Archive for politics

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.

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.

Malaise in Madagascar

Posted in Africa with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 28 June, 2012 by Virgil

Gem mine in Madagascar. Photo by Benoit Balanca under a CC Licence

The eyes of the world seem to be fixed on Madagascar. Or should I say Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted? The animated comedy movie with lions, zebras and other assorted animals that talk, sing and dance, continues to sit atop the box office, dazzling audiences around the world. The world is not quite as bedazzled, on the other hand, by the goings on on the large island that sits to the south east of the African mainland, which also happens to be known as Madagascar. In fact, if the levels of media coverage are any indication, many might be surprised to learn that things are going on there at all.

But they are. In 2009, amidst political upheaval on the island, 35 year old Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of the capital, Antananarivo (and before that, a radio DJ), took control of the country with the backing of the military and was declared President of the ‘High Transitional Authority’. His rise to power was swiftly condemned by most of the outside world as a coup d’etat. Madagascar was suspended from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (which also imposed targeted sanctions on the ‘government’), and the bulk of non-humanitarian aid coming from beyond the continent was cut off. For its own political and economic reasons, France, however, continues to back the de-facto administration.

It has been a long and eventful transition. Rajoelina promised presidential elections and promised not to stand as a candidate, but the elections did not happen, and he managed to push through a constitutional referendum that conveniently reduced the minimum age for the president from 40 to 35, making him eligible to stand. A group of disgruntled soldiers attempted a coup of their own in 2010, but the mutiny was put down.

The deposed president, Marc Ravalomanana, who went into exile in South Africa, was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. In 2011, an agreement signed by all the major political parties under the auspices of SADC established a road map for a unity government and elections. And although the same agreement guarantees the unconditional right to return for exiled political leaders, a unilateral attempt by Ravalomanana to do so ended in failure when the commercial flight he had boarded was refused permission to land.

But before becoming overly sympathetic to the plight of the deposed president, we might spare a thought for how things were in Madagascar before he was deposed. In March 2009, thousands of demonstrators gathered near the presidential palace to protest against was perceived as a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime. Presidential guards threw grenades and fired into the crowd and a massacre ensued leaving as many as 50 people dead.

And South Africa is unlikely to remain a safe haven for Ravalomanana for much longer. In 2012, a court in South Africa ruled that foreign nationals in that country who are accused of crimes against humanity must be investigated, and Ravalomanana would appear to fall under this category. For the time being, attempts at a return to political life may have to take a back seat to the realization of a reconciliation deal that includes a pardon for the crimes he has already been convicted of (in absentia) in Madagascar and immunity from further prosecution. Rajoelina and Ravalomanana have, in fact, agreed to a meeting, which will possibly take place at the end of June, although the agenda is unclear.

In spite of the endless political wrangling, life goes on for the people of Madagascar. But it is not the same as it was before. The country’s political crisis coincided with the global financial crisis, and the economy has taken a battering. Foreign investment and international demand for the country’s produce (not least vanilla, of which Madagascar is the world’s leading producer) have dropped. Levels of illegal logging and mining and the resulting environmental degradation, on the other hand, have skyrocketed. Poverty levels are rising and health indicators are falling. As the expression goes, when elephants fight the grass gets trampled.

Madagascar 3 the movie had its happy ending. Hopefully the other Madagascar will too. And even if this is a little too much to hope for, an increase in the levels of attention from the outside world – some enhanced external scrutiny, engagement, and cajoling – will probably not hurt its chances of at least heading in the general direction of something happier.

(This article was originally posted on the Southern African Peace and Security Blog).

Mauritius and the Chagos Islands

Posted in Africa, history with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 June, 2012 by Virgil

Live-fire training exercises by US sailors, Diego Garcia. Photo by Michael Thompson (US Pacific Fleet) under a CC Licence

The modern history of the Chagos islands is a thoroughly shameful one. This small archipelago, situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, was originally part of what was then the self-governing British colony of Mauritius. Mauritius was convinced to sell these islands to the UK in 1965 under dubious circumstances: the sale was part of the independence negotiations (independence was achieved in 1968) and the prime minister of Mauritius who negotiated the deal was awarded a knighthood soon after the transfer.

The UK subsequently leased the largest island of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, to the US (who wanted it for a military base) in exchange for a discount on Polaris nuclear missiles. In preparation for the construction of the military base, the UK then proceeded to ethnically cleanse the islands, forcibly removing the entire population and dropping them off unceremoniously in the Seychelles and what was left of Mauritius.

Diego Garcia became an important base for the US, particularly so in the 2000s, when it served as a hub from which long-range bombers attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. The base has been used by the CIA for so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights, and may also have served as a CIA black site prison. In 2010, the UK established a ‘marine protected area’ (the world’s largest) around the archipelago. According to US diplomatic cables made public courtesy of WikiLeaks, this move was specifically designed to prevent former residents from returning (survival for the inhabitants would be difficult if they were prevented from fishing). For the UK, this clever ‘solution’ looked good from any angle: not only would the possibility of return be taken off the table, but US military activities could continue, and ‘points’ for environmental concern could also be scored.

Isolated and unpopulated (or conveniently depopulated) islands are, of course, the ideal springboards from which to project military power in this day and age. There are none of the hassles associated with holding or running a colony, for example, and not only do they make sense in pure military terms (especially if one has long-range bombers), but they also preclude witness or interference by any pesky civilians, journalists or human rights organizations. In the case of populated islands, the consent of inhabitants can, to a degree, be bought, but opposition can still be politically and financially costly, as the US and its generally willing collaborator (the Japanese government) have found, for example, in the use of Okinawa for military bases.

The lease of the Chagos islands to the US expires in 2016, and any possible extension has to be agreed on by December 2014 (the lease allows for a 20-year extension). Crucially, the original terms of purchase of the Chagos islands allow for their return to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for defence purposes. If there is a time for negotiating a return of the islands to Mauritius, it is now. Indeed, the prime ministers of the UK and Mauritius are set to meet next week, and the issue of the Chagos islands is on the agenda.

Mauritius has expressed its intention to have the islands returned, but interestingly, has also made it clear that it does not intend to challenge the continuation of US military activities there. Clearly, allowing the base to remain in Diego Garcia would serve as a considerable financial incentive for the government of Mauritius. But how receptive will the UK be to a call by Mauritius for the return of the islands? Will their response reveal anything about possible plans in the West to bomb Iran? Diego Garcia would undoubtedly serve as one of the key military hubs in the case of any such catastrophe.

There are other deals in play. Mauritius has recently agreed to offer its territory and services for the prosecution and imprisoning of Somali pirates. Was this designed to improve their bargaining position for the return of the Chagos islands? To what degree will any such deals benefit the people of Mauritius and the former (forcibly evicted) inhabitants who wish to return to the Chagos islands (as opposed to a few people holding political power at the top)? Will the end result of all of this simply be a continuation of the same old systems under new management? This is a good time for some hard-hitting media scrutiny on this issue – in the UK, US and Mauritius.

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.

Conflict coverage 2009

Posted in media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 August, 2010 by Virgil

Here is a graph that brings home the difference between chosen conflicts and stealth conflicts. It is based on a search for news items related to armed conflicts throughout the world covered by the evening news of the major US television networks. The search was conducted using the Vanderbilt University database of evening news (covering ABC, CBS, NBC, one hour per day of CNN, and Fox) for the year 2009.

The graph requires little explanation. Conflicts in which the USA was involved as a belligerent (Afghanistan, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan), and the eternal chosen conflict, Israel-Palestine, in which the USA is indirectly involved, received large amounts of attention. Afghanistan in particular attracted concentrated coverage, reflecting a renewed interest in, and active debate over, US military involvement in that country. Viewers of US television news had the opportunity to watch as much as 18 hours of coverage of Afghanistan over the course of the year.

Beyond these chosen conflicts, coverage abruptly drops off into near insignificance. In fact, these four conflicts account for an incredible 97 percent of the total amount of conflict coverage for the year. The fifth most covered conflict, Darfur, managed roughly 27 minutes of coverage for all of the networks combined over the course of the year. For the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the total coverage was just 7 minutes, and this was mostly focused on the threat to animals from the conflict, and on the visit to the DRC by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This marginalization should by no means be viewed as a reflection of the lack of conflict – fighting and insecurity displaced as many as one million people over the course of the year in the DRC.

Also noteworthy is the marginalization of the conflict in Sri Lanka. 2009 marked the final offensive of the government forces against the Tamil Tiger rebels (LTTE), ending a long and bloody war. These developments should have made for a major news story. But the government was quite successful in shutting down and intimidating local media, and in shutting out foreign media during this time. Without images of the conflict and its humanitarian consequences, and critically, without the involvement of the USA, for the US television media, the story simply failed to become newsworthy, and it was ignored.

This introverted and myopic media perspective is all a sad reflection of the failures of the media – the failure to recognize conflict scale even as one of the factors determining levels of coverage, and the failure to look at the world in its entirety. Coverage of conflicts by US media corporations (and of the world in general, for that matter) is dependent on strong US involvement or interest, and all those that are not the recipient of such involvement or interest remain under a virtual news blackout, however large in scale they may be. From the perspective of the media, a conflict is either a chosen one or a stealth one, with virtually no middle ground between the two.

It is quite ironic that in this day and age of rapid globalization, in which survival and prosperity are dependent on knowledge and understanding of the world, and in which there is potentially access to any amount of information about anywhere, the media persists with such a narrow and highly selective view of the world. And with so few observers calling for change or even pointing out this obvious imbalance in coverage, it can hardly be expected that the situation will be any different for 2010 and beyond.

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