Archive for Gaza

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?

Big changes in the DRC (but who cares?)

Posted in conflict, Congo, DRC, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 January, 2009 by Virgil

Over the past few months, major political and military developments have been witnessed in the world’s deadliest conflict of our times. Or should I say, barely witnessed. A number of developments that will significantly affect the course of the conflict and the peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been happening, but as usual, they have barely made any ripples in the mainstream news outside the region.

 

In the closing months of 2008, the Rwandan-backed rebel group in the DRC, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), led by Laurent Nkunda, began a series of offensives in eastern DRC, capturing vast swathes of territory, threatening to take the city of Goma, and began talking about liberating the entire country. Meanwhile, the DRC joined forces with former enemy Uganda and South Sudan, conducting military operations to hunt down Ugandan rebels based in the DRC, who responded with brutal force against civilians as they retreated. Then in late December, a split in the CNDP leadership emerged between leader Nkunda and General Bosco Ntaganda (also known as the ‘Terminator’), who has an arrest warrant against him from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for recruiting child soldiers.

 

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Front lines (Map: BBC)

But perhaps the biggest development happened yesterday on 20 January, when Rwandan troops entered the DRC for a joint operation against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – a Hutu militia whose leadership is linked to the Rwanda genocide of 1994. Just a few months ago, another war between Rwanda and the DRC would not have been all that surprising. The realization of a joint military operation between these two countries, with Rwandan troops entering DRC soil with permission, is a major step. Interestingly, the Rwandan forces, together with tanks and trucks full of ammunition, headed for the town of Ruthsuru – CNDP territory. This means a three-way operation by DRC government forces, the CNDP, and Rwandan troops against the FDLR. This represents a major change in the dynamics of the region. (Click here to keep up with what is going on.)

This is likely either a major step towards peace or a major step in a new phase of the conflict. This is the world’s deadliest conflict. Such developments deserve serious attention. They are getting very little. 

Takeshi Kuno)

CNDP rebel (Photo: Takeshi Kuno)

News of the Rwandan entry into the DRC and peace with the CNDP, for example, has been displaced by conflict in Gaza, the reaction to the inauguration of US President Obama in Kenya, the freeing of a kidnapped Greek shipping magnate, and China trying to stop the sale of artworks that it claims were once looted by Franco-British soldiers, among many others – anything will do. In fact, displaced is hardly the right word to use here. News of the DRC is generally not displaced, because its news value is treated as being so low in the first place that getting it on the news agenda is never easy, regardless of what else is happening in the world (and what is not).

  

A check of the World page of the New York Times website on 21 January 2009 reveals these headlines (from the top): ‘Debating the blame for reducing much of a village to rubble’ (Gaza), ‘Few Israelis near Gaza feel war achieved much Gaza’, ‘Israel completes withdrawal from Gaza’, and ‘Tensions in the Mideast reverberate in France’. That’s four articles straight on Gaza dominating the top, followed by ‘Obama promises the world a renewed America’, ‘U.S. secures new supply routes to Afghanistan’, ‘Thousands in Chechnya protest after lawyer is killed’, ‘Obama seeks halt to Guantanamo trials’, ‘China sees separatist threats’, and ‘Families file suit in Chinese tainted milk scandal’. One world briefing (103 words) on Rwandan troops crossing the border into the DRC can be found in the 16th article from the top.

 

A check of the World News page of the website of the Times (the UK newspaper) on 21 January reveals not a single article containing news on the developments in the DRC on the page at all. In fact, of the 32 articles on the page, 18 are related to the election of US President Obama, including a number of articles on the details of the inauguration ceremony and how the day went for the Obama children. There is not even a trace of the DRC on the Africa News page – word of Mrs. Mugabe hitting a reporter gets two articles here, and one article is given to hunting parties culling elephants in Zimbabwe.

 

A check of the main homepage of the CNN International website at the same time failed to turn up any articles on the DRC either. This page was instead thoroughly dominated by the US President’s inauguration (including an article on the waltzes the Obamas danced, followed by other news including the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a blow-up doll sex suspect arrested in Australia, and Manchester United losing its shirt sponsor. In the regional news towards the bottom of the page, the two items for Africa are: ‘A joke over breakfast with Desmond Tutu’ and ‘Zimbabwe power-sharing talks collapse’.

 

Of course these are only snapshots of the news presented by these media corporations. News does pop up every once in a while on developments in the world’s deadliest conflict, even if it is buried on page 12 as a news brief. But the way media corporations are showing such disregard for proportion, and attributing such low news value to such important events, choosing so many other stories (many trivial in the extreme) as news in their place, says something about the sad and sorry state of the media industry today.

‘We cannot stand by’

Posted in conflict, DRC, Israel-Palestine, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 12 January, 2009 by Virgil

The media barrage on the conflict in Israel-Palestine is unrelenting. Consumers of media products around the world continue to be subjected to article after article, front-page headline after front-page headline, hour after hour of coverage on this conflict, all demanding our attention. At times it seems not only that the world at this point revolves around Israel-Palestine, but almost as if Israel-Palestine is the only place in the world (apart from the country we happen to live in) worthy of our attention at all.

 

This is what a ‘chosen’ conflict looks like. It is admittedly not as chosen as some conflicts, like Iraq in 2003, or Afghanistan in 2001, or Kosovo in 1999. For a conflict to be chosen in this way – to the point that coverage of that conflict seriously interrupts regular programming – generally requires that US troops are directly involved, bombing or invading the country in question. When Iraq was invaded, the 24-hour news channels ended up casting to the wind whatever was happening in the rest of world at the time (like the overthrow of the democratically elected government in the Central African Republic), broadcasting instead hour after hour of live footage (from embedded journalists) of tanks in Iraq doing little more than driving north.

 

So this conflict is not quite that chosen, but it does dominate the news wherever you turn. A look at the main homepage for the New York Times website on January 11, for example, revealed 10 links to different articles on the conflict, including ‘Multimedia on Gaza’ (interactive graphics), a timeline of Israel, the Gaza Strip and Hamas, and a video analysis of the Gaza conflict. And that is just the main homepage. Click on the Middle East page and a multitude of additional articles reveal themselves, along with links to blogs on the conflict.

 

On the BBC homepage on the same day, a click on the Middle East link will lead you to a choice of 28 items on the Israel-Palestine conflict, including feature articles on ‘Lost innocents’ and ‘Gaza aid’, Mideast papers on Gaza, a Gaza conflict map, and ‘Rallies for Gaza’ in pictures. On the CNN homepage, there were more than 150 videos posted on the conflict in just two weeks (since 24 December 2008). In Japan, the editorial for the Asahi Shimbun (newspaper) for 8 January was titled ‘The Gaza tragedy: for how long will we leave it be?’

 

All this saturation coverage appears to have had a significant impact on the general public. The internet is buzzing with copious quantities of all manner of comment and chatter, and thousands have gone out onto the streets, from London to Indonesia (and even to Osaka) to demonstrate about the situation. Both sides are highly emotionally charged, with the majority seeming to be outraged by the high loss of innocent life (primarily on the Palestinian side), and others (much fewer in number) insistent that the Palestinians brought it on themselves, and that Israel should have the right to defend itself. What needs to be noted is that, regardless of which side they take, there are so many people talking about the conflict. As Bernard Cohen famously said, the press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about”.

 

Whether it is the media obsessing over the conflict or the members of the public lending their voices to the issue, the tone of so much of the discussion is of the humanitarian variety. There is so much concern about the loss of innocent life. Words like ‘horror’, ‘tragedy’, ‘carnage’ and ‘humanitarian crisis’ are being used in abundance, and the media corporations present the humanitarian toll in great detail, finding individuals with harrowing stories to tell, and helping us to know them and feel their pain. Variants of the phrase ‘we cannot stand by and watch this happen’ (or ‘the world cannot stand by’, or ‘the international community cannot stand by’ – whatever ‘the international community’ is supposed to mean) are also being used in abundance.

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Outpouring of public outrage and sympathy in London (Photo: Mattsays)

 

 

 

But the sad reality is that that is exactly what we tend to do. We do stand by and do nothing about the vast majority of conflict-related suffering in the world. We are perfectly capable of ignoring humanitarian suffering in most of the world’s conflicts most of the time. This is to a large degree unavoidable – there is so much conflict-related humanitarian suffering that we have to be selective. There are 20 or 30 conflicts ongoing in varying degrees in the world at any point in time (depending on one’s definition of conflict).

 

But almost all of the deadliest conflicts in the world are happening in Africa (with the exception of Iraq and Afghanistan), and it is these conflicts that we ignore the most. Roughly 500 people (estimates seem to have increased) were killed in a series of Christmas massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after a multinational offensive against the Ugandan LRA. But there has been no outpouring of sympathy or outrage (or of anything except apathy) for these people and their families, and what has happened in the course of the offensive since then may as well be altogether unknown. The New York Times has shed no ink at all for the conflict since it reported on the Christmas massacres in a single article, sparing just 748 words for the conflict since mid-December. Compare that to the 44,480 words it lavished on Israel-Palestine in just two weeks after fighting began to intensify. And compare CNN’s 150 videos on Israel-Palestine on their website in the same two weeks to the zero videos on the offensive against the LRA. The lack of any semblance of proportionality is staggering.

lra-massacres-in-the-drc2 

Why are we so absorbed with the humanitarian consequences of conflict in one particular case (Israel-Palestine), that we have not a drop of sympathy remaining for all the rest – especially those that are much worse? There is no stopping to even question why this conflict is so much more important than the others, why others should be erased from the possible media agenda altogether (if they were ever there to begin with). Why have all the media corporations and the general public all jumped on the same humanitarian bandwagon?

 

However we choose to justify the exclusive saturation coverage of Israel-Palestine, we run into some inescapable contradictions. If it is about humanitarianism, why are those in Israel-Palestine more ‘human’ than others – why is far greater human suffering elsewhere almost completely ignored? If it is about religion, why is the persecution of people based on faith elsewhere given so little attention? If it is about the effect of the conflict on the price of oil, why don’t we care about conflict in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria (a major player in the oil business), where conflict is directly responsible for a reduction of one-quarter of its oil exports? If it is about terrorism, why does the terrorism practiced by warlords in any other of the world’s conflicts go unnoticed?

 

None of these reasons seem to hold up. About the only excuses that seem to remain are that the politicians are all talking about it (and they always have), our reporters are on the scene anyway, and the other media corporations seem to believe so much in its importance (follow-the-leader and pack journalism). The ‘important’ players in world affairs believe it is important, and therefore it must be. And because they have believed it is so important for so many years, then the whole process becomes self-sustaining and automatic.

 

But with the levels of disproportion in attention so extreme, the question begs to be asked: how does this situation go unchallenged? Are the victims of conflict in the DRC not human enough to qualify for our ‘humanitarian’ concern? Or is it because the media’s high-beam spotlight on the Israel-Palestine conflict is so intense and its blackout over the conflict in the DRC so dark? And why are we the public just going along with it, swallowing whole what we are fed? Is it a case of out of sight, out of mind? Is it that the conflict in the DRC doesn’t bother us because the newspapers and TV stations are not constantly waving it in our face?

 

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that so much of the world is suffering from an acute case of selective indignation, and worse still, no one even seems to notice…

Israel-Palestine and contagious journalism

Posted in conflict, conflict death tolls, Israel-Palestine, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 January, 2009 by Virgil

Forget the series of Christmas massacres by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in eastern DRC that left more than 400 dead (including more than 45 killed in a church) and the coalition of countries in the region trying to hunt them down. Forget the deadly clashes with Congolese rebels poised to take over the city of Goma. Forget Somalia, where the Ethiopian forces that invaded (with US assistance) two years ago are being forced by local resistance forces to pack and leave. Forget all of these conflicts, because violence has broken out again in Israel-Palestine.

 

The latest conflagration of violence in Israel-Palestine continues to dominate international news around the world. The details of who is attacking who with what, how many people have died (down to single digit figures), and how many of them were women and children, together with in-depth political analysis and a touch of humanitarian concern are all fed through the newspapers, television, radio and internet news outlets on a daily basis. And all with the utmost care to avoid displeasing lobby groups that will rain down thousands of e-mails, telephone calls and letters (flak) upon the unfortunate media corporation suspected of even the slightest bias (and possibly revoke their advertising contracts).

 

The Israel-Palestine conflict is a ‘chosen’ conflict. It always is. It has the rare privilege of being the focus of saturated attention every time there is a conflagration (despite the fact that the conflict is not occurring in a ‘white’ Western country, and despite the fact that the USA is not a direct belligerent in the conflict – always sure factors for a conflict to attract soaring levels of attention). Explaining why this is so would take a book or two, but let’s just scratch the surface here. Politicians in much of the Western world obsess about the issue, largely because a significant amount of their election campaign contributions seem to depend on their favourable attention in many cases. Politicians in much of the Muslim world do likewise, because standing up against the oppression of Muslims at the hands of Israel is much more popular than standing up against the oppression of Muslims at the hands of anyone else. The fact that the conflict region is considered the ‘Holy Land’ by Muslims, Jews and Christians helps cement this process.

 

For media corporations, providing saturation coverage of the conflict is nothing short of automatic. What is considered important by media corporations is based largely on what the policymakers at home consider to be important, almost by default. Keeping reporters close to those making foreign policy at home is much cheaper than sending them all over the world to independently gather news. In the competitive media business, budgets are better spent on packaging and presenting news than actually gathering it. Furthermore, for media corporations that have little newsgathering capacity (and oddly, even for those that do), the news value of a story is often determined by what leading media corporations (like the New York Times) think it should be. In this environment of follow-the-leader (policymakers and leading media corporations) and pack journalism, having a reporter in Africa is optional, having one in Israel-Palestine is not. Once the reporter is stationed there, ‘fresh’ coverage of the issue on demand is cheap and easy (far more so than actually sending someone to far-away and logistically challenging Africa to cover something after it happens).

 

Because of the combination of follow-the-leader, pack journalism, and lack of newsgathering capacity, this state of affairs can be seen spreading to the rest of the world as well. Japan has no cultural or religious affinity with Israel-Palestine, and its politicians are not reliant on campaign contributions from pro-Israeli lobby groups, yet its media corporations follow the Western leaders in devoting heavy coverage to the issue. Even locally-focused news programs that rarely have any time for foreign affairs issues make sure to include news of the latest conflagration in their bulletins. With little budget for foreign newsgathering, Zambia’s leading newspaper (the Post) buys its world news from foreign news agencies. The result is that it gives more coverage to the situation in Israel-Palestine than it does to the eight countries on Zambia’s border combined. In the year 2004, for example, it devoted 9 percent of its foreign coverage to Israel-Palestine, but only 4 percent to all of Zambia’s eight neighbours.

 

On top of this, things have always been this way, so they tend to stay that way. Israel-Palestine has always been considered important, and ‘important’ people think it is, so it must be important. Groups (interest/lobby) and individuals with a special interest in the conflict in Israel-Palestine are also well-positioned to continue the process of drawing copious amounts of attention to the conflict, in political spheres and in the ownership of prominent media corporations. Africa, on the other hand, has not been considered important (for a variety of separate reasons that will be dealt with in another post), and therefore no one knows about it, and therefore it is not important. It becomes a vicious cycle.

 

The public, who remain largely at the mercy of the media corporations in obtaining morsels of information about the outside world, seem to end up with the same distorted view of the world. In a simple classroom survey conducted of 37 Australian university students (studying in a course on war and peace no less) in 2003, the conflict in Israel-Palestine was the most common answer (9 respondents) to the question of which conflict in the world they thought had been the deadliest since the end of the Cold War. Only one of the 37 could even name the conflict in the DRC as one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, and that was at third place behind Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan. In a similar survey conducted of 151 university students in Japan in 2008, not a single one could name the DRC as the world’s deadliest conflict. Fourteen students, on the other hand, thought that the conflict in Israel-Palestine was world’s deadliest, coming in at third place behind Iraq and Kosovo.

 

This is despite the fact that the virtually unknown conflict in the DRC is 1,000 times deadlier than that in Israel-Palestine. And I don’t mean that figuratively, it is literally 1,000 times deadlier – the death toll from conflict in the DRC since 1998 is roughly 6 million, while the death toll from conflict in Israel-Palestine since 2000 is roughly 6 thousand. At least 38 conflicts since the end of the Cold War have been deadlier than that in Israel-Palestine. Put simply, while these surveys are limited in their scope, they suggest that collectively, the general public has no idea about the state of conflict in the world. Their perspective on which conflicts are the largest and deadliest is so skewed that the reality is unrecognizable. But who can blame them, considering the horribly unbalanced diet of media they feed on. I invite you to try out simple surveys like this (“Which conflict in the world do you think has been the deadliest since the end of the Cold War?”) with those around you.

 

In some ways, I almost regret writing this post, because I am becoming part of the very bandwagon that I am discussing – by writing about why the issue is important, I am inadvertently boosting the attention it receives… But some discussion of the issue of ‘chosen’ conflicts is also necessary in order for the discussion of ‘stealth’ conflicts to make sense.

 

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