Archive for Middle East

The media, technology and Cote d’Ivoire

Posted in Cote d'Ivoire, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 26 March, 2011 by Virgil

In early March, security forces in Cote d’Ivoire opened fire on a group of women protestors at a demonstration in Abidjan, the commercial capital, killing seven of them and wounding many more. The events (including footage of military vehicles at the scene) were captured on a mobile phone camera and the footage was uploaded onto the internet.

There was some coverage in the English-language media of these events (there has been much more in the French media – Cote d’Ivoire was a French colony) and some expressions of outrage, but, relatively speaking, for a massacre of unarmed (no guns, stones or anything other than symbolic leaves) women by the security forces of an illegitimate government caught on camera, this did not get much attention.

There is, of course, much more to the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire than this particular massacre – more than 400 people have been killed and as many as one million displaced since the crisis started in November 2010 over the results of disputed elections. The incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, thought to have lost the elections, refuses to bow out, while the apparent winner, Alassane Ouattara, remains largely confined to a hotel. But the massacre of unarmed women caught on camera could have been a turning point of some kind in terms of the level of attention the conflict was able to attract and in terms of efforts aimed at it resolution. It wasn’t. The situation in Libya (the massacre happened before disaster struck in Japan) was dominating the news at the time and there was little room for anything else. Partly as a result, UN aid agencies are suffering from a dire shortage of funds for Cote d’Ivoire.

This leads us to the question of how far technology can really go in drawing attention to stealth conflicts and crises. Advances in information and communication technology carry with them untold potential for changes in the flow of information in the world. Potentially, information can be gathered from and delivered to anywhere in the world, and all with little more than a single mobile phone. And massive amounts of information are indeed moving in this way. These developments could conceivably have brought about major changes in terms of variety in the content of the news we consume. But the reality has been far less spectacular. The availability of images/evidence of large-scale human rights abuse alone does not necessarily translate into attention and indignation.

Oddly, the mainstream media, internet sources included, still huddles obsessively around the same one or two crises (pack journalism) and virtually ignores whatever may be happening in the rest of the world. Variety and diversity in terms of what crises are chosen for concentrated media coverage is in very short supply. Furthermore, the scale of the crisis (death toll or humanitarian suffering) usually has nothing to do with the choice the media collectively make – the priorities of the ‘home’ government are almost invariably a far greater consideration.

For audiences in the English-speaking West, one important ingredient necessary for media attention that was missing from the Cote d’Ivoire story was familiarity. This is not simply a matter of racial, linguistic or socioeconomic affinity – although this is certainly a major part of it. Cote d’Ivoire has rarely been covered in the past, so the public lacks the background knowledge and context to make sense of events there. Had exactly the same events happened in Zimbabwe, the reaction would have undoubtedly been very different. For more than ten years, Zimbabwe has been heavily covered (and Robert Mugabe thoroughly demonized) by the Western media.

Also, importantly, Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t quite fit into the ‘big frame’ of the times – the tool that helps us all put a particular news story into its appropriate ‘box’ and quickly make sense of it – like ‘communism’, ‘terrorism’, and now, ‘revolution in the Middle East’. Cote d’Ivoire could certainly be framed as a story of people rising up against an illegitimate government and fighting for democracy – it’s just that it is not happening in the Middle East (it in fact predated the initial Tunisian uprising). And if levels of media coverage to date serve as any indication, events in the Middle East are far more ‘important’ than those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Advances in technology have revolutionized our access to information about the world. If we actively search online, we can very quickly find out what is going on almost anywhere in the world. But for the vast majority of us who continue to rely on the news media (on or offline) to help us make decisions about what information about the world is important; it appears that very little has changed.

The peace dove

Posted in Africa, conflict, Israel-Palestine, Middle East, peace with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 28 May, 2010 by Virgil

When you think of the peace dove, what do you associate it with? Chances are it makes you think of the peace process in the Middle East. Why? Because the majority of appearances of the peace dove in political cartoons are in connection with the conflict in Israel-Palestine. 

I did a tally of the number of political cartoons associated with a particular conflict that came up in a search of the word “dove” on the site Politicalcartoons.com for the last ten years (Politicalcartoons.com has a pretty impressive collection from artists around the world).  Some 64 percent of the appearances of the dove were in cartoons on the subject of conflicts involving Israel. The dove doesn’t seem to venture all that much outside the Middle East, but he/she has been seen in cartoons on the Olympic Games, on US President Obama’s peace prize, in Northern Ireland, Spain, Colombia, Georgia and India-Pakistan. While the symbolism of the peace dove has its origins in Christianity and Judaism, as these examples show, its significance is clearly not limited to conflicts involving these religions. 

Funnily enough, the dove is rarely seen in Africa at all. But this is not because all of the countries on the continent are constantly at war (most are not), or because those that do experience conflict never find peace. A number of historic peace agreements were concluded for some of the world’s deadliest conflicts happening there over the last ten years – in Angola, Sierra Leone and the DRC (officially at least) in 2002, in Liberia in 2003, and in Sudan in 2005. Yet the peace dove was nowhere to be seen. 

© Copyright 2006 Olle Johansson (reproduced with permission)

But the peace dove is not necessarily found where newly found peace is blossoming or is expected to arrive on the scene. In fact, the dove that does appear in cartoons on the Middle East is usually being eaten, battered, decapitated, shot, blown up, or otherwise maimed or threatened – reflecting the state of ‘peace’ in the areas in question. 

Sadly, it would seem that the peace dove (at least the one in political cartoons) is not really concerned with the state or scale of conflicts, or with successful peace processes. It appears that he/she is just eager to jump on the bandwagon and be associated with the popular conflicts of the day – the handful of ‘important’ ones that the rest of the news media are so intently fixated on. Just like almost everyone else, the peace dove has no time for stealth conflicts (however large in scale they may be) or stealth peace processes…

‘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.

Mattsays)

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…

New world maps

Posted in Africa, conflict, conflict death tolls, media coverage, world maps with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 30 December, 2008 by Virgil

Here are some new versions of the world map that we are used to seeing that might help us to get a fresh perspective on the way things are, and the way they are shown to us. In these maps, the square area of continents/regions corresponds to their proportion of conflict death tolls and of media coverage. Let’s start with some maps representing conflict death tolls, and follow with some maps representing media coverage. The media coverage maps are for the year 2000 for CNN, BBC, the New York Times, Le Monde and the Yomiuri newspapers.

 

Map of conflict-related deaths (1990-1999)

(What’s the big continent in the middle? Africa? That’s odd, we so rarely seem to hear about it…)

conflict-death-map-1990s 

Map of conflict-related deaths (1990-2007)

(Note the relative growth in conflict deaths in the Middle East since 2000 – that’s the war in Iraq. The Middle East is still totally dwarfed by Africa, though, as is the rest of the world’s conflict).

 

conflict-death-map-to-20072

 

The world according to CNN (2000)

(Coverage of the Middle East is more than double that of Africa)

cnn-map2 

The world according to BBC (2000)

(A little more on Africa than CNN, but that continent still looks pretty small)

 bbc-map1

 

 

 

The world according to the New York Times (2000)

(This does not include domestic news – news about the USA) 

ny-times-map

The world according to Le Monde (2000)

(This does not include domestic news – news about France)

 le-monde-map

 

 

 

The world according to Yomiuri (2000)

(This does not include domestic news – news about Japan)

yomiuri-map 

 

Notes and disclaimers

 

Data is organized according to five continents/regions of the world: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In the conflict maps, the square area of each continent/region is proportionate to that continent/region’s percentage of the world’s total conflict-related death toll. There is no detail beyond that, so although Madagascar appears on the death toll maps, it is only there because it geographically represents a part of Africa (there were no conflict-related deaths recorded for Madagascar).

 

In the media maps, the square area of each continent/region is proportionate to that continent/region’s percentage of the coverage by each media corporation. As with the conflict maps, there is no detail beyond the continent/region as whole, so the shape of the Americas (no distinction is made between north, south or central), for example, was made roughly according to geographic scale and does not represent any internal proportion in news coverage. In the case of the maps for newspapers, the coverage is limited only to the international news on the front page and international pages – home/local news is not included. It should also be noted that the percentages for the media maps do not add up to 100 percent because a certain percentage of media coverage could not be categorized according to geographical location – coverage of global issues or United Nations conferences, for example.

 

Displaying these maps together here is not to suggest that levels of media coverage should be proportionate to the numbers of conflict deaths. Conflict-related events are not the only issues that become the source of international news stories. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect that the sheer scale of a conflict (death toll) will be the only factor considered in determining news coverage – although it should certainly be one of the major factors (alas, it is not).

 

It should also be noted that the timeframe of analysis is quite different. The death toll maps are based on cumulative data of death tolls since the end of the Cold War, while media maps are one-year snapshots of coverage – in this case, the year 2000. A number of the conflicts that make up the cumulative death tolls in the maps were not ongoing in the year 2000. By the same token, it should also come as no surprise that the deadliest conflicts of the year 2000 were occurring in Africa – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Angola, Ethiopia-Eritrea and Sierra Leone. It is also critical to note that it was in the year 2000 when it became known (through a survey conducted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC)) that conflict in the DRC had claimed 1.7 million lives, making it by far the deadliest conflict in the post-Cold War world. This revelation didn’t seem to have any impact on media coverage.

 

Sources

 

Death toll data is generally very unreliable, as has been mentioned in a previous post. That shouldn’t stop us from trying. The sources for the death tolls in this map are from my book, but before they arrived there came from a multitude of sources, including projects and institutions that try to record, measure and compare death toll figures, epidemiological surveys, and sometimes the media. Where there are conflicting studies/records for death tolls, compromises have been made in some cases. None is more controversial than in that in the case of Iraq. The death toll for Iraq used here is a very conservative 400,000. Some death toll figures now are reaching the 1 million mark.

 

The sources for the media coverage maps are from a study I conducted some years ago of news coverage in the year 2000. I measured the square area of each international news article (including photos) for three newspapers (the New York Times (USA), Le Monde (France) and the Yomiuri (Japan)) each day for one year. I also measured the length (in seconds) of each news story for one 30-minute news program each day for CNN International and BBC. I wish I could provide more recent data, but this kind of study takes a huge amount of time to conduct and I have yet to find that kind of time to do a similar study. More results from the study (and analysis) can be found in an article I later published: Hawkins, Virgil ‘The Other Side of the CNN Factor: the media and conflict’, Journalism Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2002, pp. 225-240.

 

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