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An assassination attempt

Posted in Africa, conflict death tolls, Guinea with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 25 July, 2011 by Virgil

President Alpha Conde. Photo by World Economic Forum under a CC Licence.

Last week, explosives were used in an attempt on the life of a head of state. No, I am not talking about Norway. I am talking about the west African state of Guinea.

On the night of 19 July, attackers fired rockets into President Conde’s bedroom at the presidential residence. He escaped harm only because he had been sleeping in another room at the time of the attack. A second attack ensued, with the assailants finally being subdued after a two-hour gun battle.It is still unclear as to whether it was an assassination attempt or a coup d’etat attempt, but several hours later, the former army chief was arrested.

Chances are, you don’t know about this assassination attempt and the ensuing gun battle in Guinea. Why? Because few media corporations have deemed the incident newsworthy. The New York Times printed a 91-word briefing from Reuters on page six. The Times of London devoted 39 words to the incident on page 33. There were no follow-up articles in either case – this was the first and last time Guinea was mentioned. The Australian newspaper and Japanese newspapers (the Yomiuri and Asahi) ignored the events altogether. Thankfully, there were some rare examples of substantive articles provided by AFP, Reuters and Christian Science Monitor.

Chances are, you do know about the attempt on the life of the Prime Minister of Norway and the massacre that followed. On the first day of coverage following the incident, the New York Times placed it on page one in a 1,336-word article – a collaborative effort written by seven contributors, based in Oslo, New York, London, Paris and Washington. It was also page-one coverage for the Times of London – on the first day of coverage, it devoted 1,915 words to the incident. Needless to say, there has been major internet and television coverage as well.

The reasons for the heavy coverage of the incidents in Norway are obvious. There was a blast targeting the Prime Minister, and as the article in the Times of London made sure to mention, the massacre was the worst violence seen in Norway since World War II. It was unexpected, violent and sensational. There was a terrible loss of human life.

But why have the events in Guinea been deemed so unworthy of attention, so ignorable? At a national level, the events in Guinea are arguably more politically significant than those in Norway. The violence in Norway appears to have been an isolated event perpetrated by a single individual. The events in Guinea were a coordinated strike that most likely involved part of the armed forces of that country.

This is all the more important considering that this is a critical stage in Guinea’s nascent and fragile democracy. In late 2010, Guinea held its first democratic elections since independence in 1958. This followed decades of dictatorship under Lansana Conte, followed by a military regime that took power in a coup d’etat immediately following Conte’s death. The historic elections were a close contest and were followed by some violence, but the period since has been Guinea’s best chance at a stable democracy so far. This makes last week’s events particularly significant. Let us also not forget that Guinea is the world’s leading producer of bauxite, which is used to make aluminium.

As for the issue of the loss of human life, while it is true that on this particular occasion, there have been more deaths in Norway (93) than in Guinea, in general, the scale of a humanitarian tragedy has little (if anything) to do with the levels of media coverage it attracts. The military junta in Guinea was responsible for a massacre that killed at least 159 unarmed civilians in 2009. It also failed to generate any substantive levels of media coverage. And the media has routinely paid relatively little attention to conflict in the DRC that has cost more than 5.4 millions lives since 1998. Clearly, the level of loss of human life in itself does not explain the high level of coverage of the events in Norway.

In this case, it is the loss of life in a predominantly white and wealthy European country (the victims are of the type that Western audiences can relate to and sympathise with), combined with the unexpected nature of the tragedy (in an otherwise stable and peaceful place) that has provided the impetus for the coverage.

The skin colour and socioeconomic status of the victims in Guinea leave them at an immediate disadvantage with Western media corporations and their audience. Furthermore, because there is a chronic and widespread shortage of coverage of Guinea, and of Africa in general, audiences in the West have little background knowledge or context to which to relate or attach significance. Guinea is not seen as a separate country with unique circumstances. It is simply lumped together with the other 54 countries that make up Africa. And Africa carries with it an image of violence and political instability (although most of Africa is at peace most of the time). The events in Guinea fit this broad, extremely oversimplified and misleading ‘pattern’.

As such, the events in Guinea are not seen as unexpected – and are therefore not newsworthy, regardless of the political implications. Attacks on democracy, and the loss of human life, are, to a large degree,tolerated, because these things seem to happen there (on the continent as a whole) more often, and because, from a Western perspective, people there are not ‘like us’.

The media coverage on this occasion, of course, does nothing to change this – it perpetuates it. A 39-word briefing on page 33 of a newspaper cannot hope to convey to the audience any political significance of the events unfolding, or offer any opportunity to generate interest, concern or sympathy.

The vicious cycle, the spiral of silence that helps keep that distance between Africa and the rest of us, continues.

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.

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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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