Archive for DRC

Clickbait and Stereotypes: Media Coverage of the DR Congo

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 7 November, 2014 by Virgil

by Virgil Hawkins

On 31 October, Reuters released an article headlined “Congo crowd kills man, eats him after militant massacres: witnesses”. The killing was reported as being motivated by revenge for a series of attacks and massacres perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) – the victim was apparently suspected of belonging to this rebel group. The incident was described in just one-fifth (roughly 100 words) of the article, with a single reference stating that the victim’s corpse had allegedly been eaten, according to “witnesses”. The vast majority of the article, however (roughly 400 words) is not about this apparent killing. It instead details the recent movements (primarily political and military) related to the conflict between the ADF-NALU and the DRC government.

The article in question

The article in question

The term clickbait – the misleading use of a provocative or sensationalist title aimed at enticing readers to click on a link – comes to mind, although the article does, in part, cover the actual event the headline mentions. But given the brevity of the description, and the fact that the incident is substantiated only by unnamed and unspecified “witnesses”, one is tempted to question not only the dubious use of the headline, but also how well the facts were actually checked in this case. It is certainly clear that the article was rushed through the editing process – at one point, for example, the rebels are referred to as ADF-NAUL, rather than ADF-NALU.

The Reuters story was picked up by Yahoo!, and the response (at least on the US edition of the site) was overwhelming. In just 12 hours, the article had attracted 6,448 comments. Glancing through these, one struggles to find a single comment that is even vaguely thoughtful, that attempts to seriously discuss the issues raised in the article, questions its validity, or addresses anything in the article apart from the alleged incident of cannibalism. The vast majority of the comments would fit neatly into one (or more) of the following themes: pure racism (Africans/black people have not evolved, and cannibalism is something that they generally do); genocide (sealing off the entire continent and destroying it, or leaving it to its ‘fate’); colonial apologism (this is what happens when you take away white European leadership and give them independence); patronizing charity fatigue/resignation (you try to help these people, but this is what they go and do); and obscene attempts at humour (primarily related to cannibalism).

Other recent articles describing the same conflict that were written by news agencies and had been picked up by Yahoo! (US edition), were, perhaps quite predictably, incomparable in terms of the readers’ response. One article by AFP, for example, published two weeks earlier describing a massacre of women and children in eastern DRC by the same rebel group attracted just 10 comments in total – those comments were similarly themed to those mentioned above. The responses of Yahoo! readers to the mention of violence in Africa on the whole seem to be primarily based on knee-jerk racism and stereotyping at a grand continental level, and almost invariably include a degree of genocidal thoughts and apparent colonial nostalgia. Add a brief mention of a single incident of cannibalism that may or may not have actually happened, and all this is confirmed and amplified with great vigour. While the article in question did go on to explain some of the issues associated with the conflict, in opening it played to the lowest common denominator, and this denominator turned out to be disturbingly low.

Racism is a product of ignorance, among other factors, and, given the chronic lack of information offered by the news media about Africa in general, the fact that ignorance prevails on such a large scale should not seem surprising. The little information provided about the conflict in the DRC in particular, combined with its unparalleled scale, makes it the greatest stealth conflict in the world today. But it is more than just the lack of information – it is also about the lack of balance in the little information that is provided. And this is not only an issue of balance between ‘bad news’ and ‘good news’ (something that is indeed lacking). Consideration must also be given to the balance between brief throwaway journalism (that tends to play to already entrenched stereotypes), and detailed, comprehensive and thoughtful journalism.

Horrible atrocities are a part of any armed conflict – indeed armed conflicts are by definition horrible atrocities. But as those in the journalism industry and academia calling for ‘conflict sensitive journalism’ and ‘peace journalism’ teach us, there is so much more to conflict than expressions of violence that needs to be told by the news media. Armed conflict is a complex social phenomenon, and understanding it involves getting to know the root causes (including social, economic and political inequalities), the belligerents (including their motives and objectives), the suffering of its victims, and efforts aimed at reaching a peaceful settlement, among many other aspects. The news media rarely get this balance right, but they certainly tend to do a better job for conflicts that are not occurring in Africa than those that are.

Reuters (and Yahoo!) can do better than this, and, judging by the disturbing array of comments posted in response to this article, so can the casual observer of armed conflict and atrocities.


* This article was originally posted on the Southern African Peace and Security Blog.

* Follow up: I made 3 attempts to add a comment to the original Reuters article in question, raising the same concerns as those above, and including a link to this blog entry. None were posted. I found the censorship somewhat surprising coming from such a major news organization, particularly considering that the only comment that was allowed through and that remains on the Reuters page is an offensive attempt at humour on the issue of cannibalism.

* Follow up 2 (8 Nov): Reuters has now decided to entirely eliminate the comment function from its entire site. An interesting development to say the least – certainly not a positive one.

The other conflict: Covering eastern DRC

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, DRC, Israel-Palestine with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 November, 2012 by Virgil

Never mind that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hosts the world’s deadliest conflict today, or that the current levels of violence are the worst seen there in the past five years. Whatever its status or state of affairs, the conflict, the country, and the region are going to struggle to attract any substantive levels of media coverage from the outside world.

This sad reality reflects entrenched patterns in terms of the various factors that editors and producers use to help them decide what they think is newsworthy and what is not. These include race, socioeconomic status and perceived national/political interests. Being poor, black and outside the range of vital national interests of the world’s powerful countries certainly does not help. Central Africa’s chances of getting attention are not good at the ‘best’ of times.

So it doesn’t require much imagination to predict what will happen to media coverage when a major outbreak of violence in the DRC happens to coincide with a major outbreak of violence in a part of the world that is deemed as being exceptionally ‘important’.

Since mid-November, this is precisely what has happened. Unfortunately for the people of eastern DRC (though perhaps fortunately for those leading the offensive and their backers), the rebel (M23) assault on, and capture of, the major city of Goma, has coincided almost perfectly with the conflict over Gaza. This has effectively ruled out the possibility of any substantive media-led concern, indignation or interest regarding the fate of eastern DRC and its people.

Let us first let the figures speak for themselves. The following graph shows the levels of coverage in the New York Times (including both online and print) in the one week leading up to the fall of Goma to the rebels.

In this one-week period, the New York Times produced, in response to the escalating conflict in the DRC, 2,947 words in 5 articles (none of which were front-page stories or editorials). For Israel-Palestine, it produced 48,711 words in 60 articles, including 12 front-page stories and 3 editorials. In terms of word count, the conflict in Israel-Palestine attracted 17 times more coverage than did the conflict in the DRC.

And this yawning gap in coverage, this terribly disproportionate level of interest, certainly does not just apply to the New York Times. It is a trend that applies to the news media globally, both online and off.

Any incidence of conflict in Israel-Palestine is automatically newsworthy, for a number of reasons, most importantly elite political interest in powerful Western countries. It is clear that factors such as the death toll or level of humanitarian suffering are unlikely to feature in a major way in the decisions in response to foreign conflict made by policymakers in these countries. But it is shameful that these factors do not feature either in decisions made by media gatekeepers regarding newsworthiness.

Is it too much to ask that the decision-makers in media corporations tone down their deference to elite interests a little, shake off some of the urge to ignore the plight of those whose skin and/or passports are of a different colour from their own, and take a new and fresh look at the state of the world?

Just the bad news

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, DRC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 November, 2012 by Virgil

Reporting on Peace Operations in the DRC

No news is good news” – so goes an old adage. But it does not necessarily apply to the reporting of conflict in Africa by media corporations from beyond the continent, for no news does not necessarily mean an absence of bad news. It often simply means that the media corporations have decided that the events on the continent (both good and bad) are not worthy of reporting.

By the same token, if a recent study by the author is any indication, on the not-so-common occasions that issues related to conflict and peace in Africa are reported, it is indeed the ‘bad’ news that gets the coverage. The study in question involved measuring the coverage by the New York Times of peace operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the course of the thirteen years since it was established. The coverage was measured by a word count. The results can be seen in the figure below.

New York Times’ coverage of peace operations in the DRC (1999-2012) (click on graph to enlarge)

There was some coverage of the UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) when it was established by the UN Security Council in 1999, and more in 2000, particularly as it encountered difficulties in deploying because of obstacles on the ground. But as conditions changed, allowing their deployment in full, and as the peacekeepers began fanning out across the country in early 2001, coverage virtually disappeared – good news simply wasn’t news.

It would be two years before the New York Times would show any interest in covering the peace operations in the DRC again. This time, massacres in the Ituri district led to the possibility (and realization) of intervention by a small French-led European Union force. A combination of the massacres and the deployment of Western troops in response got the attention of the newspaper, but not for long. The EU force would only stay for three months (MONUC would remain), but coverage lasted for little more than one month – the situation had calmed in the town in which the forces were deployed. This was as concentrated as coverage of peace operations in the DRC would ever get.

More bad news – a scandal involving sexual abuse perpetrated by some peacekeepers – attracted a reasonable degree of attention more than a year later. Between 2008 and 2010, peacekeepers’ failures to stop rebel advances, and their dubious collaboration with government troops accused of human rights abuses also was the object of some coverage, but not that much. Coverage has since flatlined.

Since peace operations began in the DRC, there is no question that there have been numerous negative occurrences worthy of reporting, but there have also been positive achievements made in helping keep a very fragile region from falling apart altogether. This also equally deserves our attention.

At the time of writing, rebels have taken the city of Goma, and MONUC’s successor, the UN Stabilization Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) has, for a number of reasons, not resisted their final push into the city. We hope that the New York Times will not simply continue its tradition of reporting the bad news and little else. More importantly, we hope that further violence can be averted, leaving the newspaper with no more bad news to write about.

Southern Africa in the New York Times

Posted in Africa, conflict, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 24 May, 2012 by Virgil

Photo by Francis Wu under a CC Licence

Africa – the continent that always seems to have to go that extra mile or so in a bid to convince the editors of media corporations that its news is worth printing, airing and/or uploading (more often than not, the editors remain unconvinced). This post is a brief overview of the quantity of coverage by the New York Times of the sixteen countries that make up southern Africa for the first quarter of 2012 (January to March).

The following is the number of words (and the percentage of the whole) devoted to news primarily focused on each of the countries of the region, in descending order.

South Africa:__9,247 words (56%)
D.R. Congo:___3,683 words (22%)
Mozambique:__1,219 words (7%)
Zimbabwe:____1,023 words (6%)
Madagascar:___963 words (6%)
Seychelles:____273 words (2%)
Malawi:______88 words (1%)
Angola:______0 words (0%)
Botswana:____0 words (0%)
Comoros_____ 0 words (0%)
Lesotho:_____0 words (0%)
Mauritius:____0 words (0%)
Namibia:_____0 words (0%)
Swaziland:____0 words (0%)
Tanzania:_____0 words (0%)
Zambia:______0 words (0%)
TOTAL:______16,496 words

News about the region’s major power, South Africa, accounts for more than half of the total quantity of coverage. Twelve articles cover a variety of topics, from the expulsion of the controversial ANC Youth Leader from the party, to the hospitalization of Nelson Mandela, to social issues associated with the informal economy. The five articles devoted to the D.R. Congo cover the armed conflict and instability in that country, and questions over the dubious election results from the previous year. Perhaps most worthy of note here though, is that not a single drop of ink was shed over the events in more than half (nine) of the countries in the region, including relatively large and powerful Angola and Tanzania.

From another perspective, how does the total of 16,496 words devoted to the region compare to the New York Times’ coverage other parts of world? Over the same period, Israel alone (one of the most consistently popular objects of media coverage) garnered 36,604 words – more than double the coverage for the entire region of southern Africa. That sounds fair, you might say. Israel is, after all, considering the possibility of bombing Iran, and violent armed conflict goes on in neighbouring Syria. On the other hand, the situation in the D.R. Congo, which attracted but a tenth of the coverage of Israel, is no small matter either. The country is the size of western Europe, and the simmering pockets of conflict, which are remnants of the deadliest conflict the world has seen in the past half-century, continue to serve as major security concerns to its many neighbours.

Let’s try another comparison. In January 2012, a cruise ship called the Costa Concordia ran aground off Italy killing some 32 people. Coverage of this single accident and its aftermath garnered 14,960 words in the New York Times, which is just slightly less than the total amount of coverage devoted to southern Africa. The incident was certainly a tragedy, but in terms of newsworthiness, did it deserve to rival the sum total of three-months worth of events in the entire southern African region, including the ongoing tragedy in the D.R. Congo? Certainly is worth a thought.

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.

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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