Archive for media

Paris and Baga: What makes an atrocity newsworthy?

Posted in conflict, conflict analysis, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , on 13 January, 2015 by Virgil

The world was ‘shocked’ by the recent attacks in Paris, primarily directed at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, that left 17 people dead. The exceptionally heavy levels of media coverage throughout the world, the spread of the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ message of solidarity, and the attendance of leaders from 40 countries at a rally in Paris make this abundantly clear.

Prominent publications outside France, including the BBC and the New York Times, carried articles claiming that this attack signals a “new era of terrorism”. Media coverage has been concentrated and emotive, offering every last detail of the attack itself, the perpetrators and the victims, the manhunt, and of the outpouring of grief and solidarity, as well as editorials, opinion and extensive analysis on the implications of the attacks in terms of the issue of terrorism and freedom of speech. Newspapers carried headlines portraying the attacks as a “war on freedom”, and “barbaric”. The names, faces and profiles of the victims were shared with readers and viewers of the news throughout the world, from the US, to Japan and New Zealand. An article in the Times of India criticized the city of Kolkata for the low turnout at a rally to express solidarity with the victims.

Where is Baga in the New York Times?

The response to these attacks, however, was in stark contrast to the relative silence that met another set of mass killings in early January – a series of massacres focused around the northeast Nigerian town of Baga perpetrated by the rebel Boko Haram. After having overrun a military outpost in Baga, Boko Haram forces, attacking with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, began killing everyone in sight in and around the town, including children and the elderly. The death toll at this stage is unclear. Initial estimates range from dozens to hundreds to as many as two thousand. But it is highly likely that this is the deadliest massacre ever perpetrated by Boko Haram.

Given the scale of the atrocity, the muted media response is troubling to say the least. The New York Times offered just one article on the matter, titled ‘Dozens said to die in Boko Haram attack‘. The newspaper appears to have made no attempt after this article to follow-up, to confirm whether the death toll was indeed dozens, hundreds or thousands, to discover any further details, or to offer any opinion or analysis. The BBC published an online article in which a Nigerian archbishop criticized “the West” for ignoring the Baga massacre, particularly offering the contrast of attention to the attacks in France, but at the time the BBC itself had published only three online articles on the Baga massacre. Far from attempting to put names, faces and profiles on the victims, the media appeared uninterested in even counting them.

There has been very little in the way of expressions of concern from the public as a whole, or from political leaders outside the country. There have been no major public outpourings of solidarity and no “I am Baga” slogans on signboards or online that have managed to go viral. Given the lack of response by the media, it is highly likely that the events themselves are largely unknown to many beyond the region.

So what makes these two incidents so different? Why is one seen as heralding a “new era of terrorism”, and the other, not even deemed worthy of following up? As in Paris, civilians in Baga were specifically targeted and shot. As in Paris, the killers identified themselves as defenders of Islam against Western actions and influences. Indeed the name Boko Haram roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden”, and the group has expressed its support for the Islamic State. And while great care needs to be taken in using the term ‘terrorism’ (given the subjective political baggage it inevitably carries), the events in Baga, Nigeria, were as much acts of terrorism as were the attacks in Paris, France – both involved the deliberate use of violence against non-combatants to intimidate the general population with a view to achieving a political objective.

One major difference between the atrocities is clearly the fact that while the civilian victims in the Baga massacre were targeted en masse, the civilians targeted in the Paris massacre were primarily media personnel (albeit from a particular media publication). This gave the attention to the Paris massacre the additional angle of the attempted intimidation of journalists. It must also be said, however, that this is a constant and global issue of concern. Threats by Boko Haram against journalists are part of the reason why the conflict has tended to attract little media coverage to begin with. Throughout the world in 2014, a total of 96 media personnel were killed, seventeen of whom were killed in Syria. The fact that the eight media personnel killed in Paris were killed in a single incident does of course make this case significant. But the 2009 killing of 32 media personnel in a single incident in Maguindanao, Philippines, along with a number of politicians (that the journalists were accompanying) and other civilians, did not result in a fraction of the attention, coverage or outrage on a global scale that we see now. Foreign news corporations did not categorize the incident as representing a “new era of terrorism” or a “war on freedom”, and the attacks sparked little debate about the importance of protecting journalism from intimidation and the challenge to freedom of speech.

Hypothetically speaking, had the roles been reversed – had an attack on a satirical newspaper office in Nigeria resulted in 12 deaths, and had an attack on a town in France at the same time left hundreds dead – we could safely predict that the events in France would still have attracted the vast majority of the attention and the indignation, and that the threat of intimidation against journalism would simply not have been a major issue for debate.

The real reasons for the differences in the coverage are less related to what atrocities were perpetrated, and more related to where, and against who, the atrocities were perpetrated. Numerous studies (like this book and this journal article) have shown that the raw number of deaths from conflict, crimes and atrocities is unrelated to the quantity and intensity of media coverage that rises in response. Factors such as the race and socioeconomic status of the victims, among others, have a much greater bearing on the levels of coverage an atrocity can attract. It is a sad reality that, for news corporations in the West (including distant Australia and New Zealand) the perceived newsworthiness of black impoverished Africans is far less than that for white Europeans.

Having said this, access to the scene of the atrocities is undoubtedly also a major issue. Baga is a remote town in Nigeria, and is currently under the control of Boko Haram. For all of the advances in information and communication technology, as a general rule, reporters still have to be able to physically reach the place in question to collect footage, images and interviews, in order to reliably report on the situation. But in the case of Baga, reporters can still reach the survivors who fled, and others displaced by the conflict. That they have not, on the whole, attempted to do so, is a reflection on the lack of perceived newsworthiness of the atrocity for other reasons. And the minimal presence of Western reporters in Nigeria to begin with, is also a reflection of the chronic lack of perceived newsworthiness regarding the region in a historical sense.

The fact that the massacre in Baga was not the first by Boko Haram, and that it took place in a conflict situation, must also be considered as a difference to the massacre in Paris. The newsworthiness of an atrocity tends to quickly decrease if it is a reoccurring one. But reoccurring conflict in Israel-Palestine under similar circumstances has never been a barrier to consistently heavy media coverage. And the fact that the Baga massacre is the deadliest in the history of Boko Haram should give the media pause to reconsider its relative indifference. Further recent atrocities, like the use of a girl as young as ten years old by Boko Haram as a suicide bomber in a marketplace in a different town in northeast Nigeria, should also carry a certain newsworthiness. If the coverage to date is any indication, they have not.

There is no question that the need to protect journalists from intimidation is an important and valid concern. It is crucial that we work towards realizing a world in which the pen is mightier than the sword, and in which the sword is not used in response to the pen. But at the same time, we should also work towards realizing a world in which the pen is not so selective in who it chooses to write about, particularly when so many lives are at stake.

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.

Boston? Yes. Arusha? No thank you

Posted in Africa, media coverage, Tanzania, terrorism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 9 May, 2013 by Virgil

The bomb blast tore mercilessly and indiscriminately through the crowd, killing three innocent civilians and injuring scores more. Mayhem ensued, as the injured were rushed to hospital and the people struggled to understand why such a tragedy had befallen them. The gathering had been peaceful and the mood, celebratory. And this was not, after all, a place accustomed to such indiscriminate violence – the country had not experienced a bombing of this nature in more than ten years. Law enforcement agencies moved quickly and resolutely in response. Links with organized international terror groups were immediately suspected, and certain individuals of apparent Middle Eastern origin were singled out and tracked down.

No, this is not the story of the events that transpired at the 2013 Boston Marathon on 15 May. This is the story of a more recent bombing – one that occurred at Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Arusha, Tanzania, on Sunday 5 May. At the inaugural mass held at the newly built church, which was being attended by the Vatican’s ambassador to Tanzania and other dignitaries, a bomb was allegedly thrown by an assailant on a motorcycle into the crowd that had gathered for the occasion. No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the arrest of three Emirati, one Saudi, and four Tanzanian nationals attempting to cross the border into Kenya suggests that connections with international terrorist groups are being seriously suspected.

The Boston Marathon, which also left three people dead, and in which links with international terrorist groups were also initially suspected, sparked saturation coverage on a massive scale by the mass media, not only in the USA, but throughout the world. All subsequent developments were reported in a blow-by-blow manner, and even hints of what might appear to be a new twist or turn were also immediately released online, on the airwaves and in print, often with little concern for confirmation or fact-checking. The search for answers was vigorous and unwavering. Detailed backgrounds were sought and provided on the suspects and their origins, offering in-depth analysis and speculation covering all conceivable motives. At the same time, moving accounts of the pre-bombing hopes and aspirations of the victims and their families, and their courage in facing life after the tragedy, quickly filled the news.

The bombing in Tanzania, on the other hand, was met by media outlets around the globe with little more than a collective yawn. As of 9 May, the Boston Marathon bombing had been the subject, for example, of 249 articles made available on the BBC News website, exploring every possible angle of the bombing and its aftermath. On the same website, the bombing in Tanzania has been the subject of just two articles – both of which were released on the day after the bombing. No effort has been made to provide any portrayals of the victims – their backgrounds, hopes or aspirations. And the lack of any follow-up articles reveals little interest in clarifying or pursuing the circumstances behind the bombings, or the arrest of the suspects currently in custody, including their backgrounds, motives and possible international connections. This gaping discrepancy between the attention devoted to these two bombings is not at all limited to the BBC, but is largely representative of major media corporations throughout the world.

The similarities between these cases are clear. Unexpected explosion at a prestigious and peaceful gathering of innocent civilians? Check. Three dead and scores injured? Check. A stunned and grieving community? Check. Video footage available of the attack and its aftermath? Check. The fear of further attacks in similar situations (marathons and churches)? Check. The possibility of the involvement of foreign groups known to use terror as a means to achieve certain political ends? Check.

What makes them different? At the risk of belabouring the obvious, the prime difference is clearly in the value that the media attach to events that impact on the world’s economic, political and military ‘centre’ (predominantly white, Western, wealthy, powerful), and the ‘periphery’ (predominantly black, African, and impoverished). It is closely linked to the notion of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims. But to a degree it is also about the possession of military clout and the willingness to use it. Terrorist attacks directed at the USA have in the past been used as the pretext for massive bombing campaigns and invasions of other countries. There may have been a degree of anticipation regarding the possible global ramifications of a US government response (military or otherwise) had links to certain foreign organizations been discovered.

The stark difference in the coverage of these two incidents certainly serves to reaffirm and bring home something that should already be abundantly clear: the major ‘global threat’ as perceived by much of the world’s media is not so-called ‘terrorism’ per se. Nor is it the more specific variety of cross-border ‘terrorism’ that is seen as being linked to extremist Islamic groups. It would appear that the concept of ‘threat’ is dependent not on the nature or the scale of the act itself or on the actor responsible, but primarily on who (or where) the victims are. Which passport do they carry? Where are they based? And it is clear that in the eyes of the media at least, some victims are far more worthy than others.

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.

NHK and the missing continent

Posted in Africa, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , on 12 July, 2012 by Virgil

Photo by Hiromitsu Morimoto (Hetgallery) under a CC Licence

It would appear that the Japanese news media has nothing to say about sub-Saharan Africa. And I mean that in the most literal sense. A study by the author of coverage by the national broadcaster’s (Nippon Hoso Kyokai – NHK) flagship news program, News Watch 9, for the first six months of 2012, revealed not a single news item about the various events that occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, Egypt was the only country on the entire continent to have been the object of coverage over this period.

Media corporations outside Africa have a long and inglorious history of paying scant attention to the continent, but the news media based in Japan seem to particularly ‘excel’ at it. Previous studies by the author have found, for example, that coverage of Africa by Western media corporations (such as BBC, the New York Times and Le Monde) tends to make up between six and nine percent of the time/space devoted to world news. Meanwhile, for Japanese media corporations like the Yomiuri Newspaper (Japan’s largest in terms of circulation), Africa is worth no more than three percent of the little space it allocates to world news.

One might, however, have expected more from NHK. Its budget is the largest of all the broadcasters in Japan, sustaining 29 bureaus throughout the world. Its News Watch 9 program is one full hour worth of news, with no commercial interruptions. And the news it presents is of the serious variety. Celebrity marriages and breakups, and the intriguing goings on in the world of boy/girl bands are generally not covered – something that sets it apart from the ‘infotainment’ often presented by commercial broadcasters.

But the news in Japan on the whole tends to be highly insular and inward looking, meaning that not only Africa, but also most of the rest of the world is largely left out. And NHK is no exception. Only nine percent of the News Watch 9 program was devoted to news about the world beyond Japan’s borders (compared, for example, to twenty percent devoted to sports news), and a quarter of that was concerned with issues associated with North Korea alone (its attempt to launch a ‘satellite’ in particular).

Japan does have one 24-hour news channel (NHK World) that broadcasts news about Japan and the world (or at least certain parts of it – primarily Asia), but it is broadcast in English to the rest of the world. Thus, it would appear that the national broadcaster expends more resources to disseminate Japanese perspectives about Japan and the world to the world, than it does to inform people in Japan about what is happening in the world.

Within Japan, if one has access to a broadcast satellite dish, one can watch a lengthy world news program presented by NHK that borrows news from foreign broadcasters, which is dubbed over in Japanese. This is arguably as ‘global’ as the news in Japan gets. News streams in from 23 news broadcasters around the globe – every continent and region of the world is represented, with the exception of Antarctica and Africa.

When questioned by the author as to why no African broadcasters were being utilized, a representative of NHK replied that unfortunately they could not cover all of the world, and that news about Africa was at times presented by broadcasters from other regions that do feature on the program – such as BBC and Al Jazeera.

Indeed, covering all of the world may not be feasible, but the reasoning behind the choice to entirely ignore news from just one of the world’s inhabited continents, one that happens to make up of one-quarter of the world’s countries and accounts for as much as 88 percent of conflict-related deaths in the post-Cold War world, remains extremely difficult to fathom.

NHK’s own newsgathering structure, of course, reflects similar priorities. Of its 29 overseas bureaus, only one is situated on the African continent – in Cairo, Egypt. But Cairo looks more to the Middle East than it does to Africa, and, considering that NHK has three other bureaus in the Middle East, Cairo seems an odd choice for a bureau supposedly responsible for covering Africa. Then again, if the coverage of Africa (or rather the lack thereof) by NHK news is any indication, it would appear that the Cairo bureau is not expected to cover Africa.

NHK, globalization is happening, and, for better or for worse, Africa is included. Please adjust accordingly.

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.

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.

Resources, conflict and Japan

Posted in Africa, conflict, media coverage, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 November, 2010 by Virgil

Mining in the DRC. Photo by FairPhone under a CC Licence

It is easy to forget how closely connected the world is. After all, the media have very little time/space for events happening beyond the borders of the country in which they are based, unless people from the home country are directly involved. Nationalism is a powerful force in most countries in the world and patriotism helps sell the news.

But the world is irreversibly and closely connected at all levels. Talking about how events in the outside world do not affect ‘us’ is a reflection of how unaware we are about this reality. No stones have been left unturned in modern history in our search for the cheapest possible goods and services. Goods that can be produced locally will be shipped in from the other side of the globe if government subsidies or getting away with impossibly cheap labour make those goods just that little bit cheaper. If those the acquisition of such goods contributes to a conflict, political instability, or the illegal occupation of another country, then so be it.

The key for those selling the cheaper goods from distant lands is ensuring that the consumer is unaware of what had happened for the goods to reach them, or the effect that this business is having on a conflict or on the environment. This is usually not that hard – the news media serve as a powerful barrier to understanding what is happening in the outside world. In any case, the world is an extremely complex place (which is a major inhibitor in itself), and consumers have a strong interest in what is happening closer to home, not to mention in low prices.

The nationalist slant of the media, while rampant throughout the world, is perhaps particularly pronounced in Japan. Just 1 or 2 pages of a 30-page newspaper are devoted to events in the outside world, and coverage levels of the world on television news are arguably even lower. This makes the Japanese public highly insulated from awareness about the economic connections between Japan and many conflict-prone countries.

But the connections are undeniable. Consider some of these facts:

It has been estimated that some 90 percent of the world’s supply of tantalum (used in capacitors in electronic goods) for 2009 came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where conflict continues, and where armed groups (the national army included) still control many of the mines. The powerful Japanese electronics industry cannot do without this mineral.

More than 40 percent of the world’s cobalt is also coming from the DRC. Much of Japan’s supply comes via Finland. Demand for cobalt is skyrocketing because of a massive increase in lithium ion battery production necessary for making ‘environmentally friendly’ electric cars in Japan. The mining of cobalt in the DRC is far from being environmentally friendly.

More than 40 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in Cote d’Ivoire (but you will not find a single bar of chocolate made in that country). Few chocolate eaters in Japan know this or have any idea that there was a conflict in that country – one fuelled by the illicit trade in this commodity (known in this case as ‘hot chocolate’).

Roughly 70 percent of the frozen octopus imported by Japan is from Morocco. At least that is what the labels on the packs say. But a sizable portion of this ‘Moroccan’ octopus is actually coming from the waters of Western Sahara. The bulk of this ‘country’ remains under Moroccan occupation (incidentally, Western Sahara is a member of the African Union, Morocco is not). The occupied zone is protected by a great wall of sand (2,500 km long) and the world’s longest continuous minefield. The EU is coming under fire because of a fisheries agreement with Morocco that enables it access to Western Saharan waters, although the outcry is limited because media coverage of the situation is so low. With media coverage of this situation virtually non-existent in Japan, Japanese imports of octopus from Western Sahara have sparked no outcries at all.

These are just some of the connections (and I haven’t even mentioned oil). The world is certainly globalizing at a rapid pace. Perhaps it’s time the media started to think about catching on and catching up.

Congo Week in Osaka 2010

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 31 October, 2010 by Virgil

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is not over. Insecurity still plagues parts of the east, and horrifying stories of rape and other forms of human rights abuse still emerge. And in case we needed reminding, in October, the UN released its controversial Mapping Report, which chronicles the numerous human rights abuses that took place in Zaire/DRC from 1993 to 2003.

Attempts to raise concern in the news and in online forums about such issues invariably raise comments along the lines of “it’s not our concern” or “it’s up to them to sort out their own problems”. Accepting this means accepting the idea that the rape and killing of innocent civilians should not concern us as long as it is happening beyond our national borders (or as long as the skin of the victims is not white). It also means failing to notice the role in the conflict of corporations and governments in the ‘developed’ world, and the benefits that we consumers enjoy in the form of electronic products made with exceptionally cheap raw materials that originate in the DRC.

For those of us who choose not to accept these notions, it helps to raise our voices (preferably in unison) and spread the word from time to time. Congo Week offers an opportunity to do this. This year, from 17-23 October, under the coordination of the Friends of the Congo, groups from 50 countries around the world held a variety of activities to raise awareness about the issues in the DRC and encourage action. This year Osaka was named as one of the ten key cities (along with London, Paris, Washington, New York, Toronto, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Kinshasa and Goma) to anchor the movement. We tried not to disappoint.

SESCO, a Japanese group that assists schools in the DRC kicked off the week with a lecture and panel discussion on the issue. Osaka University took up the torch with a lecture followed by an informal forum (over cups of coffee from the Kivus in the DRC) via Skype with Goma in the DRC and Washington D.C. A representative of World Vision in Goma was kind enough to speak to the students in Osaka about the situation there, and Maurice Carney (Executive Director of Friends of the Congo) was kind enough to be up and talking about the issues at 6am. These events were coordinated by the Kansai chapter of the Japan-Rwanda Youth Conference. The week was capped off by a very successful theatrical event run by Peace Village. A play written specifically for Congo Week brought home the connections between the DRC’s minerals, the conflict, and Japan in a way that no lecture could – suffice it to say that tears were shed.

We hope to repeat some of these events in the near future. There is an open offer for more dailogue between the students at Osaka University and the Friends of the Congo, and the play was too good to be shelved after just one night. The struggle to raise awareness and get a serious dialogue going about this global problem must go on.

It is not an easy struggle. The media in Japan continues to stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the gravity of this conflict and its global implications. The Yomiuri Newspaper (Japan’s leading newspaper), which (like the rest of Japan’s media) generally tends to ignore most of what goes on beyond Japan’s borders, devoted more coverage in one day to the rescue of 33 miners in Chile than it did to five years of conflict in the DRC.

Japan cannot keep its head in the sand forever. Sanyo has just announced that it will increase its production of lithium ion batteries tenfold over the next five years to meet demands for supposedly environmentally friendly hybrid/electric cars. Cobalt is a key ingredient in lithium ion batteries, and some 41 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC. The connection between the controversial mining industry in the DRC and key industries in Japan continues to strengthen.

In Maurice Carney’s message to the students in Osaka, the reminder that what we do here in Japan to raise awareness about the DRC serves also as a source of encouragement for the people in the DRC was inspiring. So to the people of the Congo, from those of us here in Japan who know and who care, know that you are not alone.

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