Archive for war

Clickbait and Stereotypes: Media Coverage of the DR Congo

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 7 November, 2014 by Virgil

by Virgil Hawkins

On 31 October, Reuters released an article headlined “Congo crowd kills man, eats him after militant massacres: witnesses”. The killing was reported as being motivated by revenge for a series of attacks and massacres perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) – the victim was apparently suspected of belonging to this rebel group. The incident was described in just one-fifth (roughly 100 words) of the article, with a single reference stating that the victim’s corpse had allegedly been eaten, according to “witnesses”. The vast majority of the article, however (roughly 400 words) is not about this apparent killing. It instead details the recent movements (primarily political and military) related to the conflict between the ADF-NALU and the DRC government.

The article in question

The article in question

The term clickbait – the misleading use of a provocative or sensationalist title aimed at enticing readers to click on a link – comes to mind, although the article does, in part, cover the actual event the headline mentions. But given the brevity of the description, and the fact that the incident is substantiated only by unnamed and unspecified “witnesses”, one is tempted to question not only the dubious use of the headline, but also how well the facts were actually checked in this case. It is certainly clear that the article was rushed through the editing process – at one point, for example, the rebels are referred to as ADF-NAUL, rather than ADF-NALU.

The Reuters story was picked up by Yahoo!, and the response (at least on the US edition of the site) was overwhelming. In just 12 hours, the article had attracted 6,448 comments. Glancing through these, one struggles to find a single comment that is even vaguely thoughtful, that attempts to seriously discuss the issues raised in the article, questions its validity, or addresses anything in the article apart from the alleged incident of cannibalism. The vast majority of the comments would fit neatly into one (or more) of the following themes: pure racism (Africans/black people have not evolved, and cannibalism is something that they generally do); genocide (sealing off the entire continent and destroying it, or leaving it to its ‘fate’); colonial apologism (this is what happens when you take away white European leadership and give them independence); patronizing charity fatigue/resignation (you try to help these people, but this is what they go and do); and obscene attempts at humour (primarily related to cannibalism).

Other recent articles describing the same conflict that were written by news agencies and had been picked up by Yahoo! (US edition), were, perhaps quite predictably, incomparable in terms of the readers’ response. One article by AFP, for example, published two weeks earlier describing a massacre of women and children in eastern DRC by the same rebel group attracted just 10 comments in total – those comments were similarly themed to those mentioned above. The responses of Yahoo! readers to the mention of violence in Africa on the whole seem to be primarily based on knee-jerk racism and stereotyping at a grand continental level, and almost invariably include a degree of genocidal thoughts and apparent colonial nostalgia. Add a brief mention of a single incident of cannibalism that may or may not have actually happened, and all this is confirmed and amplified with great vigour. While the article in question did go on to explain some of the issues associated with the conflict, in opening it played to the lowest common denominator, and this denominator turned out to be disturbingly low.

Racism is a product of ignorance, among other factors, and, given the chronic lack of information offered by the news media about Africa in general, the fact that ignorance prevails on such a large scale should not seem surprising. The little information provided about the conflict in the DRC in particular, combined with its unparalleled scale, makes it the greatest stealth conflict in the world today. But it is more than just the lack of information – it is also about the lack of balance in the little information that is provided. And this is not only an issue of balance between ‘bad news’ and ‘good news’ (something that is indeed lacking). Consideration must also be given to the balance between brief throwaway journalism (that tends to play to already entrenched stereotypes), and detailed, comprehensive and thoughtful journalism.

Horrible atrocities are a part of any armed conflict – indeed armed conflicts are by definition horrible atrocities. But as those in the journalism industry and academia calling for ‘conflict sensitive journalism’ and ‘peace journalism’ teach us, there is so much more to conflict than expressions of violence that needs to be told by the news media. Armed conflict is a complex social phenomenon, and understanding it involves getting to know the root causes (including social, economic and political inequalities), the belligerents (including their motives and objectives), the suffering of its victims, and efforts aimed at reaching a peaceful settlement, among many other aspects. The news media rarely get this balance right, but they certainly tend to do a better job for conflicts that are not occurring in Africa than those that are.

Reuters (and Yahoo!) can do better than this, and, judging by the disturbing array of comments posted in response to this article, so can the casual observer of armed conflict and atrocities.


* This article was originally posted on the Southern African Peace and Security Blog.

* Follow up: I made 3 attempts to add a comment to the original Reuters article in question, raising the same concerns as those above, and including a link to this blog entry. None were posted. I found the censorship somewhat surprising coming from such a major news organization, particularly considering that the only comment that was allowed through and that remains on the Reuters page is an offensive attempt at humour on the issue of cannibalism.

* Follow up 2 (8 Nov): Reuters has now decided to entirely eliminate the comment function from its entire site. An interesting development to say the least – certainly not a positive one.

The other conflict: Covering eastern DRC

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, DRC, Israel-Palestine with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 November, 2012 by Virgil

Never mind that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hosts the world’s deadliest conflict today, or that the current levels of violence are the worst seen there in the past five years. Whatever its status or state of affairs, the conflict, the country, and the region are going to struggle to attract any substantive levels of media coverage from the outside world.

This sad reality reflects entrenched patterns in terms of the various factors that editors and producers use to help them decide what they think is newsworthy and what is not. These include race, socioeconomic status and perceived national/political interests. Being poor, black and outside the range of vital national interests of the world’s powerful countries certainly does not help. Central Africa’s chances of getting attention are not good at the ‘best’ of times.

So it doesn’t require much imagination to predict what will happen to media coverage when a major outbreak of violence in the DRC happens to coincide with a major outbreak of violence in a part of the world that is deemed as being exceptionally ‘important’.

Since mid-November, this is precisely what has happened. Unfortunately for the people of eastern DRC (though perhaps fortunately for those leading the offensive and their backers), the rebel (M23) assault on, and capture of, the major city of Goma, has coincided almost perfectly with the conflict over Gaza. This has effectively ruled out the possibility of any substantive media-led concern, indignation or interest regarding the fate of eastern DRC and its people.

Let us first let the figures speak for themselves. The following graph shows the levels of coverage in the New York Times (including both online and print) in the one week leading up to the fall of Goma to the rebels.

In this one-week period, the New York Times produced, in response to the escalating conflict in the DRC, 2,947 words in 5 articles (none of which were front-page stories or editorials). For Israel-Palestine, it produced 48,711 words in 60 articles, including 12 front-page stories and 3 editorials. In terms of word count, the conflict in Israel-Palestine attracted 17 times more coverage than did the conflict in the DRC.

And this yawning gap in coverage, this terribly disproportionate level of interest, certainly does not just apply to the New York Times. It is a trend that applies to the news media globally, both online and off.

Any incidence of conflict in Israel-Palestine is automatically newsworthy, for a number of reasons, most importantly elite political interest in powerful Western countries. It is clear that factors such as the death toll or level of humanitarian suffering are unlikely to feature in a major way in the decisions in response to foreign conflict made by policymakers in these countries. But it is shameful that these factors do not feature either in decisions made by media gatekeepers regarding newsworthiness.

Is it too much to ask that the decision-makers in media corporations tone down their deference to elite interests a little, shake off some of the urge to ignore the plight of those whose skin and/or passports are of a different colour from their own, and take a new and fresh look at the state of the world?

Just the bad news

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, DRC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 November, 2012 by Virgil

Reporting on Peace Operations in the DRC

No news is good news” – so goes an old adage. But it does not necessarily apply to the reporting of conflict in Africa by media corporations from beyond the continent, for no news does not necessarily mean an absence of bad news. It often simply means that the media corporations have decided that the events on the continent (both good and bad) are not worthy of reporting.

By the same token, if a recent study by the author is any indication, on the not-so-common occasions that issues related to conflict and peace in Africa are reported, it is indeed the ‘bad’ news that gets the coverage. The study in question involved measuring the coverage by the New York Times of peace operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the course of the thirteen years since it was established. The coverage was measured by a word count. The results can be seen in the figure below.

New York Times’ coverage of peace operations in the DRC (1999-2012) (click on graph to enlarge)

There was some coverage of the UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) when it was established by the UN Security Council in 1999, and more in 2000, particularly as it encountered difficulties in deploying because of obstacles on the ground. But as conditions changed, allowing their deployment in full, and as the peacekeepers began fanning out across the country in early 2001, coverage virtually disappeared – good news simply wasn’t news.

It would be two years before the New York Times would show any interest in covering the peace operations in the DRC again. This time, massacres in the Ituri district led to the possibility (and realization) of intervention by a small French-led European Union force. A combination of the massacres and the deployment of Western troops in response got the attention of the newspaper, but not for long. The EU force would only stay for three months (MONUC would remain), but coverage lasted for little more than one month – the situation had calmed in the town in which the forces were deployed. This was as concentrated as coverage of peace operations in the DRC would ever get.

More bad news – a scandal involving sexual abuse perpetrated by some peacekeepers – attracted a reasonable degree of attention more than a year later. Between 2008 and 2010, peacekeepers’ failures to stop rebel advances, and their dubious collaboration with government troops accused of human rights abuses also was the object of some coverage, but not that much. Coverage has since flatlined.

Since peace operations began in the DRC, there is no question that there have been numerous negative occurrences worthy of reporting, but there have also been positive achievements made in helping keep a very fragile region from falling apart altogether. This also equally deserves our attention.

At the time of writing, rebels have taken the city of Goma, and MONUC’s successor, the UN Stabilization Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) has, for a number of reasons, not resisted their final push into the city. We hope that the New York Times will not simply continue its tradition of reporting the bad news and little else. More importantly, we hope that further violence can be averted, leaving the newspaper with no more bad news to write about.

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.

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.

What can I do?

Posted in activism, Africa, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 July, 2010 by Virgil

In this blog I continue to write about the problem of the world’s largest conflicts being consistently ignored, by the media, the policymakers, the public/civil society, and academia. I was recently asked what the ‘little people’ can do to help change this situation. I guess the short answer would be that the ‘little people’ have to come together so that they can become ‘big people’.

When I talk to people about the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for instance, about how it is hands-down the deadliest conflict of our times and how the conflict is connected to minerals used in our electronic devices, people tend to react with lines like: ‘I had no idea about this problem, I’ll read and find out more’, ‘I’m going to donate to an aid organization working there’, ‘I think I should recycle my old mobile phone’, ‘I’m going to make sure I buy fair trade goods from now on’, and ‘I’ll make sure I vote for someone responsible at the next elections’.

These are all important and valuable reactions. By the same token, we are not getting to the bottom of the core problem – the power structures that keep all this disproportion in place and allow such horrible suffering to go on. To make an impact at this macro level, we need to make a message that is bigger and more visible than the separate actions of lone individuals. If I tell you as an individual about a problem, you may do something, but if I can get a newspaper to print something about a problem, then I have surely made a much bigger impact. Getting something in the news can mean getting the attention of the public at large, but also that of policymakers, aid organizations and academia.

Now getting through to the media and trying to change the shocking levels of disproportion is no easy task, but I think it is worth a try. And the media are not necessarily unresponsive. As I recently noted, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) put up on their website a special report on Africa to coincide with the World Cup being held in South Africa. The title was ‘Africa 2010: A continent’s moment on the world stage’. I wrote a comment on the page lamenting how it was such a fitting title, because ‘a moment’ was all the continent was going to get – as soon as the World Cup ended, it would back to business as usual – a continent ignored by the media. Within a few days, the subtitle ‘mysteriously’ disappeared from the website, leaving just the main title: ‘Africa 2010’. Had I made a difference and shamed the subtitle off the site?

So I begin by suggesting that people put up comments on news websites demanding more coverage on conflicts that are consistently ignored. But such work is likely to be much more effective if it is coordinated. At this point I always recall the stories of supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine who organize large-scale ‘flak’ campaigns against news corporations that they feel have written unfair articles. An article that is critical of Israel, for example, can come out in a newspaper and the following day the journalist will find 3,000 protest emails in his/her inbox. Newspapers cannot ignore this kind of pressure, and I think those of us with other causes can learn from such movements.

It is in this light that I have recently started a campaign in Japan (through my Japanese blog) to try to get more coverage for the African continent in the news media. Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, for example, devoted just 3 percent of its tiny international news section to African news. It is a mailing list campaign called ‘Africa is part of the world too’. I take up one major piece of news from the continent that has been unreported, write an article about it and send it out to all the members on the mailing list. Having read the article, the members are invited to follow the link to the readers’ comment section in a particular newspaper and demand coverage of the issue. It remains to be seen how successful it will be, but I intend to keep chipping away.

The internet can be an incredibly effective tool in this sense, because it is so easy to get messages to a large number of people, and because it bypasses the traditional media systems/gatekeepers.

Due to time constraints, I don’t have any plans at the moment to start up a similar campaign targeting English media, but it may be in the cards, and anyone out there reading this is most welcome to try to get something like this going. In the meantime, I can perhaps suggest taking any issue that I put up on this blog, or anywhere else you see that major conflicts are being ignored by the media, and letting the media know that you are unhappy and expect better. Most media corporations provide spaces on their websites for comments by the readers/viewers, so why not give it a try? A few strokes of the keyboard and a few clicks of the mouse are all that are required!

Here’s something else that can be done. Do something for Congo Week in October this year. It can be anything big or small (just switching off your mobile phone for an hour, for example) that contributes to raising awareness about the dire situation in the DRC. Click on the poster for more details.

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The peace dove

Posted in Africa, conflict, Israel-Palestine, Middle East, peace with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 28 May, 2010 by Virgil

When you think of the peace dove, what do you associate it with? Chances are it makes you think of the peace process in the Middle East. Why? Because the majority of appearances of the peace dove in political cartoons are in connection with the conflict in Israel-Palestine. 

I did a tally of the number of political cartoons associated with a particular conflict that came up in a search of the word “dove” on the site Politicalcartoons.com for the last ten years (Politicalcartoons.com has a pretty impressive collection from artists around the world).  Some 64 percent of the appearances of the dove were in cartoons on the subject of conflicts involving Israel. The dove doesn’t seem to venture all that much outside the Middle East, but he/she has been seen in cartoons on the Olympic Games, on US President Obama’s peace prize, in Northern Ireland, Spain, Colombia, Georgia and India-Pakistan. While the symbolism of the peace dove has its origins in Christianity and Judaism, as these examples show, its significance is clearly not limited to conflicts involving these religions. 

Funnily enough, the dove is rarely seen in Africa at all. But this is not because all of the countries on the continent are constantly at war (most are not), or because those that do experience conflict never find peace. A number of historic peace agreements were concluded for some of the world’s deadliest conflicts happening there over the last ten years – in Angola, Sierra Leone and the DRC (officially at least) in 2002, in Liberia in 2003, and in Sudan in 2005. Yet the peace dove was nowhere to be seen. 

© Copyright 2006 Olle Johansson (reproduced with permission)

But the peace dove is not necessarily found where newly found peace is blossoming or is expected to arrive on the scene. In fact, the dove that does appear in cartoons on the Middle East is usually being eaten, battered, decapitated, shot, blown up, or otherwise maimed or threatened – reflecting the state of ‘peace’ in the areas in question. 

Sadly, it would seem that the peace dove (at least the one in political cartoons) is not really concerned with the state or scale of conflicts, or with successful peace processes. It appears that he/she is just eager to jump on the bandwagon and be associated with the popular conflicts of the day – the handful of ‘important’ ones that the rest of the news media are so intently fixated on. Just like almost everyone else, the peace dove has no time for stealth conflicts (however large in scale they may be) or stealth peace processes…

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