Archive for Nigeria

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.

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Light relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plenty of laughs there…

‘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…

Death and Terrorism

Posted in conflict death tolls with tags , , , , , , , on 17 December, 2008 by Virgil

As a follow-on subject, this post takes a look at the relation between the scale of so-called ‘terrorism’ and the amount of attention such violence attracts.

 

The mass media has pretty much swallowed without question the notion that there is no security issue in the world greater than terrorism, and that there is a ‘war on terror’ in progress. This is not only in spite of the strained logic of the entire notion (how does one conduct a war on a method of violence, rather than on a particular opponent?), but also in spite of the extreme selectiveness with which this ‘war’ is being applied.

 

In looking at the way the issue of terrorism has been handled by policymakers and the media, one can be almost be forgiven for thinking that the term ‘terrorism’ applies only to attacks (usually involving explosives) by people of Arab origin (and/or of the Muslim faith) directed primarily against Westerners. One has only to look at the abundance of attention and outrage expressed in response to terrorist attacks on trains and buses in Spain (191 deaths) and in the UK (56 deaths). On the other hand a terrorist attack by a rebel group on a train in Angola in 2001 (more than 250 deaths) was barely noticed and has certainly not been remembered. If this is how we see the definition of terrorism, then the issue has been blown way out of proportion. Death tolls from almost any single major conflict outstrip the total death toll from this particular brand of ‘terrorism’.

 

It is also worth noting the response to the indiscriminate attacks on civilians by 10 gunmen in Mumbai, India in late November resulting in 195 deaths – some of them Westerners (who appeared to be targeted to a degree). The media responded with saturation coverage – blow by blow accounts of the violence, heart wrenching accounts of the fate of the victims and the survivors, and all means of analysis on the causes and implications of the attacks. At almost exactly the same time, sectarian clashes in the city of Jos in Nigeria resulted in some 400 deaths over a period of two days. From the perspective of the Western media, these attacks were hardly even worthy of a mention. The New York Times devoted a total of 3 articles to violence in Nigeria. As of 15 December, the attacks in India had sparked more than 50 related articles in the same newspaper.

 

This is not to take away from the political implications of the attack in India – not least the issue of rising tensions between nuclear-capable India and Pakistan. But at the same time, instability in Nigeria in any form should not be seen as being devoid of political and strategic implications, even from Western-centric standards. Nigeria’s oil accounts for one in ten of the barrels that the USA imports, and violence elsewhere in Nigeria (in the Niger Delta) has directly targeted the oil industry in that country, forcing major cuts in production and increases in global oil prices.

 

Political and strategic implications aside, what the difference in the response to these incidents helps demonstrate is the point that the scale of a conflict or individual attack (namely the death toll) has very little to do with the amount of attention it attracts – which makes many of the displays of indignation and ‘humanitarianism’ appear somewhat hollow.

 

In any case, terrorism is a highly loaded word, full of all kinds of political implications, making definitions highly controversial. But taking the word in its simplest sense – the use of fear/terror to achieve political objectives, there should be no logical reason to distinguish an attack by a suicide bomber on a civilian train in a Western city from an attack by a militia group on civilians in a village in the Democratic Republic of Congo aimed at frightening people into leaving or complying with the militia’s demands. Both clearly constitute terrorism, and if there is indeed a ‘war on terror’ in progress, then the latter (which has in fact proven infinitely deadlier than the former) cannot be ignored.

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