Archive for Somalia

Lindsay Lohan in prison

Posted in Africa, celebrities and advocacy, comedy, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 August, 2010 by Virgil

As we all well know, US celebrity Lindsay Lohan is behind bars, locked up for a violation of the terms of her release in a charge in connection with driving under the influence of alcohol. It is important for us as members of the public endowed with a ‘right to know’ to keep abreast of the critical developments of this important story, and to engage in dialogue with our fellow citizens about the finer points of the story and its implications for the international community as a whole.

I am well aware that both the mainstream and tabloid media, along with the blogosphere and other informal arenas of information exchange are already well on top of the situation – all are overflowing with valuable information and analysis from a variety of viewpoints. Unable, however, to contain my own volatile emotional mix of human concern, curious fascination, voyeuristic urges and slight satisfaction at the downfall of an individual enjoying excess fame and fortune, I have decided to join the masses and devote this blog post to the plight of Lindsay Lohan.

And let’s face it, with such an eventless past week or so, journalistically speaking, where would we be without Lindsay Lohan? Nothing much else worthy of reporting has been happening in the world.

Oh yes, there was the 15th Summit of the African Union (AU) in Kampala Uganda, coming just two weeks after the terrorist bombings that claimed 76 lives in the same city and that marked the first foreign attack by Al Shabaab (based in Somalia). And yes, numerous heads of state, including the leaders South Africa (Zuma), Nigeria (Jonathan), Senegal (Wade), Kenya (Kibaki), Ethiopia (Meles) and Libya (Gaddafi), were in attendance at the three-day Summit. 

OK, so they did do a bit of talking about measures to bring the conflict in Somalia under control, and may have made some decisions about boosting the size of the AU force in that country. Anti-terror measures were also high on the agenda. And there was a lot of talk about how to deal with the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for Sudanese President Al Bashir (who did not attend the Summit) on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and recently, genocide. The AU is against the indictment and warrant for his arrest, thinking that these will have a negative impact on the achievement of peace in Darfur.

On other political issues, there was concern about delays in holding elections in places like Cote D’Ivoire and the Central African Republic, political instability in Madagascar, and the problems with the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace process.

The many leaders of Africa did also talk about the challenges and achievements associated with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the poverty that is affecting millions of people on the continent. The theme of the Summit was, after all, maternal and infant health.

But in the scheme of things, this is all really inconsequential. The important questions facing the world that need to be asked include: just how preferential is Lindsay Lohan’s treatment in prison? Has she really been making demands for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream? Is she crying herself to sleep each night and keeping the other prisoners awake? How soon will she be released? As the publication L.A. Now points out, “There’s been much speculation about how Lindsay Lohan is being treated behind bars”.

And this is how the mass media have arranged their priorities. This trend is by no means limited to the media in Los Angeles or even the USA, or to the tabloid media, either. The UK’s Times and Japan’s Yomiuri are among the many major (supposedly non-tabloid) newspapers based outside the USA that have devoted more coverage to Lindsay Lohan’s plight than to the AU Summit.

Having said all this, we really shouldn’t get too carried away with the Lindsay Lohan situation and let it overshadow other important issues happening in the world. The wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky has just taken place, and with the nuptials so shrouded in secrecy, we need to be even more diligent in acquiring information regarding this event. This wedding is indeed also quite deserving of the critical scrutiny of citizens aware of their civic duties. Thankfully, the media is doing its job here – as People magazine reports “The months of speculation on whom Chelsea Clinton would choose to design her wedding dress are finally over — and it’s Vera Wang!”

Praise is certainly due to the mass media, for fulfilling their responsibilities in addressing our right to know, and for their ever-vigilant stance on the important issues affecting the lives of humankind and the world as a whole.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Advertisements

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…

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Nothing but piracy

Posted in conflict, media coverage, piracy, Somalia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 10 May, 2010 by Virgil

What would we see or hear about Somalia if it weren’t for the pirates hijacking ships off its coast? Very very little. 

This graph shows what the stories covered by US television news networks on Somalia were primarily about for the year 2009 (sourced from the Vanderbilt archives). Little additional explanation is required. Almost all (84) of the 91 stories were about the issue of piracy, while 5 stories covered US citizens of Somali descent going to Somalia to fight; 1 story covered a suicide bombing and 1 more mentioned an attempted terror attack.

 It just so happens that Somalia is currently host to one of the world’s deadliest conflicts. If one were to focus on the issues associated with Somalia according to their scale, the conflict and related issues (such as food security) would be front and centre. The media would report on the state of the conflict itself, and attempt to grasp and communicate the underlying causes and issues. Piracy would be a side issue – certainly not the main (sole?) event.

 Alas, this is not the world we live in. The conflict itself is almost completely ignored. Somalia is a forgotten conflict (a type of stealth conflict: see here for the difference). It was once remembered – when US troops were there in the early 1990s – but was quickly forgotten when US troops left. The conflict, of course, went on, but it was no longer deemed worthy of attention.

 Part of the media’s formula for choosing which events and issues to cover is the ‘home’ connection – are there any of ‘our’ people involved? Does it affect ‘us’? (The ‘home’, ‘our’ and ‘us’ here are primarily national and/or racial identities). Piracy directly affects Western shipping (and is sensational) and therefore is of interest. But even if we surrender to the obsession with a home connection, the link between the conflict and potential terrorist attacks that threaten Western countries/interests could (should?) make the case for serious coverage of the conflict. It seems even this connection is not enough to overcome the apathy. Of course the dangers of reporting could be considered a factor in the lack of coverage, but when has danger ever stopped coverage of Iraq or Afghanistan?

 Piracy is in a way related to the conflict – the damage to livelihoods drives people to piracy, and authorities are not there to put a stop to it. Other key factors are thought to be the damage caused to the fishing industry by foreign corporations and criminal organizations taking advantage of the lack of protection of Somalia’s territorial waters to illegally overfish and dump toxic waste (see here and here). But the news is most likely to provide us just with the shallow blow-by-blow account of the attacks themselves.

 We can get a better idea of media priorities if we look at the breakdown of the coverage of piracy by the same media corporations. 

The vast majority of coverage for 2009 was of the attack on a single ship – the US Maersk Alabama. It had so many of the elements of a ‘good’ story and the media went all out. Critically, the ship and the captain were from the USA. This gave it what it needed to put the story on the agenda to begin with. That the captain gave himself up to let the crew get away, and that US Navy SEALs rescued the captain and the ship gave it the elements of sensationalism and critically, heroism. Coverage of the story continued until the homecoming (hero’s welcome) of the captain and the appearance in court of a captured pirate.

 It is worth noting that in 2009 there were a total of 214 attacks on ships and their crews (from a wide range of countries) in the region resulting in 47 hijackings. The US television networks covered 10 of these attacks. Of these, 9 were attacks on either US or European boats, including a French yacht and a British yacht. The only other attack covered was the capture of a Saudi oil tanker (noteworthy because of the unprecedented size of the vessel captured).

 This state of affairs really brings home the sad and sorry state of media coverage of the world – an obsession with the ‘home’ connection and the sensational, and an almost complete disregard for anything that is not directly connected to ‘home’ (including much larger issues, the bigger picture and the context).

 No wonder so many people know so little about what’s going on in the world.

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?

Israel-Palestine and contagious journalism

Posted in conflict, conflict death tolls, Israel-Palestine, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 January, 2009 by Virgil

Forget the series of Christmas massacres by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in eastern DRC that left more than 400 dead (including more than 45 killed in a church) and the coalition of countries in the region trying to hunt them down. Forget the deadly clashes with Congolese rebels poised to take over the city of Goma. Forget Somalia, where the Ethiopian forces that invaded (with US assistance) two years ago are being forced by local resistance forces to pack and leave. Forget all of these conflicts, because violence has broken out again in Israel-Palestine.

 

The latest conflagration of violence in Israel-Palestine continues to dominate international news around the world. The details of who is attacking who with what, how many people have died (down to single digit figures), and how many of them were women and children, together with in-depth political analysis and a touch of humanitarian concern are all fed through the newspapers, television, radio and internet news outlets on a daily basis. And all with the utmost care to avoid displeasing lobby groups that will rain down thousands of e-mails, telephone calls and letters (flak) upon the unfortunate media corporation suspected of even the slightest bias (and possibly revoke their advertising contracts).

 

The Israel-Palestine conflict is a ‘chosen’ conflict. It always is. It has the rare privilege of being the focus of saturated attention every time there is a conflagration (despite the fact that the conflict is not occurring in a ‘white’ Western country, and despite the fact that the USA is not a direct belligerent in the conflict – always sure factors for a conflict to attract soaring levels of attention). Explaining why this is so would take a book or two, but let’s just scratch the surface here. Politicians in much of the Western world obsess about the issue, largely because a significant amount of their election campaign contributions seem to depend on their favourable attention in many cases. Politicians in much of the Muslim world do likewise, because standing up against the oppression of Muslims at the hands of Israel is much more popular than standing up against the oppression of Muslims at the hands of anyone else. The fact that the conflict region is considered the ‘Holy Land’ by Muslims, Jews and Christians helps cement this process.

 

For media corporations, providing saturation coverage of the conflict is nothing short of automatic. What is considered important by media corporations is based largely on what the policymakers at home consider to be important, almost by default. Keeping reporters close to those making foreign policy at home is much cheaper than sending them all over the world to independently gather news. In the competitive media business, budgets are better spent on packaging and presenting news than actually gathering it. Furthermore, for media corporations that have little newsgathering capacity (and oddly, even for those that do), the news value of a story is often determined by what leading media corporations (like the New York Times) think it should be. In this environment of follow-the-leader (policymakers and leading media corporations) and pack journalism, having a reporter in Africa is optional, having one in Israel-Palestine is not. Once the reporter is stationed there, ‘fresh’ coverage of the issue on demand is cheap and easy (far more so than actually sending someone to far-away and logistically challenging Africa to cover something after it happens).

 

Because of the combination of follow-the-leader, pack journalism, and lack of newsgathering capacity, this state of affairs can be seen spreading to the rest of the world as well. Japan has no cultural or religious affinity with Israel-Palestine, and its politicians are not reliant on campaign contributions from pro-Israeli lobby groups, yet its media corporations follow the Western leaders in devoting heavy coverage to the issue. Even locally-focused news programs that rarely have any time for foreign affairs issues make sure to include news of the latest conflagration in their bulletins. With little budget for foreign newsgathering, Zambia’s leading newspaper (the Post) buys its world news from foreign news agencies. The result is that it gives more coverage to the situation in Israel-Palestine than it does to the eight countries on Zambia’s border combined. In the year 2004, for example, it devoted 9 percent of its foreign coverage to Israel-Palestine, but only 4 percent to all of Zambia’s eight neighbours.

 

On top of this, things have always been this way, so they tend to stay that way. Israel-Palestine has always been considered important, and ‘important’ people think it is, so it must be important. Groups (interest/lobby) and individuals with a special interest in the conflict in Israel-Palestine are also well-positioned to continue the process of drawing copious amounts of attention to the conflict, in political spheres and in the ownership of prominent media corporations. Africa, on the other hand, has not been considered important (for a variety of separate reasons that will be dealt with in another post), and therefore no one knows about it, and therefore it is not important. It becomes a vicious cycle.

 

The public, who remain largely at the mercy of the media corporations in obtaining morsels of information about the outside world, seem to end up with the same distorted view of the world. In a simple classroom survey conducted of 37 Australian university students (studying in a course on war and peace no less) in 2003, the conflict in Israel-Palestine was the most common answer (9 respondents) to the question of which conflict in the world they thought had been the deadliest since the end of the Cold War. Only one of the 37 could even name the conflict in the DRC as one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, and that was at third place behind Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan. In a similar survey conducted of 151 university students in Japan in 2008, not a single one could name the DRC as the world’s deadliest conflict. Fourteen students, on the other hand, thought that the conflict in Israel-Palestine was world’s deadliest, coming in at third place behind Iraq and Kosovo.

 

This is despite the fact that the virtually unknown conflict in the DRC is 1,000 times deadlier than that in Israel-Palestine. And I don’t mean that figuratively, it is literally 1,000 times deadlier – the death toll from conflict in the DRC since 1998 is roughly 6 million, while the death toll from conflict in Israel-Palestine since 2000 is roughly 6 thousand. At least 38 conflicts since the end of the Cold War have been deadlier than that in Israel-Palestine. Put simply, while these surveys are limited in their scope, they suggest that collectively, the general public has no idea about the state of conflict in the world. Their perspective on which conflicts are the largest and deadliest is so skewed that the reality is unrecognizable. But who can blame them, considering the horribly unbalanced diet of media they feed on. I invite you to try out simple surveys like this (“Which conflict in the world do you think has been the deadliest since the end of the Cold War?”) with those around you.

 

In some ways, I almost regret writing this post, because I am becoming part of the very bandwagon that I am discussing – by writing about why the issue is important, I am inadvertently boosting the attention it receives… But some discussion of the issue of ‘chosen’ conflicts is also necessary in order for the discussion of ‘stealth’ conflicts to make sense.

 

%d bloggers like this: