largest in the world are duly noted.

By the same token, whether the death toll figures announced were 500,000 or 2,000,000, I think they probably would have resulted in a similar response. Much was made, for example, of the death toll figures on Darfur in 2004 (30,000, 50,000 and so on), and then in 2006 (400,000). The figures were met with great concern and mobilized resources, but few seemed to realize that the ‘known’ death toll for the DRC at the time was some 80 times greater. The DRC figures may have prompted an increase in aid from the USA, but I am skeptical as to whether there would have been much of a difference had the figures been considerably lower. Whether a conflict is a stealth or chosen one is a much greater factor, and the death toll figures are used to add weight to the attention that a conflict already gets.

This is not to take away from your point (with which I agree) that death tolls should be as accurate as possible – the 400,000 figure for Darfur damaged the credibility of the attempt to raise attention when they were found to be inflated.

In terms of the size of the peacekeeping operation, MONUC, I am skeptical on how much this had to do with the announced death toll figures. When the DRC conflict officially ended, there were still only about 4,000 troops there, and yet the ‘known’ death toll was already 2.5 million. The increase to its current levels was a very gradual process over a number of years (perhaps more to do with the sheer size of territory to be covered combined with mission creep?). Furthermore, although it may be the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, at some 20,000 or so, it is roughly one-third of the size of the NATO force that was deployed to tiny Kosovo, which in square area is about 200 times smaller than the DRC.

While I agree that much care needs to be taken in producing accurate death toll figures, and that death toll figures should not be inflated to attract attention where there is apathy, whether the death toll for the DRC is found to be 500,000 or 5.4 million, I think it can be safely said that neither aid nor peacekeeping levels are commensurate with the levels of need.”

This is Professor Mack’s response:

AM: “Agreed that Darfur got far more coverage — and celebrities — than the DRC…

On Monuc remember — I worked for nearly three years in Annan’s office — that the UN moves at a glacial pace …  This was also true of PKO in Darfur.

Kosovo demonstrates the inconsistency of major power responses better than any other case.”

 

So that was the discussion. I’m sure the debate will go on…

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).

Death toll comparisons

Posted in conflict, conflict death tolls, DRC with tags , , , , , , , , , on 21 February, 2009 by Virgil

In a previous post, I presented some comparisons of conflict death tolls according to regions, and compared them with media coverage. Here is another set of comparisons to help keep the scale of conflicts throughout the world in perspective.

 

The death toll from the world’s deadliest conflict of our times – the DRC (5,400,000) – is compared to the death tolls of a number of other better-known conflicts – those in Israel-Palestine (5,000), Kosovo (10,000), Bosnia (60,000) and Darfur (300,000). The square area of each circle is proportionate to the death toll of each conflict.

 

 

Death toll comparison: DRC and Israel-Palestine

 

 

Death toll comparison: DRC and Kosovo

 

  

Death toll comparison: DRC and Bosnia

 

 

Death toll comparison: DRC and Darfur

 

 

(Death tolls are approximations (see this post) and are calculated as of 2007)

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