Archive for peace

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?

The death of Dag Hammarskjold

Posted in Africa, Congo, Zambia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 23 July, 2012 by Virgil

The Dag Hammarskjold crash site memorial. Photo by Rui Saraiva Faro

A few kilometres off the main road connecting the northern Zambian cities of Ndola and Kitwe, is a well-kept memorial marking the site where the plane carrying the then UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold crashed in 1961. His visit was a peace mission, aimed at brokering a ceasefire in the neighbouring Congo. Among the plaques marking the visits by various dignitaries who came to pay their respects, is one inscribed with the words “On the occasion of the visit of the UN Secretary General H.E. Mr. Kofi Annan, 7 July, 2001”.

But Kofi Annan was never there. The inscription neglects to mention the fact that the actual visit was made by a representative of the former UN Secretary General. In fact, no UN Secretary General has visited the crash site. The current Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, had his chance in February 2012 when he visited Zambia, but after addressing that country’s parliament in the capital, Lusaka, chose to go south to Zambia’s prime tourist destination, Victoria Falls, instead of going north to visit the crash site.

Clearly, UN Secretary Generals are exceptionally busy, and such a pilgrimage may well be considered unnecessary. But might there also lie somewhere a desire to avoid drawing attention to the uncomfortable possibility that the crash was not an accident, but an assassination? A British-run commission of inquiry concluded that the crash was caused by pilot error, but a UN inquiry did not rule out the possibility of foul play.

Suspicions that the plane was deliberately downed have certainly not gone away. A book released in 2011 (Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjold?), included fresh evidence suggesting it highly likely that this was the case. And now, more than fifty years after the incident, it has been announced that a new inquiry is being established to attempt to determine the cause of the crash.

A host of evidence revealed to date casts serious doubts on the official account that the crash was an accident. Multiple witnesses saw a second plane in the sky at the time of the crash, and some claim to have seen one plane open fire on the other, but their testimony was ignored. A former US naval intelligence officer who was stationed at a radio listening post even recalled hearing a cockpit recording of what he concluded to be a running commentary of the attack.

Even the simple statement that Hammarskjold “died in a plane crash” cannot be used with certainty, because suspicions remain that he was in fact killed after the plane crashed. The head of UN military information in the Congo at the time, who saw Hammarskjold’s body (which oddly showed no signs of burns), noticed a round hole in his forehead that could have been a bullet hole. Official photographs of the body do not show such a hole, but a forensic expert determined that these photos had been doctored. Eyewitness accounts also tell of two Land Rovers speeding to, and later from, the crash site hours before it was officially ‘discovered’.

So if it was an assassination, who might have been responsible? Fingers tend to point in the direction of European industrialists in mineral-rich Katanga, with the deed being carried out by mercenaries under their employ. The conflict in the Congo was essentially about an attempt by the mineral-rich Katanga province to break away from the Congo, with the support of former colonial master, Belgium, other colonial powers and Western corporations, among others.

They were clearly willing to go to considerable lengths to minimize the impact that the independence of African countries would have on their economic and political control over Africa. Many also saw de facto white control over the economic powerhouse of Katanga as a bulwark against the rising tide of opposition to white rule in southern Africa. Hence the large contingent of mercenaries from Europe and white southern Africa in Katanga’s pro-secession army.

UN forces intervened (in an unusually aggressive manner) to prevent Katanga from breaking away, and needless to say, for the European industrialists in particular, this made Hammarskjold an enemy hated with a passion. While the UK and US officially supported the UN operation, it was believed that they were, behind the scenes, on the side of the industrialists.

Nor can the Cold War context be ignored. Indeed the conflict in the Congo was in many ways seen as a proxy war between the superpowers. Eight months prior to Dag Hammarskjold’s death, Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, in an operation directed by Belgium and assisted by the CIA. In his handling of the Congo crisis, Hammarskjold had managed to threaten the interests of both the US and the Soviets.

The new inquiry into the crash is not an official one. But the committee charged with its implementation does include a number of high-profile jurists. It will be up to one year before the committee makes its conclusions and submits them to the UN. The world (at least part of it) has waited fifty years for a definitive conclusion on the matter of the death of the former UN Secretary General. With the hope that this time, such a conclusion will be reached, it can wait one more.

Peace journalism

Posted in academia and conflict, activism, media coverage, peace with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 18 July, 2010 by Virgil

Thanks to the likes of peace scholars/practitioners Johan Galtung and Jake Lynch, peace journalism has been increasingly growing into a strong movement (see their recently released book, Reporting Conflict: New Directions in Peace Journalism for more detail).

 While peace journalism may sound like a form of activism on the part of the journalists, this is really not the case. It is more a case of putting a measure of balance into how journalists portray conflict, working towards a more comprehensive picture of how things are. As things stand now, the media tends to report on conflict with an ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality. That is, focusing simply on the violence – the bombs, explosions, the people fleeing.

 At the same time that violence is being played out, however, there are people and organizations that are working to bring a stop to the hostilities and solve the underlying causes of the violence. Peace processes are underway. But it is not only the peace processes that are being given scant attention, so too are the issues, context and underlying causes themselves. Lynch and Galtung liken this state of affairs to looking at the smoke and ignoring the fire, or simply viewing the result of a disease without examining the diagnosis, prognosis or therapy. War journalism could be seen as parallel to disease journalism whereas peace journalism would be similar in nature to health journalism.

 If journalism is supposed to be facilitating our understanding of the conflicts that are going on in the world, then simply portraying the violence is really not going to help. It is in fact going to inhibit our understanding, not only because it provides but one superficial part of the picture, but also because it encourages gross oversimplification of the situation and the reinforcement of inaccurate stereotypes.

It is in this light that a demonstration for peace journalism was held outside the offices of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in Sydney on 9 July 2010, primarily targeting workers at the ABC as they came in for work. It seems that this was the world’s first protest for peace journalism. It was a modest gathering with most of the participants being those attending the conference on the theme ‘communicating peace’ organized by the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) and held at Sydney University, but the movement will surely continue to grow.

 The notion of stealth conflicts is about the majority of conflicts remaining off-the-radar of the media, with the bulk of media attention being lavished on a select few chosen conflicts. Peace journalism draws attention to the ‘stealth’ within the coverage of individual conflicts. As long as the violence is the primary target of coverage of conflict, many important aspects of the conflict will remain in the shadows.

With corporate media seemingly addicted to action and sensationalism in attempting to sell their product – which is increasingly infotainment, rather than news – the movement for peace journalism will certainly be an uphill struggle, but it is one that is very necessary.

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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 don’t want to know

Posted in conflict, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , on 12 March, 2009 by Virgil

One reason frequently given for the marginalization of certain conflicts by the media is that the people simply don’t want to know about them. Having settled down in front of their TV screens to eat their dinner in the evening, the last thing people want to see are distressing and depressing images of death and suffering from conflict in distant lands that can’t be easily comprehended and judged in the 90 seconds allocated for the broadcast.

From the perspective of the media, although evoking a little outrage at injustices in the world from time to time can work (in terms of ratings), ‘the people’ generally want to be entertained and assured that everything in the world around them is alright. Too much complexity and difficulty in distinguishing the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’ are seen as turn-offs, and too great a dosage of stories that once generated interest apparently leads to so-called ‘compassion fatigue’.

All of this seems to absolve the media from the responsibility of reporting on the issues in question. If the people are not interested in a particular issue, who are they to force it on them? After all, is it not their job to chase consumer interest – to give the people what they want? Having just spent a little time in Rwanda, and with next month marking the 15th anniversary of the genocide in that country, it seemed time to revisit the issue. The lessons (of the response) are by no means out of date.

The genocide and its aftermath saw two very different responses by the media. The Western media tended to shy away from reporting on the genocide itself. These were black Africans killing black Africans. The conflict was portrayed as inexplicable and ‘chaotic’ – it was primitive ‘tribal’ bloodletting (killing people with bullets and cruise missiles is much more civilized than killing with machetes). People with whiter complexions were dying in Bosnia, and O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder in California. Perhaps the only reason Rwanda received any significant coverage was that Western reporters could stop by on their way back from covering the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa – similar massacres resulting in at least 200,000 deaths in neighbouring Burundi the year before had generated almost no coverage at all. Admittedly, conditions for reporters on the ground were highly dangerous (not that that has ever stopped coverage of Iraq), and developments in the situation were rapid and difficult to quickly grasp, but this is not enough to explain the relatively low levels of coverage.

Two to three months after the genocide began, on the other hand, when a mix of Hutu civilians fearing revenge attacks and the perpetrators of the genocide fled together into neighbouring Zaire in massive numbers and cholera began to rapidly spread in the refugee camps established there, media interest was suddenly sparked and emotive something-must-be-done type of coverage came thick and fast. Why did sudden humanitarian interest rise in response to this particular tragedy when it had been lacking just two months earlier?

Lindsey Hilsum (one of the few Western journalists on the ground at the time) tells us that the decision to cover the cholera crisis was “much, much easier” than that for the genocide:

“It was safe – neither the journalists nor the expensive satellite equipment were at risk. It was accessible – the Red Cross would fly you direct from Nairobi. The story made sense – refugees fleeing war, being looked after by aid workers. And, for TV, the visual images were very strong but not so offensive that you could not show them”
(Lindsey Hilsum, ‘Reporting Rwanda: the Media and the Aid Agencies’, in Allan Thompson ed., The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, London: Pluto Press, 2007, p.173)

One might add that a certain level of guilt at not having responded to the genocide itself had built up and reporting on the aftermath was one way of atoning for this.

At first glance, this would seem to partially confirm the media trying to give the people what they want – easy to understand stories, and something to spark compassion without showing too much gruesome content. But consideration of the risk to the reporters and equipment, and issues of accessibility tell us that other factors are at work. Practicalities and cost, for example, seem to have at least partially held sway in this case over the gravity of the issue itself.

Furthermore, the crisis in Somalia in the early 1990s serves to seriously undermine the notion that the media is simply aiming to give the public what it wants, and cannot move an apparently disinterested public. If this were the case, a complex and seemingly inexplicable conflict involving numerous warlords fighting along clan lines in a barely known country in black Africa would never have risen to the headlines – but that is exactly what happened. In this case, the media was taking their cues from interested policymakers, not the public interest, but importantly, the public did become interested once they knew about it. Of course, once the decision to send in US troops was made, saturated media coverage was a foregone conclusion.

In short, the interest of the people in world events is not something that the media passively respond to – they actively work to shape, nurture and guide it. While complexity, the ability to sympathize (perceptions of innocence) and ability to identify (along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines, for example) still carry a lot of weight, it would be wrong to dismiss the media as being powerless servants to the interests of the people. The media may try to predict the interests of the people and market their products accordingly, but they also actively work to create interest where little exists to begin with, coming up with new ‘products’ to ‘sell’.

While noting the commercialization of the media (at the expense of independent editorial power to determine content) and while appreciating the need of media corporations to make money to continue operating, is it too idealistic to expect at least some measure of social responsibility from the media industry? Is it too much to expect that media corporations will give some consideration to the scale and gravity of events when making coverage decisions, and will at least make an honest attempt to tell us about what is happening in the world (and I mean the world, not just the ‘whiter’ portion of it)?

If the media do indeed see themselves as servants to the people, why don’t we the people – those of us who do want to know what is going on in the world – let them know what it is that we want to know and hold them accountable?

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