Archive for stealth

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.

Why Stealth Conflicts?

Posted in stealth conflict concept with tags , , , on 21 November, 2008 by Virgil

When I first began researching conflict more than ten years ago, it seemed logical to start by getting a broad overview of the situation – laying out a map of the world and checking country by country to find out where in the world conflict was occurring and how severe it was. While death toll figures from conflicts are notoriously unreliable, it quickly became clear that the vast majority of the world’s deadliest conflicts were happening in Africa. It also became clear that most of the conflicts that were holding the interest and attention of the outside world were in fact relatively small in comparison.


I began comparing counts of death tolls from a variety of sources – death tolls that include (importantly) the nonviolent deaths caused by conflict-related starvation and disease. At latest count (sometime last year), conflicts in Africa accounted for some 88 percent of the world’s conflict-related deaths since the end of the Cold War. Eight of the world’s ten deadliest conflicts since that time have been in Africa, with Iraq and Afghanistan being the only conflicts outside of Africa to fall within the world’s ten deadliest conflicts.


But perhaps the most glaring point to note is the scale of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which utterly dwarfs any other conflict in our time. With the most recent count of the death toll reaching 5.4 million, it is four times deadlier than the second most deadly conflict, and is possibly the deadliest conflict in the world since World War II (with the possible exception of the Korean War). Yet, for all of the advances in communications technology and apparent humanitarian concern of our times, the conflict has consistently failed to attract the attention of the outside world. Instead, it is conflicts literally one thousand times smaller (and smaller) that have consistently found themselves in the spotlight of humanitarian and political concern – in Kosovo (with a death toll of 2,000 before the NATO bombing), and Israel-Palestine (with a death toll of roughly 5,000).


While I realized that for powerful policymakers, national/political interests mean far more than any notion of humanitarian concern related to the death toll of a particular conflict, humanitarian rhetoric was always a central pillar of the response. More importantly, those that have supposedly taken on the role of watchdog of the policymakers, and/or the objective viewers of the world – the media, civil society organizations and academia – seemed to be reading from very similar scripts when it came time to decide which conflict demanded the attention of the outside world at any given time. While certain actors may have held very divergent views regarding what should be done in response to a particular conflict, the vast majority seemed to hold very similar views about which conflict was important.


This has meant that not only is there a huge problem with the failure to respond with any semblance of proportion to the world’s deadliest conflicts by those able to respond, but it has also meant that there are very few who are even able to notice or point out the problem itself. It is scandalous that the world’s deadliest conflicts are not the object of attention and concern. It is doubly scandalous that this state of affairs is not even recognized as a scandal.


But how can this be possible in this day and age? How can there be such a unison outpouring of humanitarian concern for the victims of a relatively small conflict, such selective indignation, and at the same time almost blanket silence in response to a conflict responsible for an infinitely greater amount of suffering? How can we claim ignorance about the world’s deadliest conflicts, and at the same time be so closely connected to the largest and most advanced information gathering and delivery system the world has ever seen? How can this situation persist when an unprecedented number and variety of entities are now taking an interest and involving themselves in global affairs?


It is the desire to answer these questions that has led to the research I have conducted. I believe I have found some of the answers. I will continue to search for more (and more accurate) answers, and I will continue to work to bring them to light.



Welcome to Stealth Conflicts

Posted in general with tags , on 16 November, 2008 by Virgil

This blog has recently been set up to help draw attention to (and enhance understanding of) the problem of major conflicts (major in the sense that their death tolls are high) that end up being marginalized and ignored, most notably by powerful policymakers, the media, the public and academia. I will start writing posts as I get the time, hopefully sooner rather than later. In the meantime please follow this link to check out the introduction to the book: Stealth Conflicts: How the World’s Worst Violence Is Ignored. You may also want to check out an article published online called Stealth Conflicts: Africa’s World War in the DRC and International Consciousness. More information about me can be found here.

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