Archive for USA

Ironing out Burkina Faso’s problems

Posted in Africa, dictators with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 13 June, 2012 by Virgil

President Compaore. Photo by Damien Halleux Radermecker under a CC Licence

Burkina Faso’s parliament has just granted immunity from prosecution to President Blaise Compaore and all of the country’s other presidents since independence. Whatever threat there was of Compaore being held responsible for the assassination of his predecessor (and friend and colleague), Thomas Sankara, is now gone.

Thomas Sankara, who had himself risen to power through a coup d’etat in 1983 at the tender age of 33, was gunned down in 1987. The French secret service, the CIA, the government of neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, and/or then Liberian rebel Charles Taylor are believed to have been involved in the assassination plot, but as yet a definitive account does not exist. Western-friendly Compaore immediately assumed power and has been president of Burkina Faso ever since.

Sankara’s presidency lasted only four years, but what an eventful four years they were. The country was in a terrible state and he quickly set about making his revolutionary vision for the country a reality. He even changed its name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means ‘the land of upright men’.

Sankara lamented what he saw as neocolonialism, not least in the dependency of the country on foreign aid – in his words “he who feeds you, controls you”. Focusing on the promotion of local consumption of local production, he achieved food self-sufficiency for the country within three years. Burkina Faso’s economy was (and to a large degree, still is) dominated by cotton. As part of his bid to promote local industry, Sankara required civil servants to wear traditional tunics made locally from local cotton.

Sankara’s revolution was far-reaching in other areas. He was the first African leader to openly recognize the dangers of HIV/AIDS, and made major (often record-breaking) inroads in areas such as women’s rights, child immunization, the reversal of desertification, land rights and infrastructure development. He halted the practice of the president’s portrait being displayed in public and private establishments throughout the country, reduced the salaries of government officials (himself included) and took away their Mercedes and first class travelling privileges. Sankara travelled in a Renault 5 and took a monthly salary of 450 USD.

We should be careful, however, about being overly romantic about the Sankara years. He was impatient in achieving his vision, and did not tolerate opposition parties, unions or a free press. His authoritarian tendencies appeared to grow over the course of his rule, and this had serious implications for his domestic popularity. It was perhaps the example he set to the rest of the world, however, that was one of the greatest causes of his undoing.

Having deposed Sankara and having taken his place, Blaise Compaore set about reversing most of the policies of his predecessor, in what was known as la rectification’. He liberalized and privatized, and made Burkina Faso one of the first ‘beneficiaries’ of the debt relief and poverty reduction programs of the IMF and World Bank. Today it remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Burkina Faso’s cotton industry has been crippled by massive US government subsidies for cotton farmers there that serve to suppress the global price of cotton to levels so low that growing cotton even in impoverished Burkina Faso is barely viable. Subsidies for US cotton farmers alone add up to triple the amount the US allocates in aid to the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa.

But Compaore seems to be doing quite well under the circumstances. The winds of change that blew through north Africa and the Middle East in 2011 also blew through Burkina Faso, with protests over rising prices and unemployment, and mutiny by parts of the armed forces, but Compaore appears (for now) to have weathered the storm. He is also thought to have amassed considerable personal wealth, and now, with the new blanket amnesty, can look forward to a comfortable and safe retirement.

There is, of course, always a chance that the amnesty will be overturned by future regimes, and he is not protected from arrest and prosecution outside of Burkina Faso. Thus, there remains the possibility that, for example, his long-term collaboration with convicted war criminal Charles Taylor could lead to international prosecution. Burkina Faso was a hub for the illicit trade in arms and diamonds that helped facilitate west Africa’s bloody conflicts in and beyond the 1990s, and his prosecution was considered at the time of Taylor’s indictment. But in the case of this Western-backed government, such a turn of events appears somewhat unlikely.

For those who’s sense of justice is offended by this chapter in Burkina Faso’s history and wish to show their solidarity, there is a wide variety of Thomas Sankara t-shirts available online. With no apparent irony, many of these garments made from 100 percent cotton are proudly advertised as being “Made in the USA”.

Buyers of these t-shirts can thus advertise their admiration for a leader who had his own image removed from public display, and who struggled to protect and nurture the local cotton industry vital to his country’s well-being and growth, through the display of his image printed on material made from the heavily subsidised cotton that continues to threaten the survival of that very industry.

Between the blanket amnesty and the t-shirts, Thomas Sankara must surely be turning in his grave.

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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.

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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The home connection

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 August, 2010 by Virgil

Yesterday, CNN ran a story about a US citizen (Lisa Shannon) who, inspired by a story on Oprah about the abuse of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), started a movement that does charity runs to assist Congolese women. The news item featured some facts and figures on the humanitarian tragedy of the conflict and some images, but Shannon is the only person we hear from. The DRC is the setting (or the backdrop), but the story is about her.

It seems the story has been doing the rounds in the USA and in basically the same formats. ABC News also aired a story on the same subject, with an online article also appearing entitled “Run for Congo: American helps Congo’s women escape violence, one step at a time”. The story is about Shannon’s awakening to the issue and her efforts to get the movement going.

In this particular case, this format for the presentation of the story, or ‘lens’, was already largely in place before it reached the media. The subtitle of the book written by Shannon (“A thousand sisters”) is “My journey into the worst place on Earth to be a woman”, and, according to the blurb, the story is indeed about her journey. Photos of the story, both on the website and on the cover of the book are of Shannon embracing (comforting?) Congolese women.

These observations are in no way meant to take away from the value of these efforts to draw attention to this the world’s deadliest conflict, and to ameliorate the suffering it has caused. The movement and the news stories it generates means more people become aware in some way of the issue. But by the same token, one can’t help but wonder why this home connection is seen as being so essential to whether foreign events and issues are deemed as being newsworthy or not. While I grudgingly acknowledge the sad reality that some people find it easier to identify with a distant story when there is a connection with a person/people with the same skin colour and/or passport colour, the media has taken this way too far. The same can be said for books. A large proportion of books about Africa that one can find on the shelves of a bookstore in the West are about the adventures or travails of white people in Africa, rather than about Africa itself.

Probably one of the worst cases of this syndrome I have ever seen was in the Australian Newspaper’s atrocious reporting of the findings of a mortality survey that 3.8 million people had died as a result of conflict in the DRC in 2004. Far from focusing on the unparalleled scale of the conflict or even on the conflict itself, the article focused on the fact that a number of members of the survey team happened to be Australian citizens. The article (9 December 2004) was entitled “Aussie counts 3.8 million dead in Congo”, and words informing the readers of the Australian-ness of the team appeared a further five times in the article. It was as though what had just become known as the world’s deadliest conflict simply didn’t matter, and that the newspaper was just proud that some Australian citizens were facing hardships to do something noble somewhere.

Clearly there is a problem when the presence of a home connection makes the difference between whether an issue is reported on or is almost completely ignored. It contributes to a terribly distorted picture of what is happening in the world, and perpetuates nationalistic perspectives of world affairs. And the ever-present stereotype of generous Westerners making great efforts and going through hardships to help those less fortunate (who often remain undeveloped characters and the largely passive recipients of charity) has been considerably overdone.

From another perspective, though, this Run for Congo example does show what the power of a single news story about a distant crisis that apparently does not affect us (those with different skin and/or passport colour) can be. From among the millions of viewers that see such a crisis story, even if the majority may remain unaffected/uninterested, for perhaps tens of thousands of people or more, interest at some level is pricked, and for a select few, the end result may even be direct and committed action. This says something about the media’s marginalization of issues on the grounds that people at home are not interested.

On a related side note, there are reports that Hollywood is changing, that business concerns related to growing foreign markets for movies are starting to make some movies less US-centric. This interesting article from the Wall Street Journal talks about how some movie production companies in Hollywood, with a view to making movies more “global” and thereby attractive to foreign viewers, are rewriting/rejecting some movie scripts on the grounds that they are “too American”.

There may still be hope yet.

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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.

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