Archive for Rwanda

Libya and moral imperative

Posted in Africa, conflict death tolls, dictators, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 14 May, 2011 by Virgil

Photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo under a CC Licence

Since it began earlier this year, the conflict in Libya was marked as a chosen one, attracting a powerful media spotlight. This should have come as no surprise. The events in Tunisia and Egypt set in motion a broad movement for reform in many democratically challenged countries and Libya was next in line.

As demonstrations transformed into armed rebellion, media coverage quickly took on a Hollywood action movie format – with Gaddafi as the ‘bad guy’, the rebellion as the true representative of the oppressed people that could do no wrong, and the Western powers (who became the air force of the rebellion) as the heroes who were going to save the day. Nor should this simplification have come as a surprise. In covering foreign conflicts, the media tend to rely on simplicity and good-guy/bad-guy formats to sell their products. And although relations between Libya and Western countries had been thawing in recent years (as witnessed by state visits and the conclusion of major oil and arms deals), Gadaffi had a long history of being a ‘bad guy’ that could easily be revived.

With this good-guy/bad-guy format, comes the implication that there is a moral imperative to ‘do something’. To stop the bad guy and the humanitarian suffering he is causing. This humanitarian focus or sense of moral imperative, while of course being very pronounced and emotive in lighter, tabloid type media, creeps into even the most serious of media publications. Libya has been the subject of a number of cover stories in the Economist, for example, and the sense of moral imperative is clearly a part of that coverage. In an article entitled ‘Don’t let him linger‘, the Economist asks us, “If the death toll suddenly rises into the thousands, can the rest of the world stand idly by?” It answers, “Surely not. But dislodging Libya’s tyrant is proving hard”. It goes on, “if the Libyan regime starts killing people in their thousands—and especially if it uses helicopter gunships or aircraft—diplomatic reluctance should melt away. Too often the world has dithered open-mouthed as evil men have slaughtered Darfuris or Rwandans with impunity”.

One of the problems of such expression of moral imperative lies, of course, in the selectivity with which it is applied. Why is Libya currently the prime focus of our humanitarian concern? Why not Somalia? Can the rest of the world stand idly by as thousands of people are killed? It most certainly can and does in far too many cases. In this world, ignoring or failing to respond in a substantive manner to conflict and its humanitarian consequences is more the rule than it is the exception. Policymakers and the media routinely brush over news of large scale massacres or even the deaths of millions of people from conflict-related causes in cases where attention does not serve their interests or where the story is simply too complex to sell. The very fact that Rwanda and Darfur are mentioned as examples of past shame, but the Democratic Republic of Congo (with a conflict-related death toll measured in millions) is not, speaks volumes in this regard.

This criticism of the world ‘standing idly by’ should not be taken as a call for military intervention. Far too often is military intervention impractical and/or counterproductive, and its deadly results (intended and unintended) equally morally unacceptable. There are so many other (potentially more productive) ways in which ‘the world’ can do something other than standing idly by. For the media, couldn’t choosing to give substantive coverage to the world’s deadliest conflicts be a good place to start? Is it really that hard?

Also behind this problem of moral imperative is the simplistic notion that there is one ‘evil’ leader who, single-handedly terrorizing his/her country, serves as a floodgate holding back an overwhelming dedication to and respect for democratic practice, separation of powers, the rule of law and human rights. The notion that if this one person could be removed from power or ‘taken out’, all would be well. These ‘dictators’, while sometimes mentioned as having ‘cronies’, are seen primarily as lone actors and become recognizable ‘faces of evil’. Where it suits Western strategic, economic and political interests, we remember their names and faces – Saddam, Milosevic, Mugabe, Gaddafi. Where friendly relations with such dictators serves these interests, names and faces tend to disappear from view – Niyazov, Abdullah, Saleh, Dos Santos.

But in international politics, the ‘face of evil’ or ‘school yard bully’ frame really doesn’t hold all that much water. Dictators are able to keep their grip on power through a massive network of strongmen and economic interests that trickle down to even the lowest levels of power holders – groups and individuals that benefit from the current configuration of power. Cutting off the head does not suddenly mean that this network will be dissolved, or that the entire population will rejoice at the removal of a dictator. Demonstrations continue today in Tunisia and Egypt, for example (although admittedly to a lesser degree). In both these countries, many observers (locally and foreign) have pointed out that ‘the dictator is gone but the dictatorship remains’. What is often worse, is that when a power vacuum occurs, those with political and/or economic ambitions rush to fill it, resulting in violent clashes as power structures are reconfigured.

Unfortunately, when looking at conflict and crisis in this world of ours, keeping things simple doesn’t really work. Whether it be in how we go about choosing a particular humanitarian crisis to champion, or how we go about attempting to solve them, a broad view and a healthy appreciation for complexity is clearly in order.

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Congo Week in Osaka 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World Cup effect

Posted in Africa, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 7 June, 2010 by Virgil

It’s that time again. Millions of people from all over the world have come down with acute cases of football/soccer fever, which at this time is also frequently associated with another (much more sinister) form of illness – chronic nationalistic fervour. The lure of football on an international stage and nationalistic pride are drawing people’s attention to the world’s most marginalized continent (or at least to South Africa). Some hardcore fans are even visiting – those who may not have even thought of travelling to Africa had it not been for the World Cup.

I suppose we should be happy about this attention. Most of the time, from the perspective of the Western media, Africa barely exists. All the complexities and diversity of the 53 countries on this continent, all the politics, the issues, the events, the people, the success stories, the conflicts, boiled down to one or two scattered stories here and there. And the few articles that there are, tend to be loaded with simplistic narratives (‘heart of darkness’ or humanitarian tragedy). Rarely is there a serious attempt at political analysis. This is, of course, nothing like the saturation coverage and detailed analysis showered upon the industrialized countries and the Middle East. 

So what benefits will this World Cup effect bring? How optimistic should we be about the crumbs of media coverage that will fall off the table reserved for the more ‘important’ regions of the world? I am not all that hopeful.

On its website, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has put up a “special report” entitled “Africa 2010: A continent’s moment on the world stage”. And what a fitting title it is, because a “moment” is about all that Africa will probably get.

Reporters will direct the bulk of their attention to coverage of the World Cup itself, but, to make all the costs worthwhile, will probably venture into Soweto and other places, doing a piece or two on how far South Africa has come since the end of apartheid. Those media corporations with a little bit of extra budget (and an editor in a good mood) might venture outside South Africa, and into relatively accessible neighbouring countries. CBC has at least done an article on the DRC, although the “The Congo turns 50 this month, but will it ever grow up” title leaves a lot to be desired.

Because Africa is seen as having so little news value, very few outside media corporations have a substantial presence in Africa. Of all the supposedly ‘global’ TV news corporations, Al Jazeera has the largest presence in Africa, with all of five bureaus – most have that many bureaus in relatively tiny Europe. Covering Africa therefore means footing the bill to send someone there to get some stories and get out. This is usually someone who has little knowledge or experience of Africa. This is parachute journalism, and expeditions are measured in days, maybe weeks if they are lucky.

Such commercial realities are thought to have played a role in the coverage of the Rwandan genocide. Many reporters were able to cover the genocide because they were already in the area – they were covering the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa. Thus, a similar set of massacres in Burundi a year earlier (more than 200,000 killed – not as many as Rwanda, but far greater than anything in Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor or Israel-Palestine) got no coverage – no one happened to be in the area and Africa had so little news value to warrant sending someone there. And which massacres do we remember, Rwanda or Burundi?

 With so few foreign journalists based in Africa, coverage of Africa tends to end up as a ‘special report’, not a substantive part of the regular news agenda. So unfortunately, when this ‘special’ event is over, the reporters will undoubtedly return to their regular posts and Africa will return to its place on sidelines.

 I guess Africa will just have to take whatever attention it can get, simplistic stereotypes and all. Attention is certainly needed. Heavy fighting continues in Mogadishu, Somalia, and aid coming in for the DRC is so low that the UN is warning of “catastrophic” consequences. Let’s hope those reporters that have made the trip to Africa have something to say about all this during the half-time breaks…

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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?

Big changes in the DRC (but who cares?)

Posted in conflict, Congo, DRC, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 January, 2009 by Virgil

Over the past few months, major political and military developments have been witnessed in the world’s deadliest conflict of our times. Or should I say, barely witnessed. A number of developments that will significantly affect the course of the conflict and the peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been happening, but as usual, they have barely made any ripples in the mainstream news outside the region.

 

In the closing months of 2008, the Rwandan-backed rebel group in the DRC, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), led by Laurent Nkunda, began a series of offensives in eastern DRC, capturing vast swathes of territory, threatening to take the city of Goma, and began talking about liberating the entire country. Meanwhile, the DRC joined forces with former enemy Uganda and South Sudan, conducting military operations to hunt down Ugandan rebels based in the DRC, who responded with brutal force against civilians as they retreated. Then in late December, a split in the CNDP leadership emerged between leader Nkunda and General Bosco Ntaganda (also known as the ‘Terminator’), who has an arrest warrant against him from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for recruiting child soldiers.

 

BBC)

Front lines (Map: BBC)

But perhaps the biggest development happened yesterday on 20 January, when Rwandan troops entered the DRC for a joint operation against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – a Hutu militia whose leadership is linked to the Rwanda genocide of 1994. Just a few months ago, another war between Rwanda and the DRC would not have been all that surprising. The realization of a joint military operation between these two countries, with Rwandan troops entering DRC soil with permission, is a major step. Interestingly, the Rwandan forces, together with tanks and trucks full of ammunition, headed for the town of Ruthsuru – CNDP territory. This means a three-way operation by DRC government forces, the CNDP, and Rwandan troops against the FDLR. This represents a major change in the dynamics of the region. (Click here to keep up with what is going on.)

This is likely either a major step towards peace or a major step in a new phase of the conflict. This is the world’s deadliest conflict. Such developments deserve serious attention. They are getting very little. 

Takeshi Kuno)

CNDP rebel (Photo: Takeshi Kuno)

News of the Rwandan entry into the DRC and peace with the CNDP, for example, has been displaced by conflict in Gaza, the reaction to the inauguration of US President Obama in Kenya, the freeing of a kidnapped Greek shipping magnate, and China trying to stop the sale of artworks that it claims were once looted by Franco-British soldiers, among many others – anything will do. In fact, displaced is hardly the right word to use here. News of the DRC is generally not displaced, because its news value is treated as being so low in the first place that getting it on the news agenda is never easy, regardless of what else is happening in the world (and what is not).

  

A check of the World page of the New York Times website on 21 January 2009 reveals these headlines (from the top): ‘Debating the blame for reducing much of a village to rubble’ (Gaza), ‘Few Israelis near Gaza feel war achieved much Gaza’, ‘Israel completes withdrawal from Gaza’, and ‘Tensions in the Mideast reverberate in France’. That’s four articles straight on Gaza dominating the top, followed by ‘Obama promises the world a renewed America’, ‘U.S. secures new supply routes to Afghanistan’, ‘Thousands in Chechnya protest after lawyer is killed’, ‘Obama seeks halt to Guantanamo trials’, ‘China sees separatist threats’, and ‘Families file suit in Chinese tainted milk scandal’. One world briefing (103 words) on Rwandan troops crossing the border into the DRC can be found in the 16th article from the top.

 

A check of the World News page of the website of the Times (the UK newspaper) on 21 January reveals not a single article containing news on the developments in the DRC on the page at all. In fact, of the 32 articles on the page, 18 are related to the election of US President Obama, including a number of articles on the details of the inauguration ceremony and how the day went for the Obama children. There is not even a trace of the DRC on the Africa News page – word of Mrs. Mugabe hitting a reporter gets two articles here, and one article is given to hunting parties culling elephants in Zimbabwe.

 

A check of the main homepage of the CNN International website at the same time failed to turn up any articles on the DRC either. This page was instead thoroughly dominated by the US President’s inauguration (including an article on the waltzes the Obamas danced, followed by other news including the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a blow-up doll sex suspect arrested in Australia, and Manchester United losing its shirt sponsor. In the regional news towards the bottom of the page, the two items for Africa are: ‘A joke over breakfast with Desmond Tutu’ and ‘Zimbabwe power-sharing talks collapse’.

 

Of course these are only snapshots of the news presented by these media corporations. News does pop up every once in a while on developments in the world’s deadliest conflict, even if it is buried on page 12 as a news brief. But the way media corporations are showing such disregard for proportion, and attributing such low news value to such important events, choosing so many other stories (many trivial in the extreme) as news in their place, says something about the sad and sorry state of the media industry today.

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